Studio: Relativity Media
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writer: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Producer: Trevor Macy, Marc D. Evans
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan Ewald, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval
A brother and sister prepare to destroy an antique mirror they believe is responsible for the bizarre deaths of their parents.
If James Wan can be thought of as a go-to director for commercially appealing horror with flashy panache, and Ti West can be considered a contemporary figurehead for slow burn atmospheric thrillers, then filmmaker Mike Flanagan probably falls somewhere in between those two styles. With 2011’s “Absence” (review here) as well as with “Oculus,” Flanagan carves a corner for himself as someone who excels at smartly conceived mood pieces built around unraveling minds and unseen terrors. Even as slow-to-develop cerebral terror, that universal resonance audiences have with themes of deep-rooted fears gives Flanagan’s films a mass marketing edge that too-niche-for-their-own good indies can never quite taste.
Anytime a horror film emphasizing psychological chills over gruesome thrills receives a major theatrical release, a camp-splitting consequence is virtually guaranteed. What one person finds subtly dreadful, another claims is dreadfully boring. Something that plays as smart for one crowd comes across as slow for another. And should these opposing sides collide in an Internet word war, a purportedly more mature set declares intellectual superiority over those raised in a post-“Scream” era that just don’t “get it.” Which goads the often younger group into challenging any suggestion that a so-called thinking man’s movie can be frightening without jump jolts and sharp stings.
“Oculus” has enough of the above going on to at least temporarily displace “Paranormal Activity” as a buzzed-about “love it or hate it” film where an opinion on quality can come with enmity for those who don’t share it. In circumstances such as these, whether or not one enjoys the experience has more to do with the viewer’s predisposition towards this style of deliberately paced horror than how successfully the film is executed onscreen.
“Oculus” director Mike Flanagan’s previous film “Absentia” encountered similar discussion in its aftermath, with its Lovecraft-like creeping dread derided for the same reasons it was praised. For my money, “Absentia” is one of the finest examples of a micro-budget thriller there has ever been. I gave “Absentia” another look before “Oculus,” and thus went into the 2013 film fully expecting carefully crafted terror designed to seep gradually like black oil in the brain. “Oculus” is not a movie about visceral violence or showcasing frights for eyes only. I anticipated thoughtful psychological drama, and that is what “Oculus” delivers in spades.
The Lasser Glass is rivaled only by Lermarchand’s box from the “Hellraiser” series as horror filmdom’s cursed item with the most sordid history of supernatural violence. For four centuries, this antique mirror has done everything from immolating an English Earl in his own fireplace to compelling a San Diego bank teller to chew through a power line. In 2002, the mirror ended up in the home office of Alan Russell. It wasn’t long before plants began wilting, the dog behaved strangely, and the entire household was brought to the brink of madness before 10-year-old Tim put a bullet in dad’s brain to save his sister’s life.
Eleven years later, Tim is finally released from the mental hospital. A decade of therapy has convinced him that the idea of a cursed mirror was the fantasy of a fractured mind, invented to cope with the tragedy of having to kill a father who tortured his wife before attacking his daughter. Tim is now poised to start a new life. There is just one thing. His sister Kaylie wants him to revisit the past and to help her destroy the Lasser Glass once and for all.
“Oculus” is based on Flanagan’s half-hour short from 2006 co-written with Jeff Seidman, “Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan.” Interestingly, there are no chapters one or two. The short film series was planned as a chronicle of the Lasser Glass, with part three filmed first (and last) since it required just one primary actor and a single room. Aside from making Phillip Lasser an Earl of Leicester instead of a stockholder in the Dutch East Indies Trading Company, and other minor changes, the short basically covers the same sequence in the feature film where Kaylie prepares and conducts her experiment.
Kaylie is a savvy character with two solid performers, as “Oculus” unfolds across parallel timelines detailing the 2002 Russell family tragedy and the siblings’ 2013 rematch with the mirror. Brenton Thwaites is bland as Kaylie’s brother, but I am not sure how much of that can be attributed to Thwaites’ acting when his character features extensively as someone to look vexed while his sister explains everything out loud.
Making Kaylie immediately appealing, other than casting the captivating Karen Gillan as her adult incarnation, is that she concocts the smartest plan ever designed by a horror movie character to battle an ethereal boogeyman. Having conducted every bit of research imaginable on how the mirror can possibly one up her, Kaylie arms herself with alarm clocks, kill switches, cameras, and various fallback plans to combat dehydration, starvation, sudden narcolepsy, and mental confusion. She makes Nancy Thompson look like a rank amateur counting on simple means of coffee and unreliable friends to keep her out of Freddy Krueger-haunted nightmares.
By the same design, “Oculus” ends up with a smart plan for how to explain clichéd horror film behavior by giving the mirror the power to make people do dumb things. Any other movie, and I might immediately question why in the world a certain character would sneak up slowly on another just so he could be mistakenly stabbed in the neck. In “Oculus,” such an action makes sense in the context of a manipulative paranormal entity who becomes a compelling character despite having no dialogue or tangible presence.
Not all of the horror is exclusive to the brain. There are still wince-inducing scenes of fingernails ripped with a staple remover and chewing on light bulb glass certain to make a body tense out of empathy.
Above all, “Oculus” constructs mind-scrabbling suspense by depicting a constantly questionable reality. This isn’t a psychedelic or David Lynch-style mind trip, though. Terror instead comes from lost equilibrium that one can no longer trust his/her own senses. It is a feeling of being out of control, completely at the mercy of a destructive force of perhaps insurmountable evil. And if anyone doesn’t find that concept absolutely terrifying, then there are plenty of alternatives to the high-tension psycho-horror of “Oculus.”
Review Score: 80