Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in 'Oculus' (Relativity Media)

Review: ‘Oculus’ Merges Paranormal Activity and Psychological Trauma

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in 'Oculus' (Relativity Media)
Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaits in ‘Oculus’ (Relativity Media)

A methodical psychological drama that reaches for more than the usual jump scares is a tough sell for modern audiences.

Oculus is not, by any means, a traditional thriller. It doesn’t build suspense so much as it occasionally releases tension. Set in a house that is apparently haunted by a dark force residing within an antique mirror, the film proceeds to dissect the two main characters and questions whether it is they who are haunted by past actions, rather than the mirror itself.

Eleven years ago, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) and her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaits) survived traumatic events in the family home. Kaylie now works at an auction house with her understanding boyfriend Michael (James Lafferty). Tim has been confined to a mental hospital ever since the inciting series of events, but he is now declared “cured” and thus released on his 21st birthday.

Kaylie is happy to reunite with Tim, yet she barely allows him to breathe the fresh air of sanity before rushing him back to their former family home, where she has re-installed the accursed antique mirror. She is determined to do something to rid them both of their nightmares, yet Tim is resistant to her scarily-detailed plans.

The whys and the what-fors subsequently unfold in unexpected, quietly executed twists and turns. Events of the past and future waltz the narrative backward and forward in time, as more family secrets are unveiled and the “truth” is given a severe beating about the head and face.

The film, directed by Mike Flanagan (Absentia) and written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard (based on a short screenplay by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman), does not stint on explicit bloodshed and eyebrow-raising shocks, though they are rarely delivered at the front door. Instead, they come sneaking into frame, sidewinder-style, often catching the viewer off-guard.

Gillan and Thwaits make for an unlikely pair of siblings; she is assured even when she is expressing pitiful emotions, while he is unsteady and sounds more mechanical. At first, I thought that Thwaits was simply not up to Gillan’s level. But, given the long gap of years when the siblings were separated, it makes perfect sense that the ease of their relationship might have hardened. As their younger versions, Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan create aptly different personalities. As their parents, Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane bring unusual and disturbing shadings.

With its dry, sober approach and languid pace, Oculus rows against the tide of popular horror movies. Moments of levity are few and far between, and post-modern wisecracks are nowhere to be found. Relying on an unsettling atmosphere, a menacing tone, and clashing characters who do not obey the rules, Oculus goes bump in the night and leaves many bruises.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas on Friday, April 11.