Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff
Written by: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard
Based on a short Screenplay by: Jeff Seidman
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Running Time: 1hr 44mins
WINNER – Toronto International Film Festival: Midnight Madness (Mike Flanagan)
WINNER – Fangoria Chainsaw Award: Best Wide Release Movie (Mike Flanagan) and Best Supporting Actor (Katee Sackoff)
NOMINEE – Fangoria Chainsaw Award: Best Screenplay (Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard) and Best Score (The Newton Brothers)
NOMINEE – Golden Schmoes Award: Best Horror Movie of the Year
“I’d been wanting to make this movie for seven years by the time we finally found producing partners who were willing to take a risk on it. It was very important for me, whether it was a success or not, that we did something…you know, you never know if you’re going to get a second chance to make a movie, and I wanted to throw everything I could at it and make it as different as possible.” – Mike Flanagan – SciFiNow Interview
“I saw a screener of OCULUS and loved it. Very scary. I may never eat an apple again.” Stephen King – From his Twitter Page
I understand why Mike Flanagan’s (DOCTOR SLEEP) film OCULUS, wasn’t a bigger hit when it was first released. After all, it’s a horror film that centers its story around a mirror that basically sits on a wall and never moves. Honestly, this doesn’t sound very scary and probably turned a lot of people off. Fortunately, under Flanagan’s unique direction, the movie is an amazing example of horror filmmaking and quickly became one of my favorite movies of 2013. Incorporating a smart script and some of the best editing in an individual horror film that I can remember, OCULUS is an intelligent film that does more than deliver some cliched jump scares. It’s a mind-bending experience that effectively plays with our perceptions causing us to question everything we see before eventually leading to a conclusion that is both shocking and emotionally satisfying.
A loose remake of Flanagan’s 2006 short film, OCULUS’ story revolves around a promise made by siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim Russel (Brenton Thwaites), who, as young children, experienced a bizarre situation that caused their parent to lose their minds, leaving both dead. The father is accused of killing their mother and the brother of killing his father. Eleven years later, Kaylie is now driven to prove that her brother and father were not guilty of these crimes, but it was, in fact, ready for it, the mirror that was responsible.
OCULUS’s story is simple enough and does offer some of the same themes and ideas that audiences are already familiar with. Yet, under Flanagan’s direction, it unfolds into so much more. Structurally the film’s pieces fit together like a cleverly designed puzzle starting with a well-constructed script. Flanagan and his writing partner Jeff Howard (GERALD’S GAME) tell a story that works both as a scary rollercoaster ride and an intellectually stimulating think piece. The mirror may or may not be playing tricks on the minds of the Russel Family by messing with their perception of everything around them. Like the mirror that supposedly haunts the movie’s walls, the script plays continuously with the viewer’s perceptions regarding the characters and what’s happening. We are never sure what is real and what is just a hallucination. Are the flashbacks accurate memories or exaggerated recollections? The script keeps the viewer intellectually stimulated as we are forced to involve ourselves mentally while trying to figure out the mysteries behind what is actually happening.
Sure, we get a number of the typical jump scares, but Flanagan mostly refuses to stick to the rules that most horror films play by. Although OCULUS uses the familiar trope of flashbacks to help tell its story, it takes them to a whole new level. The director recognizes that the story doesn’t need to just rely on these flashbacks to help reveal the elements of what’s happening. Instead, he raises the stakes as they become a complete second story that is told side by side with the present-day ordeal. The two stories work perfectly together, each holding equal importance as they eventually intermix and everything comes together in a shocking conclusion. Flanagan, who also took on the editing himself, strategically pieces the two stories together in such a way that even though they each could easily work as two separate stand-alone stories, together, they complement each other in a way that raises the film to something better.
Karen Gillan (THOR: LOVE & THUNDER) plays Kaylie in a very interesting manner. As much as the mirror is thought to be playing on the characters’ perceptions, the essence of Kaylie plays with the audience’s mind in the same way. The writers, along with Gillian, bring a quality to her that has us questioning her sanity as she is so sure that she knows what is going on. In the film’s first half, viewers will ask, “Is what she thinks happened when she was younger real or a figment of her imagination? Does she know exactly what’s going on or has she completely lost her sanity?” Brenton Thwaites (MALEFICENT) gives a solid performance as Kaylie’s brother, Tim, and her polar opposite for much of the movie. Where Kaylee firmly believes in the mirror’s evil, it is Tim who has spent the eleven years since their parents died in an asylum and is now convinced that everything Kaylie suspects can be rationally explained. The two actors play off each other really well as the characters are forced to come to terms with what is actually happening while also trying to understand each other’s thought processes.
It is the actors who play the siblings at a younger age who really shine through. As they slowly watch their parents, played effectively by Rory Cochrane (ANTLERS) and Katee Sackhoff (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA), succumb to what seems to be the mirror’s manipulations, they start to fear for their own safety. Both Annalisa Basso (CAPTAIN FANTASTIC) and Garrett Ryan (INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2) give incredibly convincing performances as their characters become paranoid, scared and desperate for an escape.
Katee Sackhoff also gives an impressive performance as Kaylie and Tim’s mother, Marie. She is an insecure woman who slowly starts to lose her mind as she becomes convinced that her husband is hiding something from her. As she begins to go crazy, Sackoff refuses to hold back as she fearlessly leans into the performance.
OCULUS was made early in Flanagan’s career but doesn’t feel like a movie created by an up-and-coming filmmaker. It presents itself as an accomplished piece of movie-making usually only delivered by filmmakers with more experience. If I had reviewed this film at the time of its release, I probably would have written that Mike Flanagan was a filmmaker to watch out for. But now, almost a decade later, we can look at his body of work which includes films like HUSH, OUIJA: ORIGINS OF EVIL and, more recently, the streaming shows such as HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and MIDNIGHT MASS, and see that he has already proven himself as one of the best in the genre. With OCULUS, Flanigan manages to make an inanimate object feel genuinely creepy. It is a film that effectively got under my skin and stuck with me long after I was done watching it.
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