Regardless of any supernatural elements, the richest horror films tend to be ones that tap into more earth-bound fears. Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943) hinge on their heroines’ dread of being vulnerable to sexual predators. George Romero’s “Living Dead” cycle plays on the fear that such established social institutions as the nuclear family, the military, and capitalism will prove meaningless in the event of catastrophe.
Oculus, a cleverer-than-average haunted-house movie currently in theaters, speaks to a couple of widespread anxieties—one topical, the other sadly timeless. Director Mike Flanagan integrates these concerns into the horror-movie mechanics with some grace, making for a more involving entertainment than Insidious or The Conjuring, recent haunted-house films by his contemporary (and Saw alumnus) James Wan.
A brother and sister in their early 20s reunite at their suburban childhood home, where their parents died gruesomely about ten years earlier. The sister is convinced that the parents were turned into homicidal maniacs by a haunted old mirror in the father’s study; through research, she’s discovered that everyone who owned it over the past three centuries has died in some macabre way. She sets out to prove her theory by locking herself and her brother in the house and setting up a network of cameras to document the mirror’s supernatural powers. The brother, who spent his childhood in juvenile detention for killing the father in self-defense, at first finds her theory incredible, insisting that she’s constructed a supernatural fantasy to explain how their parents became psychotic—in a nice reversal of the horror-movie cliche, the sister is more intrepid and the brother more ruminative. Of course he changes his tune when spooky stuff begins to happen.
At times Oculus suggests an allegory for how children compensate for being powerless to stop incidents of domestic violence. It also seems to critique a common information-age presumption that we can become neutral observers of our lives if we document every aspect of them. One way the mirror intimidates the siblings is by making them hallucinate horrific events, and some of the more effective scares occur when they find themselves unable to locate records of things that they (and we) believe to have happened. These moments display a smart, self-reflexive approach to film editing, as Flanagan cuts away from some grisly image to reveal it was only a hallucination. The sinuous narrative structure is skillful as well, snaking between the present and events leading up to the original traumatic episode.
As in Jacques Rivette’s self-reflexive masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating, the two time frames begin to overlap in the movie’s second half, with the adult siblings appearing to interact with people from their childhood. This development might reflect how victims of childhood trauma are condemned to relive their worst experiences over and over, though the movie’s subtext feels increasingly vague the more intricate its plot becomes. Still, compared with Wan’s recent efforts—so devoid of subtext that they cave in on themselves like wet sand castles—Oculus feels like The Turn of the Screw.