Horror is a genre that gets mistreated yet, at the same time, is rightly lambasted by critics. Every classic like Nightmare on Elm Street or Eyes Without a Face can be countered a hundred others that are either just shlock, gore for the sake of gore or just plain dumb. It feels like panning for gold and, more often than not, you come up short.
Supernatural horror, more often than not, ends up devolving into less of an atmospheric journey and more about gore or shock. The truly talented directors can take the tropes of the genre and execute them at their highest level (The Conjuring comes to mind) or do something else all together. Mike Flanagan's Oculus does the latter.
This is more than just a story of a possessed object, in this case a mirror known as the Lasser Glass, but also an examination of what the human mind will do to rationalize and bury what it cannot handle. Reality is subverted again and again and things are never quite they seem. Consciousness and perception are twisted and warped ad infinitum until we're left questioning whether anything we're seeing is actually real or yet another machination of that evil glass. Or is it all in the minds of the two siblings at the heart of the story?
It begins simply enough with a young family moving into a new house. The patriarch Alan (Rory Cochrane) is insistent on setting up his office and getting to work as soon as possible. The last touch, per his wife Marie's (Katee Sackhoff) request , is an antique black cedar mirror on the far wall. Things start to break down, though, as whispered utterances can be heard by both parents. A rift begins to form between the pair and even the kids, Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Michael Dumont) notice a marked decline in Dad's mental state. The implication of the mirror's power over their Father is almost overstated but is it a supernatural force causing Alan's newfound malice or a much deeper rooted psychosis finally manifesting itself? He tortures and kills their Mother and soon turns on them leading to an absolutely awful moment where young Tim has to pull the trigger and murder his own Father.
Flash forward 11 years and an older Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is finally being released from a mental asylum. The doctor stresses that for all the progress he has made that his upcoming reunion with his sister could be dangerous. She did not have the benefit of professional care. She grew up a foster child and had to deal with the abysmal trauma of their family alone. "Protect your own recovery first and foremost.." he tells Tim. The elder sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) works for an auction house these days, engaged and seemingly well adjusted. Once they get a chance to reunite, though, she lays it all out for him rather bluntly. She has found the mirror again and it is time to fulfill the promise they made to each other eleven years prior. Destroy it. Immediately Flanagan has defined the supernatural presence of the cursed object though it is tough to pin down exactly throughout.
The past and present start to weave together with more fluidity once the two get back to the original scene of the crime: their former family home. The mirror is in place, cameras everywhere and all sorts of measures in place to to counter-act the substantial power of the Lasser Glass. There is a lot of rather tight and very directly delivered exposition from Gillan here that gives us a brief history of the damned mirror and why it is so very important that they get rid of it. She is angry and prepared to prove to herself, her brother and the world that their Dad wasn't crazy. She is imbued with the same manic qualities the most diehard believers of such phenomena possess. It's almost comic yet underneath it all is a grave seriousness. . Tim, following his doctor's advice, is countering her every point about how memory can't be trusted sometimes, how logic can be fuzzy and how the human mind does certain things to cope with terrible events.
Flanagan, with expert editing and impeccable direction, pushes the protagonists and the characters further down the rabbit hole into a seamless transition between past and present with the mirror's power getting stronger with each passing moment. Or is it? This is where the subversion and genius of Flanagan's approach comes in and it is something he got to only show brief hints of in his directorial debut in the Kickstarter funded Absentia. It was a film about a woman's insistence that an eldritch beast was responsible for her husband's disappearance and a nearby tunnel was its den. It played with the idea that perhaps such a notion was just her way of dealing with the loss of her love. Or maybe it was something truly terrifying and cosmic. The uncertainty and dread that permeated that film is dialed up to eleven with Oculus.
Once the film really gets rolling past the initial setup the directorial acuity of Flanagan (who also co-wrote the movie with Jeff Howard and also edited it) shines. The mark of a good editor is that instinctive feel of knowing "when" an audience needs to shift between scenes or timelines in such a non-linear fashion. We never linger too long in the past or present and when things start to get muddled together the feeling is chaotic, dreadful and quite awful. We see more of the incident 11 years back and the most horrific moments from within played out before our eyes. It almost becomes an exercise in David Lynchian prestidigitation. It gets a little confusing but then again it is supposed to be. It leads to further questioning of the legitimacy of the supernatural mirror's power but for each moment of doubt we see something further misleading or warped. The unreliable nature of our narrators furthers the intense feelings of fear that ramps up continuously. The more we see the more we doubt the validity of it until we're left with no choice but to fall under the power of the mirror and go for this horrifying ride. That's what makes horror cinema, when it's this good, such a treat to watch.
Gillan, in her first starring role after leaving Doctor Who, does a fantastic job as Kaylie. She is strong in her convictions to prove her Father's innocence and to break this mirror's hold over her family. Thwaites as Tim serves are the sane foil (which was a nice touch considering he just got out of the mental hospital) to her well-articulated madness. The two young actors playing the child versions of Kaylie and Tim, however, steal the show. Flanagan's choice in camera placement and pacing make what could just be spooky moments in other films into unsettling frights. The toolkit Flanagan draws from to achieve all this is nothing new but it has been a while since it has been so expertly executed. Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff both provide great turns as the psychotic Dad and tortured Mother too.
The ending is a bit of a fizzle, though. I will say that. If you pay attention at all you'll see it coming from a ways off too but that doesn't really detract from the film. The door is open for sequels, of course, and I think this is the birth of a new horror franchise. Let's hope that further installments maintain the same quality and don't devolve into mere jump-scare riddled haunted house rides.
What works so well about Oculus is that the horror of it is deceptive and simple. It plays with our perceptions and oozes uneasiness. That very base fear of things being so unsettled and eventually reaching their tipping point and shattering is something we all dread. It also questions how we come to terms with dealing with tragedy, an insane family member and how that trauma shapes you. It is cursed mirror movie but it is also far more than that. My initial reaction to it was that I enjoyed it but now, days later, I find myself revisiting the nuances of it and finding far more to love.