There have been films about sinister mirrors before segments of anthologies like Dead of Night (1945) and From Beyond the Grave (1973) and full-length films like The Brøken (2008) and Mirrors (2008). Surprisingly, one of the few things that Mike Flanagan never does here is concern himself with mirror doppelgangers or having the mirror open up portals to other places; rather it exudes physical evil but crucially could have been almost any item of household furniture. Indeed, the tone of much of the show feels more like something along the lines of Insidious (2010).
The start of Oculus seems ordinary, unexceptional. I kept waiting for Mike Flanagan to jolt us with some of the extraordinarily eerie effects he did in Absentia but they seem curiously absent a scene with Karen Gillan thinking she sees figures beneath shroud-covered busts moving seems oddly routine (not to mention keeps making you think that Gillan is still back dealing with Weeping Angels). Nevertheless, the film takes a turn for the fascinating where Karen Gillan introduces the ghost hunting equipment, tells the history of the mirror and its malevolent influence and then introduces her methods for thwarting it. This starts to propel Oculus into the arena of the decidedly interesting. This is made even more so by pitting brother and sister Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as believer vs rationalist not unakin to the polar opposites of Mulder and Scully on tvs The X Files (1993-2002) so that each of the events that occur and supposedly offer proof (or not) of the mirrors influence are countered with rational explanations, even the occasional alternative depiction of events as though we are watching two parallel realities. Of course, Oculus being the film it is, you know the rationalist side is never going to win out.
When Mike Flanagan does start delivering his scares, he produces some eerie effects especially during the games when the mirror starts trying to protect itself or manipulating peoples sense of reality. There is a nasty scene where Karen Gillan picks up an apple she is eating only to find she has bitten into a light bulb. The most effective scene is the one where Gillan thinks she is attacking the ghost woman with a piece of broken china, only to discover she has stabbed her fiancee (James Lafferty) in the neck and then, while the body is lying there and she is trying to ascertain whether what she has done is real or not, she gets her hourly call from him where his cheerfully bland voice comes at disturbingly upbeat cheer to the scene before us. Flanagan winds these games of illusion and uncertainty about what the characters are seeing to an effectively grim conclusion.
The film is serviced by a reasonable cast of moderately known names, mostly recruited from tv. Karen Gillan, the Scottish actress who came to fame as a companion on the modern Doctor Who (2005 ), does a creditable job of dropping her natural Scottish accent for a generic American Midwest one. There is also a very neurotic looking Katee Sackhoff, the great find from tvs Battlestar Galactica (2003-9) as the mother, and Rory Cochrane, a regular from CSI: Miami (2002-12) as the father.