Oculus | Director Mike Flanagan | Score: 5.9
All film genres have their tropes; it’s just that horror has them posted like large, bobbing buoys in a restless sea. From watching countless such flicks, we can extrapolate the following to be self-evident:
pets = dead
skeptics = proven wrong
moving into a new house = huge mistake
approaching ghostly visages in skimpy nightie = only acceptable method
man left alone to write = very bad idea
antique black cedar mirror = big trouble
This isn’t to suggest Mike Flanagan’s occult thriller is some lazy, rote dog of convenience. The film is carefully observed and actually pretty creepy — but it’s difficult to see it, and many other films of its ilk, and not get distracted by all the connections to the films like it that have come before.
In order to really unsettle an audience, you need to pull their collective chairs out from under them: The true seminal horror films of any age did just that (think Psycho, Alien, The Shining, The Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project) taking an idea an audience thinks its well prepared for, only to switch gears on them in as shocking a manner as possible (shower scene, chest burster, etc.) and leave them scrambling to make sense of the new paradigm suddenly thrust upon them. Of course, in order to do that, you need to be able to imagine horror outside of its already firmly established conventions (which change somewhat from culture to culture, hence the early effectiveness of J-horror and French horror flicks in the last decade).
Your other option, of course, is a good deal simpler: Take an existing set of tropes and, like a classic romance flick, tease out the details so it becomes something both familiar and vaguely new at the same time.
When the film opens, Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites), is just being released from a psychiatric ward, where he’s spent the last eleven years trying to come to grips with a terrible trauma inflicted upon him and his older sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan). When they were children, their father (Rory Cochrane) started to slowly go insane shortly after the installing a peculiar, antique mirror in his office, in the posh house the family had just relocated. Before too long, he kills their suffering mother (Katee Sackhoff), after torturing her for days, and coming after the children until young Tim (played by Garrett Ryan) finally shoots him in order to protect his sister (played as a girl by Annalise Basso). Released and finally free, Tim quickly reunites with Kaylie, now 23 and engaged to a wealthy auction manager (James Lafferty) at the firm they both work, but she’s still obsessed with that evil mirror and clearing her father’s name.
Acquiring the evil mirror from her auction house, she sets up an elaborate means of gaining revenge: Putting the mirror back on the wall of her father’s office in front of a veritable installation of video cameras, computers and a fail-safe anvil drop in order to capture, on tape, the evil of which she’s convinced that bit of reflective glass is capable.
What Flanagan does, quite effectively, is put us in two more or less simultaneous timestreams: their first encounter with the mirror as kids with their parents, and the present, where the emotionally subdued Tim, thoroughly therapized, tries desperately to convince his sister her mirror conspiracy theory is entirely in her head. The director slips back and forth from the two, often overlapping a bit of dialogue or sound effect in his segue, so that it’s not always immediately apparent which era we are witnessing, and things get ever more compressed together.
The effect is suitably unnerving, at least for a time (though the question must be asked why she doesn’t just throw a brick through the thing before its sufficiently powered up enough to defend itself). We flow back and forth through the horror the siblings experienced as kids, with both of their parents suddenly going off the deep end at once, and their current situation, with the mirror throwing illusion after illusion at them in an attempt to manipulate them into doing its bidding.
Along the way, we get a fascinating history lesson from Kaylie on the subject of the mirror, which has been killing and torturing would-be owners for the better part of four centuries, amassing a significant list of grotesque kills (45, to be exact, she tells the camera helpfully) at every stop. Which is significant, because a good deal of the film’s macabre power lies in Flanagan’s having cultivated such a long and well-thought-out backstory for his demon mirror. It’s this attention to detail, a willingness to put in the intellectual effort in order to disturb us, rather than just rely on lame jump-camera shots and buckets of blood to do the work of scaring us silly, that allows the film to resonate.
Along the way, Flanagan also gets to strike a blow against cognitive therapy (Tim’s studied rationalization eventually turns completely against him), and work by its own rules so as not to guarantee a cuddly ending. Like 2012’s Sinister, the film earns itself a little extra credit by not retracting its claws and going soft at the end. Flanagan sticks to his guns and gives us something creepy to chew on. It’s by no means seminal (though, as these things go, I certainly wouldn’t doubt a sequel in the works), but it’s just careful enough to be effective, more than one can say for the vast majority of the blood-spattering genre.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
Bypass theater ticket lines. Buy movie tickets in advance at Fandango.com.