Oculus (2013, 1 hr, 45 mins)
I am a Mike Flanagan fan. This is no secret. I became a fan of this director and writer after I saw his film Absentia at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in 2011, and was so taken with the unique storyline and minimal but effective production that it has become one of my favourite indie horror to date. So it is no surprise that I was immediately jazzed when I heard he had come out with another horror film about a haunted mirror. A haunted mirror you ask? Yes, and Oculus was the equivalent of a nightmarish M.C. Escher painting that kept you guessing at every turn.
Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) are siblings with a sad past. Their idyllic family life was shattered by the violent deaths of their parents, seemingly fueled by their parents’ deteriorating mental health which left the children fighting for their survival. After being traumatized by the deaths and institutionalized for 11 years, Tim is released and reunited with his big sister Kaylie, who seems to have her life together after being in foster care. The reality is that Kaylie has recovered a 300 year old mirror that was in their childhood home which she feels is the cause of their parents deaths. She wants vengeance and she needs Tim’s help. With great reluctance, Tim agrees to help Kaylie in a supernatural showdown to destroy this ominous mirror, testing their sanity and determination.
I really liked the reworking of such a morbid subject: the supernatural demise of a family. We have seen it done with such classics as The Amityville Horror and The Shining, and Flanagan does a good job making his script fresh enough to keep the audience on edge with an old school horror feel. He also manages to, once again, cleverly optimize minimalism to his advantage. With only a few sets and some select special effects, this story was effective without the bells and whistles, but his skill at editing is what made the film for me. It was perfectly timed and taught, and was key in the story telling as the characters lived almost parallel lives flipping between the past and present.
I was also interested in this film because my sister is adamant about never buying anything antique. She is a very logical person, but believes that objects, especially wooden ones, hold the energy of past owners or spirits. When I told her about the premise of this movie, she said “I told you so”, and was down to see it. This was a good haunted object story, and the mirror itself, sculpted by artist Bruce Larsen, was dark and disturbing; a silent cast member with its own mythology that orchestrated a morbid fairy tale of a modern-day Hansel and Gretel. I found the “Lasser Glass” intriguing and was hungry for more than what Kaylie offered in her investigations. I also noted that the childhood home was on Hawthorn Way, and I’m not sure if Flanagan reached to his Irish roots, but the hawthorn tree is kind of unlucky and from what I’ve gathered, cedar, which is what the evil mirror was made of, is a highly spiritual wood that can hold spirits. If Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard were up on superstitions, they did a good job adding those elements.
The performances were great. I’ll start with Katee Sackhoff, whom I loved as Starbuck on BSG, loved her even more when she made a guest appearance on Workaholics, and now I just adore her as she has made scream queen status. Her transformation from doting wife and mother to maniac was uncomfortable and chilling. Karen Gillan has my heart because of her Dr. Who fame, and it was nice to see her doing something completely different, from her bang on American accent to her obsessive determination, as Kaylie. And then there is Annalise Basso as young Kaylie and Garret Ryan as young Tim. They really made you feel for them as they dealt with the disintegration of their family. Of course I have to make note of the scoring, which I am always aware of and is essential to any good horror film. The Newton Brothers really set the tone for this creeping terror of a film, with ominous, full-bodied sounds that made hug yourself to get rid of the chill.
Oculus was a refreshing horror film that leaves you wanting more, and making an educated guess, I suspect there will be a sequel (at least I hope there will!). Go check it out for some lo-fi, high art psychological horror that’s more story than gory.