If you’re a horror fan, chances are you’ve come to peace with the fact your viewing career will be a long and arduous journey punctuated with few notable ventures. Luckily, films like Mike Flanagan’s Oculus pop up every now and again to seed new hope in the mainstream genre.
Discontent to simply jam two doomed siblings in a house and watch as they are terrorized by an ominous mirror, Oculus makes genuine effort to tell a story. Flanagan’s impressive editing slides the narrative between the present day and the original incident ten years prior, layering context tension onto the contemporary part of the story. As the nightmare reaches fever pitch for the adult siblings so does the parallel story of the original haunting, until the mirror’s sordid history appears to literally spill out over the house. Granted it’s at this point the film signs on for more obvious supernatural imagery: the old ‘generic spooky bitch in my house’ gag is one of a few which drags down an otherwise innovative affair. With such streamlined narrative and weighty threats, the sudden appearance of ghosts appears gimmicky.
It’s interesting to see a horror film where characters actually learn from their experiences with the threat and act accordingly. Kaylie’s (Karen Gillan) preparation – her numerous timers, stocks of water and food, along with a weighted fail-safe – are all indicators of a script disinterested in spoon-feeding the audience and wasting valuable screen-time on dopey investigations. Instead what we have here is an extensively prepared battleground for the psychological nightmare to come, a realistic, seemingly fool-proof attempt at tackling supernatural terror. Special mention must be reserved for Gillan, who has here surrendered her manic-pixie-dream-hipster image to become a fiercely resourceful horror heroine.
The mirror itself makes a fascinating threat: slippery, manipulative, and instantly iconic. In fact it feels as if Flanagan lifted it directly from Poe, hoping none of his character’s would notice how boisterously eerie it is. That’s part of the film’s genius though, the mirror’s supernatural power is dealt with in such an understated way that the credibility of the supernatural evil is constantly questioned. Memories are tainted, perceptions altered, and behaviours skewed until the viewer is questioning Tim and Kaylie’s mental states as opposed to the obvious evil of the mirror. Still, no matter how tasteful Oculus’s delivery is there’s still plenty of appalling imagery and scares to keep you suitably shaken.
There’s not anything ground-breaking happening here, but it is a highly enjoyable piece of horror, daring and low-key enough to maintain its Indie origins but accomplished enough to make it to the multiplexes. In lesser hands this could have been a messy affair, but Flanagan’s careful editing and direction, along with the sharp script and great lead performances, make Oculus a fantastic, terrifying, and impressively well-executed contemporary horror.
Dir: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane