Directed by Mike Flanagan, "Oculus" is more than just another horror movie plopped out in the dead zone after the Oscars but before blockbuster season. Praised on the festival circuit, it's got what it takes to succeed outside of that rarefied atmosphere: there are scares, but also characters; the camerawork is elegant, but so is the plotting; the best moments in it are about subtlety, not scarlet-hued fake blood hurling out of the screen at you; it builds real suspense as part of a coherent story while still dishing out plenty of surprises seemingly at random to jolt you with jumps along the way. It's clean, lean and smart.
10 years ago, the Russell family was torn apart by tragedy; after a move to a new house, work-from-home programmer dad Alan (Rory Cochrane) went mad, killing his wife Marie (Katie Sackhoff), and after threatening his children Kaylie (Annalise Baso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan), he himself was killed, in self-defense, by his own son. We learn this as Tim, now grown (and played by Brendon Thwaites) is leaving the home-slash-prison he's lived in for years. The fully-grown Kaylie (Karen Gillan) greets him on his release, in part because she's glad to see him but in part because of the promise they made, years ago, to remember what really happened to their mom and dad ... and to do something about it.
Considering that much of the time in any horror film is spent convincing the protagonists that they're in a horror film, it's always nice when a film trusts itself — and us — to get to the supernatural stuff early and swiftly, and when it's well done. As part of their antique-heavy re-model, the Russells accidentally picked up a mirror known as the Lasser Glass, which is renowned for its construction — the massive frame is carved from one piece of black Bavarian cedar — and for a string of horrible deaths and murders in its wake. Kaylie hasn't just researched the Lasser Glass; she's made sure she can not only find it as an auctions-house expert, but keep it for a few days so she can test her theory that something about, or something inside, the mirror drives its owners to death. For Tim, his whole life has been coming to terms that his father went mad and had to be shot; for Kaylie, her whole life has been about proving her father wasn't a killer, and with Tim's help she can finally break the curse of the mirror, literally and figuratively.
The most nicely-tuned thing in "Oculus" is how it manages a trick of parallel construction on par with the Stephen King novel "It," as the ghostbusting attempts of the grown Kaylie and Tim intercut with the story of how young Kaylie and Tim had their loving home turned into a slaughterhouse. Sure, you know that young Kaylie and Tim have to survive to become grown Kaylie and Tim, but it's to the film's credit that as the movie moves between timelines, you still find yourself concerned for what might happen to them as the Lasser Glass drives Mom and Dad insane. In the present day, Kaylie very much has a plan to deal with the Lasser Glass ... or, rather, about 80% of a plan, which may not be at all what the circumstance will require.
Co-written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard, "Oculus" is improved immensely by Gillan and Thwaites, even if a lot of their conversations sound like they were lifted from a beginner's debate class working the topic of "Skepticism vs. Belief" at half-speed for practice; also, some of the supporting characters are at best under-written, or at least not written well enough that I cared when they got stabbed. Both Cochrane and Sackhoff (and, for that matter, Baso and Ryan as their children) are excellent, as well; the plot may put their characters on swift, sloped rails, but they build their parts into people before tearing those people down with madness.
The camerawork in "Oculus" is also as well-honed as it is welcome; long, gliding takes slide like a knife-point being dragged down your skin before a sudden, sharp stab as it changes direction and finds the moment of maximum tension. And the fact that the Lasser Glass can only confound the minds of its victims is spelled out cleanly, used cleverly and is part of the puzzling pleasure of the finale. Still, the scariest moment in "Oculus" for me came as Kaylie picks up and bites into what she thought was an apple; it's a completely unseen moment, but the sound and the shot and the timing made me actually say "Oh, no ... no, please ..." in a theater full of people, wrung out of my frightened brain by the filmmaker's grip on the audience. "Oculus" isn't perfect, but it has effort to match its elegance, smarts to match its scares and people to care about facing fear with all they have. In an age of ho-hum rinse-and-repeat horror "franchises" and style-free, scare-free mock-doc cheapie horror films, it's worth looking into.
SCORE: 8.2 / 10