Mirrors have frequently surfaced in the horror genre, so it can be difficult to get around the clichés associated with them. As a result, mention of a “spooky mirror” horror film can conjure feelings of pessimism. Mike Flanagan’s transcendent new film Oculus, however, shatters those perceptions from the outset. The director’s follow-up to his acclaimed feature Absentia builds upon Flanagan’s proven foundation of troubled siblings encountering a supernatural force in the midst of trauma. Though Flanagan’s latest work eases up a bit on the suffocating dread of Absentia, Oculus is an advancement in ambition and technical achievement. Oculus is not another run-of-the-mill studio offering about a haunted mirror; it’s a thrilling exercise in tension-filled film structure.
The story follows brother and sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) reuniting a decade after a tragic event from their past. Tim is released from a psychiatric care facility; Kaylie has just won a bidding war for an antique mirror called the Lasser Glass. Kaylie enlists Tim to fulfill a promise to destroy the mirror, an ornate, but creepy object she blames for the death of their parents. After a decade of therapy, Tim is convinced that Kaylie has concocted deluded memories to process the tragedy. When he accompanies his older sister on her mission, his fears resurface when the two carry out the plan.
Flanagan divulges their harrowing history in a series of flashbacks. A parallel storyline reveals the torture and murder of their mother Marie (Katie Sackhoff) at the hands of their father Alan (Rory Cochrane). Kaylie is convinced the mirror – purportedly responsible for dozens of deaths throughout history – has seduced her father into committing the horrendous crime. She devises a plan to document then destroy the mirror to exonerate her family’s name. Detrimental to her plan is that the Lasser Glass, if Kaylie’s theory is true, harbors uncanny means of self-preservation, including the ability to manipulate reality.
Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard have constructed an intricate puzzle that challenges audiences with a non-linear tale of severe family dysfunction and supernatural dread. The Russell family, though living in a nice house in an upscale neighborhood, are not insulated from torment. Flanagan explores universal fears – infidelity, addiction, and abuse – exposing the Russell’s susceptibility to fragmentation. Their story demonstrates that insecurity can corrupt families even in the most comfortable environments, and as a result, unleash their worst nightmares.
Across the board, Oculus contains exceptionally strong performances. Gillan’s role as the fiercely determined Kaylie is complemented by moments of vulnerability. Annalise Basso as the younger Kaylie gives a breakthrough performance that exemplifies the strengths she’ll cultivate as an adult. Thwaites also delivers solidly in a role requiring him to provide the skeptical voice of his psychiatric repair, yet unable to truly reconcile the past when once again confronted by the mirror. Most captivating, however, is the raw portrayal by Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica). She runs the gamut between emotionally exposed to truly fearsome in her role as Marie. There isn’t a moment when the Russell’s aren’t believable and sympathetic as a family, and the character dynamic sets the stage for an extraordinarily emotional descent into terror.
While the dramatic elements of Oculus drive the film, Flanagan does not shy away from delivering provocative horror imagery, involving torn fingernails, crushed teeth, and a fiendishly clever scene involving a light bulb mistaken for an apple. Though the film is aimed at a mainstream audience, Flanagan pulls no punches in his depictions of children in peril, especially as the film builds toward a bleak climax. A feeling of intense dread permeates, enhanced by mood-establishing camerawork by cinematographer Michael Fimognari and the pulsating, eerie score composed by The Newton Brothers. The entire production functions admirably: Oculus demonstrates how a horror film should look, sound, and feel when all the parts work harmoniously.
Flanagan’s flair for blending metaphors with visceral thrills is apparent, and it’s exciting to see what he’s able to do with additional resources and a larger budget. Oculus hinges on a masterful balance of story structure where past and present are set to converge, a tactic he pulls off with ingenious editing. The script is watertight, and any initial confusion is dispelled by expertly woven passages designed to slowly reveal the circumstances leading to the tragedy. It’s a testament to Flanagan’s skill as storyteller and editor that the components work so fluidly. Most importantly, the film’s ambiguous components invigorate rather than frustrate the viewer.
Relativity Media deserves credit for widely releasing a mature, focused work from a filmmaker with a promising future. Oculus should be the jolt mainstream audiences need to demand that bigger studios push the envelope in their horror offerings. It’s clearly a step in the right direction for Flanagan, a director with enormous talent and propensity for challenging an audience. Passive viewing is discouraged, and viewers willing to be absorbed by the journey will be rewarded with intelligence and chills. Oculus is not merely another haunted mirror movie; it’s a haunting excursion possessing emotional depth, intelligence, and sublime moments of genuine terror.