Amidst all the Doctor Who lovers preventing Karen Gillan from entering the Stateside theater at this year’s South by Southwest festival, I’m the nerd who gets star-struck when producer Jason Blum walks in. What! I’m a business major, film critic, and a lover of horror – of course my hands are going to clam up when the dude behind Blumhouse Productions walks in to present his latest film Oculus. The truth is though, Jason wasn’t as involved as usual here, so I need to give credit where credit is due – to Intrepid Pictures producer Trevor Macy and director Mike Flanagan. Adapting his own short film, Flanagan attacks show-burn horror through a mystical mirror with horrifying powers, building tension and executing a killer third act filled with ghouls, visual trickery, and a few scares that’ll leave horror lovers with an elevated heart rate.
Mirrors are often used to promote vanity, as people fix their hair, apply makeup, and maintain their personal appearance while glaring at their reflection, but Oculus is a horror film that will make you think twice about the image looking back. Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) sadly discover the true evil mirrors possess, as they watch an antique fixture hanging in their father’s office gleefully tear their family apart – or so they think. After years of therapy, Tim is finally ready to move on from the tragic events that scarred him for years, but his sister Kaylie refuses to let the past go. Recalling a promise they made as children, Kaylie immediately calls upon Tim to vanquish the evil mirror once and for all, claiming vengeance. Is the mirror actually possessed, though? Or was Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) just a crazed adulterer who couldn’t contain his guilt?
Continuing the slow-burn nature of almost every horror film I’ve seen at South by Southwest, Oculus establishes a murderous backstory about the Russell family, introduces a killer mirror, and then winds back down to meet up with Kaylie and Tim years after the incredulous incident. We get some quick jolts of terror right off the bat, and Flanagan absolutely establishes an impending feeling of dread via glassy eyed demons/ghosts/whatever you want to call the bastards, but more rookie horror fans may have trouble stomaching sluggish build-up material before Flanagan aggressively hits his horror stride.
Flanagan’s strong payoff is what saves Oculus from dismissible normalcy, showing how writers can properly expand upon simpler ideas. Our director’s original short runs at about thirty minutes, which already has an advantage over other short film adaptations like Mama‘s circa three minute source content, but Flanagan succinctly upgrades Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan in almost every sense.
Relying on supernatural chills, Oculus contains enough genuinely disturbing moments to raise the hairs on my arms with ease, especially considering Katee Sackhoff’s disturbing transformation. Turning into a feral creature of sorts, Sackhoff abandons all human elements and embraces an animalistic performance that’s pure, jolting genre creepiness incarnate. I couldn’t help it – even when Sackhoff was obviously lurking around the corner, I squealed like an overly macho man who momentarily got caught off guard (or that’s what I’ll tell myself).
With that said, I truly believe our child actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, as young Kaylie and Tim respectively, stole the show. Gillan charms as Kaylie, in a blissfully ignorant, explorative kind of way – because why would you want to confront a possessed mirror who killed your parents – but getting past such a questionable choice reveals a deep character refusing to let go, highlighting a scarily human flaw. Thwaites, on the other hand, exhibits passable levels of “we shouldn’t be doing this” opposition, but Tim becomes more of a set-piece than a weighty personality. Already touching on Sackhoff’s harrowing performance as a crazed housewife, that only leaves only Cochrane’s robotic father figure – because that’s the character he’s forced to play. Out of all these players, watching Basso and Ryan navigate the reflective labyrinth of Oculus creates respect for the young actors, as we’ve all seen numerous adult professionals struggle to generate palpable levels of fear – a feat our children embrace with innocent whimsy.
The dual reality nature of Oculus delivers something different – if you’re willing to wait for Flanagan to leave you breathless. Not quite a test of patience, but fidgety viewers may find some moments to be more of a lurching chore. Being a horror fan with a strong backbone and nothing but time, I waited patiently for Oculus to pay off, and while sequences do struggle to remain engaging, Flanagan ends with a edge-of-your seat scareatorium that’s relentlessly terrifying. While I may not fully agree with the hype coming out of Toronto this past year, Flanagan should be proud of his haunting creation – launching his career as a serious voice of today’s horror world.
Oculus is a slow-burner that requires patience, but those willing to give Mike Flanagan a chance will be rewarded with white-knuckle terror.