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‘Oculus’: A carefully paced, great-looking psychological thriller

Karen Gillan BrentThwaites 'Oculus.' | Relativity Media

Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites in "Oculus." | Relativity Media

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‘OCULUS’ ★★★1⁄2

Tim Brenton Thwaites

Kaylie Karen Gillan

Marie Katie Sackhoff

Alan Rory Cochrane

Relativity Media presents a film directed by Mike Flanagan and written by Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Running time: 104 minutes. Rated R (for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: May 12, 2014 6:17AM

Here is a horror movie that will reach out and grab that spot on your spine that produces all the chills.

It takes a high level of confidence, maybe even audacity, to set out to make yet another haunted-mirror movie — but thanks to the wonderfully twisted style of director Mike Flanagan and four terrific young actors playing two characters some 11 years apart, “Oculus” is one of the more elegant scary movies in recent memory.

Expanding his 2006 short film to feature length (and, not surprisingly, leaving plenty of room for an “Oculus 2” et al.), director, co-writer and editor Flanagan delivers a carefully paced, superbly photographed psychological thriller in which the villain is a sadistic and very patient entity that seems to revel in playing excruciatingly elaborate mind games before exacting its bloody toll.

Brenton Thwaites is Tim Russell, who is released from an institution on his 21st birthday, some 11 years after a horrific tragedy left both his parents dead. Karen Gillan is his 23-year-old sister Kaylie, who waits about five minutes after Tim’s release to remind him they’ve got a job to do: They must kill the antique mirror responsible for the carnage to their family.

Well, it’s not just the mirror. It’s whatever the hell is inside that mirror, wreaking the usual horror-movie havoc, i.e., making plants die, filling the night with ominous whispering sounds, messing with the family dog, jamming cell phone signals and causing inexplicable fluctuations in the temperature.

The dog. Won’t these characters in horror movies ever listen to the dog? If Max or Rusty or whatever his name is starts howling at unseen threats, whimpering in the night and otherwise acting up, LISTEN TO THE DOG AND GET OUT.

Flanagan nimbly shifts the timeline from present day to 11 years ago (starting with the obligatory happy-family-moves-in-to-new-house montage) and back — and then pulls off the more impressive trick of occasionally having the 23-year-old Kaylie and the 21-year-old Tim crossing paths with the younger version of themselves. Sometimes young Tim seems to actually see older Tim and vice versa; on other occasions, older Kaylie will pass right by 10-year-old Tim on the staircase without either looking up. In lesser hands this could have been more confusing than illuminating, but the scenes are pulled off with expert choreography and razor-sharp editing. (The lighting and production design are also first-rate.)

Annalise Basso plays the young Kaylie and Garret Ryan is the young Tim. Rory Cochrane seems a little too shady in the early scenes when Dad is supposed to be a great guy, but he’s genuinely frightening when Dad becomes possessed in more ways than one. Katee Sackhoff gives a stellar performance as Mom, who undergoes some serious changes in the first few weeks in that new house.

The “Oculus” script touches on myriad Freudian issues and has a decided oral fixation. On at least two occasions, there’s stuff happening with characters’ mouths that defies you to keep looking at the screen. Ick. And bravo.

Like many a lead character in a horror film, the 23-year-old Kaylie is alternately brilliant and an idiot. She has rigged up all kinds of cameras and lights and backup switches in order to prove her theory something in that mirror has been possessing and taking human lives for some 400 years. At one point she puts her iPhone to ingenious use to prove she can’t believe her own eyes.

But why not invite a crowd over to the old house to witness this attempt to exorcise the demon in the mirror? Why make poor traumatized little brother be your only partner in this daunting mission? Ask the Long Island Medium to join you, at minimum.

(Kaylie has placed the mirror in the same spot it occupied in their home on the night of the tragedy. She has ownership of the house, we’re told, because nobody wanted to buy it and it was turned over to her when she was 18. OK.)

The deeper the present-day Kaylie and Tim find themselves entangled with that monster from the mirror, the more graphic and disturbing the flashback scenes, as we learn exactly what happened on that terrible night when they were kids. While “Oculus” remains a relatively cerebral thriller, there’s no shortage of pretty hideous bloodshed as well. This film easily earns its R rating.

The parallel halves of this story are equally chilling, with the mind games continuing right until the very end. Like the characters, for much of the journey we’re not sure what we’re seeing is “real” and what’s in the imagination.

This is my kind of horror movie.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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