Mike Flanagan has been on the scene for a while, but Oculus provides a turning point for the director as this is his first feature film with a wide release. Oculus, itself, is an expansion of his 2006 short film, Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan. Similarly to recent thrillers Insidious and The Conjuring, this movie takes a break from the overwrought blood and gore too heavily featured in horrors nowadays, and instead delves into the more psychological side of things. We first get into the characters’ minds as we see 21-year old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) being discharged from a psychiatric hospital, to which he was submitted eleven years earlier because of his delusional beliefs surrounding the violent death of his parents. However, as he is released, his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) assures him that supernatural events did in fact occur, and the pair have some unfinished business concerning the mirror that she believes caused them.
Flanagan produces an excellent sense of impending dread throughout Oculus, always present as an undercurrent ready to boil to the surface. The majority of the movie takes place within the Russells’ family home, with scenes interchanging between the present day and eleven years before. This kind of structure can be a recipe for disaster if handled poorly, but it is one of Oculus’ major strengths, with the director flowing seamlessly between the two places in time, and actually boasting some of the best uses of flashbacks in recent memory. The strength of the flashback scenes is made stronger by the truly brilliant performances of child-actors Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, portraying young Kaylie and Tim.
Of course, the adult portrayal of the siblings is also compelling, and the leads are fortunately never unlikable. Thwaites brings to life the inner conflicts that reside within Tim, as he initially refuses to acknowledge the supernatural powers of the mirror, and Gillan is great as his headstrong sister, determined to prove the evilness that surrounds the looking glass. All seems to bode well for Karen Gillan – who sports a pretty spot-on American accent here – as this is her first major post-Doctor Who role. With her turn in Guardians of the Galaxy, also coming to the big screen soon, it seems that Gillan is dodging the disappearance into the ether that is usually associated with the supporting actors that come off of the back of shows like Doctor Who, and most likely has a promising film career ahead of her.
While it is a genuinely great horror, Oculus is by no means a flawless movie, and doesn’t do or say anything particularly innovative or profound. Nonetheless, it’s good at what it does, and even when it does get to the blood and gore stuff, it is still effective – one particular scene involving a lightbulb substituting an apple is worthy of making anyone recoil into their seat. It is still the character-building that makes the story as captivating as it is, however, as we see the mirror take a hold of both of the parents and witness their descent into darkness, aided fantastically by the constant creeping presence of The Newton Brothers’ score.
With Kaylie recalling to her brother the long history of the “Lasser Glass” and the deaths it has caused, it is likely that this won’t be the last we see of the mirror, whether through a prequel or sequel. With his inspired use of narrative and characters in Oculus, horror fans should be sure to be excited for whatever Flanagan does next, with his newest project being supernatural thriller Somnia, due for release in 2015.
Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan, is released in UK cinemas by Warner Bros., Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below: