Oculus -- a movie that director Mike Flanagan expanded from a 2006 short film -- revolves around just such an antique mirror. But Flanagan's movie has sense enough to create mild ambiguity about whether a brother and sister are encountering demonic evil or are simply out of their minds.
Happily, Flanagan avoids many of the worst genre traps, and if his movie doesn't quite scale the highest peaks of terror, it can be seen as a legitimate attempt to add heft to a genre in which the currency of imagination too often is squandered on special effects.
Early in the movie, Tim (Benton Thwaites) is released from a mental institution. He's a young man who experienced a terrible trauma when he was 10.
Upon re-entering the sane world, Tim reunites with his older sister Kaylie, played by Karen Gillan of Dr. Who fame.
Kaylie acquires the mirror that once belonged to her father, and brings Tim to the home where their parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackoff) died. Better to discover the rest in a theater.
Tension arises because Tim, having been prepped by his psychiatrist, thinks everything has a rational explanation. Kaylie, on the other hand, is determined to prove that the mirror was responsible for the violence that became part of her family's increasingly twisted life.
To make her case, Kaylie sets up cameras in the home where the mayhem occurred. She hopes to capture the evil spirit on tape.
From that point on, Flanagan mixes scenes from the past and present. Vivid flashbacks spring to life as Tim and Kaylie remember their earlier lives.
Flanagan doesn't entirely eschew gore, but he earns props for leaving some of the horror to our imaginations and for gaining increasing command over the movie's flashbacks -- segments from the past in which Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso play young Tim and Kaylie.
If you're bothered by seeing children in danger, Oculus may not be the horror movie for you.
The idea of using demonic forces to explain evil can be comforting. Demons put evil outside the human realm, creating an opportunity for supernatural rationalization: "The demon made me do it."
I'm not sure that Oculus moves far enough away from that sort of thing to make it truly distinctive, but much of the time, it's headed in the right direction.
A few words with Mike Flanagan
Q: Oculus represents your second horror movie after 2012's Absentia. What's the attraction of the genre?
Also, when we look at the world and experience evil, we have an intense need to try to explain it.
We mediate evil in our fictions. That's what appeals about horror. It's a safe laboratory in which to explore these kinds of issues. We need that space. At the end of the day, it's more about feeling safe than feeling scared.
Q: How difficult was it to expand a short into a full-length feature?
Flanagan: It was incredibly daunting. It took us seven years to get rolling on the feature.
Q: Can you say something about influences on your work?
Flanagan: For me, it was The Shining and The Ring. I'm a big fan of The Eye (a 2008 thriller about a woman who begins seeing supernatural phenomenon after an eye transplant.) That movie used sound to great effect.
Q: In this movie, the parents eventually pose a threat to their kids. I don't want to give away too much, but could you comment on what seems to be a total reversal of the current tendency to indulge children?
Flanagan: Inverting something that's so protective and safe (parenthood) creates a sense of discomfort that goes against our basic instincts. That's way more frightening than torture and gore.
Q: Did dealing with siblings -- both as kids and adults -- and with their parents make for difficult casting?
Flanagan: The first person we cast was Gillan and that made for a red-head requirement with the girl who would play her character in the flashbacks and with the mother. We wanted them to look like a plausible family, but that didn't take precedence over performance.
Q: Was working with kids difficult?
Flanagan: You hear people talking about the difficulty of working with child actors. I didn't have that experience at all. These kids blew me away in their auditions. Intuitively, they snap into a fearless commitment to make believe.
Q: Are you planning to make more horror movies?
Flanagan: I want to play around with other genres, but I think I'll always find my way back to horror.