It’s all too tempting to look into a mirror and imagine that what we see staring back at us isn’t what it seems. This might be the main element that director Mike Flanagan, so far mostly known for his work on TV, pondered in his atmospheric horror movie “Oculus.”
Based on his 2006 short movie “Oculus 3: The Man With the Plan,” Flanagan took on the seminal film’s premise of a haunted mirror and expanded it. Shown in the present day with parallel flashback sequences, the film shows the efforts of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan as the adult and Annalise Basso as the 13-year-old) and Tim Russell (Brandon Braithwaite and Garrett Ryan as the 10-year-old) to destroy an antique mirror that they blame for shattering their family. The project, which entails an array of computers, phones and thermometers to document the event, is also a homecoming of sorts.
We meet 21-year-old Tim just after his release from a mental institution, where he was locked up for the past 11 years for killing his father Alan (Rory Cochrane) after the latter lost his mind and killed their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff).
The tragedy began after the couple slipped into a state of paranoia-turned-insanity, which Kaylie and Tim both attribute to the mirror. Their literal confrontation with the past sets the stage for an encounter that will challenge their perceptions of reality.
The first half of “Oculus” strongly resembles “The Conjuring” in its use of a brooding, dark atmosphere, though it doesn’t have the latter’s constant, relentless pace.
Cinematographer Michael Fimognari’s camerawork deftly weaves through the house’s dark halls to either portray it as a house of horrors or a landscape for Kaylie and Tim’s haunted imagination. Flanagan explores this latter element particularly well. He seamlessly blends the past and the present, as Kaylie and Tim go from recalling flashbacks of their dismal childhood experiences in the house, to facing their childhood selves and demonic tormentors.
In doing so, Flanagan aptly takes a page from psychological thrillers like Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island.”
The change is rather unexpected from “Oculus’s” predictable horror movie beginnings, which see Cochrane go from loving patriarch to raging psychopath in much the same manner as Jack Nicholson’s turn as Jack Torrance in “The Shining” or Ryan Reynolds’s take on George Lutz in the 2005 version of “The Amityville Horror.”
But the quartet of Gillan and Braithwaite as well as Basso and Ryan keep the audience very much engaged with their sibling “Babe in the Woods” act, reminiscent of the classic fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel,” or horror movie “The Glass House.”
Gillan, best known for her role as Amy Pond in the UK science fiction series “Doctor Who,” delivers a fine and intense portrayal of Kaylie, particularly as her obsessive drive to destroy the mirror eventually brings “Oculus” to its unsettling climax.
She is also shown to be fallible, as one of the movie’s rare forays into humor shows her chewing on a lightbulb that she mistakes for an apple.
Braithwaite, on the other hand, balances his on-screen sister quite well with his acquiescing yet skeptical portrayal of Tim. However, his skepticism is derived from vulnerability and repressed memories, instead of the confidence and clarity of logic.
But the ultimate scene stealer in “Oculus” is perhaps the mirror itself. Immobile and inanimate, the mirror inspires loathing and fascination in equal measure for the horrors that spring out from its inscrutable depths. The obsession that the characters feel for the mirror enables it to play with their minds, and shrewdly makes the audience question the Russell siblings’ sanity and sense of perception, as well as their own.
In all, “Oculus” and its mix of shocks, terror and insanity make it an unforgettable horror movie and a worthwhile way to question our ability to face traumas or the demons lurking in the dark corners of our past.
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on June 8, 2014