“Oculus” offers scary mind games

If life is full of non-excitement, there are ways to liven things up and guarantee mixing it up with restless spirits. Buy a house built on a former cemetery site where the bodies remain underground. Open a hotel on ancient burial grounds. Reside in on old, creaky house with a dark and murderous past. Or, as in “Oculus,” purchase an eye-catching antique that has mysteriously moved around a lot, with various owners.

The piece featured in “Oculus” is an old mirror with a gorgeous, intricately design wooden frame. The glass could use some Windex, but that is a minor problem compared to what this antique has in store for its latest owners.

“Oculus” is a movie that may annoy those expecting a rip-snorting, jump-in-your-seat ghost story. Instead, it unfolds with a slow but growing anticipatory dread, much like “The Shining.” The opening moments are scary, as two siblings, a 12-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy, are hiding from a gunman in their house. Soon they are facing the gunman, whose face is unseen, the weapon pointed at them.

The story then jumps ahead 11 years to the present, when a young man, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), institutionalized for several years, has been deemed fit to return to society on his upcoming 21st birthday.

Meanwhile, a young woman is seen at an auction where an old mirror with a beautifully carved wooden frame is sold. She has gained temporary possession of the mirror until it is shipped to its new owner, and she has some plans.

But first, she meets Tim as he is released. It turns out she is his older sister, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, who plays Amy Pond / Soothsayer in “Doctor Who”), and these two are the now grown siblings who were terrorized that night 11 years earlier.

Kaylie has been researching the past of the mirror and has learned that it seems to have supernatural powers that have led to deaths of previous owners. She has brought the mirror to the Russells’ old home, which is outfitted with all sorts of gadgetry to record events and prevent the mirror’s powers from derailing her quest for truth. Now she is asking Tim to help her not only amass evidence of the mirror’s sinister history, but also to “kill” it.

Tim, fresh from years of therapy, is skeptical of Kaylie’s claims, having been convinced over the years that the horrifying night he and Kaylie endured was the result of simple mental madness, not some supernatural manipulation.

“Oculus” jumps back in forth in time, as the terrible story unfolds. The Russells, Alan (Rory Cochrane), a computer software designer, his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff from “Riddick”), along with children Kaylie (the young version of is played by a marvelous Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan), are moving into a new home, and among the items carried into the house is the antique mirror that Alan has purchased and placed in his home office.

The audience is forced to really pay attention as the movie recalls the days leading to that deadly night, with madness overtaking the parents and the children becoming increasingly confused and helpless. Some scenes are shown from the differing perspectives of Kaylie and Tim, but before long, Tim witnesses things that have him conceding Kaylie may be well on target in blaming the mirror’s power on the deaths of its owners.

Incidents escalate as the battle is on and the mirror appears to be fighting back. As the characters become more baffled by what is real and what is not, so does the audience. This is where the movie flourishes.

“Oculus,” co-written by director Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard, adapting a short screenplay by Flanagan and Jeff Seidman, is not going to startle viewers with ghosts leaping out from nowhere. Instead, it feeds upon dread. As resourceful as Kaylie seems to be, there is a an unnerving feeling that the mirror’s powers will trip up her and Tim.

As mentioned above, Basso is exceptional as the 12-year-old Kaylie, a girl forced to keep her head and protect her brother amid the growing peril. Gillan and Thwaites as the adult Kaylie and Tim spend a lot of time debating, then trying to analyze what is happening, and in the end may find themselves over-matched despite the preparations.

Cochrane also is effective as a father who is not overly demonstrative but dedicated to making a good home for his family, and Sackhoff is particularly tragic as a loving mother whose life unravels into a living hell.

Horror movies are designed to ensure you do not walk out of the theater feeling good. If its creepiness sticks with you, it succeeds. “Oculus” may not induce nightmares, but it may cause just a little apprehension every time one faces a mirror.

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