Eleven years ago, tragedy struck the Russell family, and as a result the youngest member, Tim (Brenton Thwaites), was locked away in a mental institution for committing murder at a tender age. Now he's out, but his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has never accepted the official account of events, with her own ideas of what happened in her home that fateful night when she was twelve years old, something she has lived with ever since. What she is certain of is her brother is innocent, and she has seen to it that a mirror that used to be in the Russells' possession has been sold back to her at an auction. She has spent the intervening years researching the wall decoration and traced its provenance back many decades, centuries even, and thinks she has sussed it. She thinks the mirror kills people...
Previous to Oculus, the highest profile malevolent mirror movie had been the Kiefer Sutherland vehicle imaginatively titled Mirrors, and that was something of a laughing stock among those who had watched it, so the only way was up for director Mike Flanagan's expansion of a short film he had made seven years before this. He was rewarded with the biggest hit of his career so far, not a blockbuster but it assuredly got audiences talking, as on the surface it appeared to be jumping on the supernatural chiller bandwagon that efforts like Insidious and The Conjuring had apparently cornered the market in, mostly by dint of their sticking to a template based around horror movies past: they found a formula that succeeded for them.
Yet if Oculus was not a million miles away from those copycat shockers with their reliance on jump scares to sustain the tension, Flanagan was nevertheless trying his own thing here with a subdued, sorrowful work, sorrowful because it featured characters attempting to come to terms with an awful set of occurences which have left them struggling to cope with the trauma, even over ten years later. There was no sense that they were being punished for some misdemeanour, it was sheer ill-fortune that brought them to this sorry state of affairs, and they would have been a whole lot more content should the infernal, hazily-explained mirror never have entered their world. That lack of a wider explanation meant the exact nature of the threat was difficult to pin down.
This won a lot of attention from fans of science fiction series Doctor Who for Karen Gillan had spent the few years leading up to this starring as Amy Pond, the title character's companion on his journey through space and time. As with fellow companion of previous seasons Billie Piper, Gillan opted for a horror flick to test the waters of starring in her own projects, though in Piper's case Spirit Trap just led to more television, but before Karen knew where she was she had a supporting role as an alien in the biggest blockbuster of 2014. In this case, she proved herself able to hold the attention on the big screen with a part that could have been your basic run away screaming victim, but she took the opportunity to make something more substantial out of it.
For a long while we're not very sure whether Kaylie is a few sandwiches short of a picnic or not: has her trauma sent her around the bend with obsessing over the notion that Tim could have been guided by forces beyond his control? When we see the intricate set up to track the activity of the mirror, which she has installed in the old family home where the violent deaths took place, it comes across as the work of a woman who has allowed herself to fall prey to her preoccupations to the extent they have taken over her life utterly, with her video cameras and - whoops! - a great big yacht anchor on the ceiling, ready to drop and smash the mirror should things get too intense. Flanagan used extensive, tricksy flashbacks to the night of the murders to fill in the gaps, with indie veteran Rory Cochrane as the siblings' father and Katee Sackhoff (like Gillan, an actress who made her name in TV sci-fi) as the mother, an effect that could have been hopelessly confusing yet actually neatly handled. Oculus may not have been groundbreaking, but it was accomplished within its modest parameters. Music by The Newton Brothers.