Oculus’ opening minutes are a vanilla ghost movie, with forlorn expressions and ominous lingering shots of the film’s centerpiece prop, a mirror housing a demonic presence. Creep scares where objects in reflections are different than reality. Entirely expected. Then, Karen Gillan hijacks the mirror and sets up a Do It Yourself science experiment to prove supernatural influence before destroying it, and the film veers wildly into Christopher Nolan territory. Space and time intertwine in disorienting ways, Gillan and her puppy-eyed, confused brother (Brenton Thwaites) find themselves not only facing off against an unseen tormentor, but reliving childhood trauma, where the mirror exerted malevolent influence over their parents–a series of events which culminated in the father killing the mother, and Thwaites’ younger self being institutionalized for killing the father in self-defense. The two timelines collide, adult Gillan or Thwaites wandering into a room to find their child selves (or vice versa), making them feel small. Gillan’s methodical safeguards and Thwaites’ learned, rational explanations for the paranormal become quaint attempts to control forces which defy reason and will not be contained, simply because their power lies within the deepest recesses of the subconscious.
Writer/director Mike Flanagan depicts the entity as a needler. It mutters insults to the mother in the father’s voice (“What did you say?”, she asks, to which he responds, “Nothing”); later, it accentuates and distorts a c-section scar she self-consciously notes when looking at her reflection. The mirror sows doubt amongst the siblings by offering alternative explanations for its actions, such as when cameras used to document its activities instead show them moving objects themselves previously seen shifting of their own volition. Outside observers become unable to see the truth the siblings know, because the entity (like any abuser) hides the bruises and has an excuse handy to deflect blame. Appearances kept, it continues to harass and bully until, unable to take anymore, the abused (tragically) attempt to strike back. This lurking horror revels in causing pain and misery without every physically acting against anyone. It knows full well society can, and will, find a way to blame the victims.