Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
Horror films based around haunted or “cursed” objects are a standard, stock trope of the genre, extending back to time immemorial. Hell, we just published a list recently of a dozen horror films about inanimate objects that come to life and kill people, inspired at least partially by the existence of Slaxx, a 2020 film that literally revolves around a pair of killer blue jeans. As it turns out, there’s no single object that is immune to the possibility of having a horror film based around it.
Mirrors, though, are a special case—always have been, always will be. There’s perhaps no other object found in all of our homes more pregnant with metaphors regarding identity and the human condition than a full-length mirror, and no object so consistently used for cheap jump scares than the carefully angled mirror of a bathroom medicine cabinet. There’s a reason why that specific, shop-worn jump scare has its own TV Tropes entry, and a more than 4-minute YouTube compilation of the exact same shot happening over and over again.
It might surprise you to find out, then, that Oculus, a film spending 103 minutes revolving entirely around a haunted mirror, never once contains that stock jump scare, or anything quite like it. It’s safe to assume that this is no coincidence—director Mike Flanagan’s underappreciated 2013 feature is far more cerebral than that, and the writer-director no doubt chose to specifically avoid the well-worn cliches associated with mirrors in horror cinema. Instead, he turns Oculus into a prime haunted house thriller and rubber reality movie, tossing its protagonists backward and forward through time in a manner he would later revisit during the critically acclaimed The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Take note: If you loved that Netflix series, it most definitely has its roots in Oculus, and this movie should vault to the top of your to-watch list.
The story takes place in two primary timelines, chronicling the destruction of a nuclear family unit after the acquisition of the “Lasser Glass,” a large antique mirror that the family patriarch quickly installs in his office, where he begins to spend an inordinate amount of time. Each member of the family reacts differently as the evil object sends out invisible tendrils of influence—Dad seems to be seduced by the visions he sees within it, while Mom’s mental faculties slowly erode. In a simultaneous future timeline, the family’s now-grown children Kaylie (Karen Gillan, pre-MCU) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) reacquire the cursed mirror, with Kaylie intent on documenting and revealing its diabolical powers to the world in order to justify what happened to her family, and Tim simply wishing to avoid another harrowing ordeal. This Kaylie intends to do in the safest possible manner, working failsafe after failsafe into her plans, but pure evil is not so easily pigeonholed.
With this kind of setup, Oculus could have chosen to be one of those stories that keeps you in doubt the entire time as to whether the object is actually cursed, turning itself into a psychological drama between two siblings with vastly different outlooks on what happened during their childhood. Instead, however, it dispenses with that uncertainty relatively quickly—this mirror is plenty evil, there’s no doubt about that. Where it surprises the audience is the depth of that evil, and the object’s eventually revealed abilities to manipulate reality across the threshold of time itself.
This film plays tricks, both on its characters and its audience, until neither they nor you can be sure of what is real at any given time. It’s a miasma of mind-control that eventually becomes totally paralyzing, because every action you take could secretly become the root of your own undoing. Kaylie most famously finds this out for herself when she takes a big bite out of what she believes to be an apple, only to find out that she’s just bitten down hard on a glass light bulb. The mirror—or more accurately, the darkness behind the mirror—does apparently enjoy its own little petty torments.
At the end of the day, Oculus is a nifty low-budget thriller with no shortage of big ideas, directed by one of the most accomplished of modern horror masters at a time in his career when few knew his work. Like his first feature Absentia, it deserves to be revisited by a significantly bigger audience today, who will no doubt be impressed by its excellent effects, solid performances and ambition that will surely exceed the modest expectations most people have when they hear the words “haunted mirror.” Cliche, this ain’t.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.