Remember the terrible 2008 horror movie Mirrors in which Keifer Sutherland discovers that the mirrors in an abandoned department store actually have a supernatural quality to them? I always found that to be an interesting concept. Unfortunately, the movie sucked and practically wasted its idea. Oculus is different. This, too, is a movie about supernatural mirrors, but it’s a movie that revels in its talent and its capability to be great things.
Working as a feature length version of his 2006 short Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, Oculus
is writer/director Mike Flanagan’s first major feature. In it he tells the story of Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), two siblings who find themselves reuniting after Tim’s stay at a psychiatric hospital following the deaths of their mom and dad. Tim strongly believed that a supernatural presence was to blame for their deaths which appeared to be of his own doing. He’s not alone either. His sister not only believed it, but continues to believe it. She believes that a possessed mirror that her dad had in his office is the reason for their parents’ deaths. Not sure what to believe anymore, the now adult Tim is talked into revisiting the mirror that wrecked their lives in order to destroy it once and for all. Kaylie isn’t messing around either. She has timers set, laptops opened, cords connected, cameras erected. She is completely ready to take on this ancient mirror that may or may not be responsible for the deaths of more than just her own parents.
The film doesn’t play it by the books, though. It is labeled as a horror movie, but it plays more like a psychological thriller. It has its scares and it is scary at times, but it doesn’t have the consistent feel of a horror movie. From its opening scene, Oculus is a nail biting vehicle that continuously shifts from the past to the present as it challenges the audience to find out if this is really supernatural or all in the characters’ heads. And it succeeds with that challenge.
I found Oculus to be an immersive experience for a number of reasons. One being the tone and atmosphere set up by writer/director/editor Mike Flanagan. This is his first major directorial work, but he is known in the indie community for his 2011 picture Absentia. I have not seen it, but it is streaming on Netflix so I am going to try to make it a priority to check it out because this guy seems to be someone to watch out for. The movie has two simultaneous storylines running, the first being in the past when Kaylie and Tim are children and are encountering the increasingly sadistic change in their parents’ individual personalities and their relationship with each other. The second storyline is in the present with the two recording the mirror and trying to defeat it. But the movie doesn’t stay somewhere for a while and then tell the audience “11 Years Earlier.” No, it’s everywhere at once. The past and present go side by side as the film unfolds and it begs us to figure out what is going on in the minds of these characters. It all meshes so well. I am genuinely glad to see that this newcomer has actually directed a horror movie with serious skill.
It isn’t very good to say it, but it is true that a lot of TV actors and actresses, when finished with their respective roles, seem to just fizzle out. Take Aaron Paul. After Breaking Bad, he was in a few indie flicks and then Need for Speed, which didn’t attract much traffic (that pun was very much intended.) I think Karen Gillan may be a different story. I have to admit I found her role in Guardians of the Galaxy to be just okay, but at least she’s getting financed from it. As for Doctor Who, I am a proud Whovian and the start of series 5 is actually the first series I watched of the show. So Matt Smith’s Doctor and Gillan’s Amy Pond were the first two characters I got introduced to and her character is special to me. The true testament to Oculus is that while watching it I never saw Amy Pond. Karen Gillan was her character, and her performance was actually really vigorous.
Brenton Thwaites was pretty good as Tim even though he didn’t really showcase any true acting chops until the finale of the film. The two child actors who play the younger Tim and Kaylie were successful at not being annoying and actually provided some good performances that had almost as much screen time as their adult counterparts. I found Rory Cochrane (Argo) to be an okay screen presence even if he felt a bit stale and identical to Ryan Reynolds in The Amityville Horror. However, it’s Katee Sackhoff who turns in the best performance. Her portrayal of the mother who is the victim of the husband’s neglectful tactics takes an unexpected turn real quick. I have always been a fan of her’s due partly to her association with the guys over at the Schmoes Know podcast, but that isn’t the reason I loved her in the movie. She really is great and sometimes deeply scary.
Mike Flanagan’s Oculus isn’t groundbreaking or monumental horror, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. Its constant fluctuation between past and present never feel confusing or tired, but instead work in furthering the character development and the pacing of the story. There are some effective scares (one involving a light bulb that will make me cautious every time I eat an apple from now on), but it isn’t loaded with them. Jump scares are seemingly obsolete. Flanagan seems more interested in getting under the viewer’s skin. And that’s what makes Oculus stand out.