A good carpenter never blames his tools. But neither does he go out and buy a new hammer every time he makes another cabinet.
Using the most tried and true of techniques and material, “Oculus” director Mike Flanagan has crafted a satisfyingly old-fashioned ghost story that, in its evocation of shivery dread, is the most unnerving poltergeist picture since “The Conjuring.”
A remake of an earlier short — shot by Flanagan on the cheap in and around Baltimore in 2005 — “Oculus” is the story of a haunted antique mirror, known as the Lasser Glass. Over the centuries since its fabrication in 1754, dozens of owners have experienced madness and mysterious, often violent death. The movie depicts the efforts of two near-victims to destroy the cursed object.
The idea of an artifact inhabited by a malevolent supernatural entity is, of course, nothing new. Nor are such horror-movie tropes as the spooked dog, the staticky television set or camcorder surveillance (thank you, “Paranormal Activity”). Yet it’s what Flanagan does with these well-worn tools here that counts. The filmmaker may not break new ground, but he marshals each of these tools — and more — with the skill of a pro, laying down a fresh path through familiar territory and deftly skirting cliche.
Brenton Thwaites and Karen Gillan play 20-something siblings Tim and Kaylie, both of whom, as we see in flashbacks, were almost killed 10 years ago when their parents (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) went bonkers after purchasing the mirror. In the intervening decade, Tim has been locked up in a mental facility for the killing of his father, while Kaylie has put her time to good use in tracking down the home accessory, which she blames for what happened.
Set just after Tim’s release from the hospital, the movie is structured around Kaylie’s elaborate plan to exonerate Tim by proving that the events of 10 years earlier were the results of the mirror’s manipulative mind games. To this end, she has set up video cameras and other high-tech equipment in their old house to document the activities of the mirror, out of which she hopes to lure whoever — or whatever — is possessing it.
“Hello again,” Kaylie whispers to this home furnishing from hell, adding tauntingly, “You must be hungry.”
What Flanagan gets exactly right about this far-fetched scenario is that he never shows us the “you” Kaylie’s talking to. To be sure, the trailer suggests there is at least one creepy woman with devil eyes living in the mirror, but you would be wrong to assume that the tale is that straightforward.
Kaylie and Tim’s old house also is haunted by those scariest of demons: memories.
Juvenile actors Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso play the sibling protagonists as children, popping up in the old house like they still live there — which, in a figurative sense, they do. The younger actors appear both in flashback sequences and in scenes in which their characters seem to be interacting with their adult selves. Whether it’s fantasy or mental illness is unclear.
That’s the most satisfying aspect of “Oculus” — the way in which Flanagan plays on the power of imagination. Shunning traditional flashback techniques, he tells the story in a twisty, perception-distorting way that messes with the audience’s heads as much as it does with Tim’s and Kaylie’s.
In that sense, using a mirror as the central metaphor for our darkest fears is a fairly brilliant strategy. When Kaylie and Tim look into the glass, of course, they see nothing but their own reflections.
★★★ R. At area theaters. Contains creepy, violent images and brief crude language. 105 minutes.