(15) Running time: 104 minutes
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard, Jeff Seidman
Cast: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochcrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan
Reviewed by: Matt Wavish
Mike Flanagan burst onto the horror scene in 2011 with his superb straight-to-DVD feature Absentia, and now he’s back with Oculus, itself based on Flanagan’s own 2006 short film: Oculus-Chapter Three “The Man With the Plan”. Absentia was critically acclaimed, and adored by die hard horror fans, and we have all been waiting to see what Flanagan could conjure up next.
With a bigger budget, bigger cast and Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity, Insidious, Sinister) producing, Oculus is a much bigger film than Absentia, but thankfully Flanagan keeps the film grounded, and hugely personal as the bigger prospects do not detract from the fact this is a serious filmmaker with serious talent. Like Absentia, Oculus is a slow burner with a great payoff, and much is built on excellent storytelling and interesting characters. Insidious this is not, for Oculus is a horror film that gets under the skin, makes you think, and creeps you out with sudden shots of ghosts or the possessed. It is all menacing stuff, and thankfully the film never runs away from Flanagan’s tight grip. He has a hold on things, he is masterfully in control, and with Oculus Flanagan has proved himself to be one of the most exciting horror directors in the world today.
To go into too much detail about the plot would seriously hinder your enjoyment, so let’s just say there is a creepy old mirror, and said mirror has some rather nasty and hateful intentions. It has gone through generations of families, and now it has landed in the possession of the Russell family. A decade later, the now grown up kids Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) have finally got back together with a plan to destroy the mirror. Tim has been in a psychiatric hospital, and Kaylie has become obsessed with finding the mirror. Their past experience with the mirror is told through flashback, and the film very quickly becomes a time shifting assault on the senses as things escalate in the past, and things become ever more frightening in the present. Flanagan masterfully confines the entire film after the first ten minutes to one house, and as we jump between decades, things become clear just what evil powers this mirror possesses.
I found the past story to be much more compelling than the present, as Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as the parents fall foul of the mirrors malicious intent. Sackhoff especially shines as a Mother literally going out of her mind, and Flanagan directs the transition with stunning attention to detail. Some of the visuals in these past scenes are truly horrific, with plenty of imagery guaranteed to turn up in your nightmares. Flanagan is a master of catching the viewer off guard, and he will throw in a ghost when you least expect it, or deliver that sort of subliminal imagery that makes you question if you really saw what you think you saw. The choice to use real actors to play the ghosts instead of CGI adds immense depth to the horrors on screen, and those eyes, those God damn silver eyes are just terrifying!
The present scenes also contribute to the general sense of dread, and even though we get a running commentary from Kaylie (who becomes a tad annoying in places) about what the mirror can do, and what she plans to do with her brother to destroy it, the present scenes are just as effective even though we know what is going on. Kaylie has come prepared with all sorts of devices to stop the mirror infecting their minds, from a guinea pig Dog, an alarm for food, to a vicious pick axe weapon aimed at the mirror and set to go off should they not switch off the alarm for it. Kaylie has it all planned out, and now her brother is free from the hospital, they can work together to keep their promise of destroying this hateful object.
Flanagan builds the suspense, and creates a really sinister atmosphere with his use of sounds, visuals and the slow, brooding story. Oculus is a slow burner which delivers on the scares if you get tangled up in the narrative, but casual horror fans may find this a little too non-eventful in places. Patience is required, and that patience will be rewarded if you give yourself up to the magic of this neat, powerful little horror. This is no slasher, no found footage, no zombies and no straightforward ghost flick, Oculus is a horror film with brains and brawn, and original ideas that really deliver.
The final half hour, as the horrors of the mirror really take hold, is up there with some of the most frightening, well crafted and unrelenting horror I have seen in a long time. It takes you on a ride, fucks with your brain, and totally dazzles as Flanagan delivers his masterstroke of pure genius with a drawn out finale that is utterly brilliant. It may take a while to register what is happening, but once it does, your jaw is likely to hit the floor because Flanagan, even in this moment of sheer insanity, keeps his film grounded, and then delivers an emotional blow unlike anything I have seen since The Orphanage. This is powerful, intense, creative, excellent horror conjured by a new master of the craft, and I cannot wait for Flanagan’ next film, Somnia, to arrive.