Oculus (2013)

You see what it wants you to see.

Traditionally, mirrors have always held a place within mainstreamed pop culture, though somewhat particularly contiguous to horror or the macabre, as by definition, mirrors are rather spooky looking, distorted at the edges, discolored and don’t quite reflect reality as accurately as one would hope. The mirror also comes with mysterious notions surrounding myths and urban legends, some of which suggest that the object could steal your soul, capture your ‘death’ or even call upon nightmarish creatures/murderous beings such as the hook-handed Candyman (1992) — who appears when you say his name five times in front of a mirror, of course. Moreover, the mirror has similarly had its place within children’s folklore and literature, seen as a doorway into other worlds as depicted in Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass. In 2008 Alexandre Aja used the mirror as a central point to set his horror film, aptly titled Mirrors, which was a remake of the 2003 South Korean horror film Into the Mirror (2003) and transposed a wonderfully gothic vibe, to bright daylight scares that veered from the graphic to the downright creepy.

You'll never guess what's behind the sheet!
You’ll never guess what’s behind the sheet!

In 2006 writer-director Mike Flanagan created a short — filmed in only four days — titled Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, originally set out to be an anthology with the possibility of nine follow-up chapters — Chapter 3 was chosen to shoot first purely because of budgetary constraints as the single character/single location nature of this entry made it ideal, and this third chapter also gave the viewer a detailed history of the mirror itself, known as the Lasser Glass, which the filmmakers wanted to include in their first film, so that the consequent parts would have the proper context for audiences to follow. Subsequently however, in 2013 the notion of the sinister Lasser Glass expanded into a full-length feature, simple titled Oculus. With critics at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival praising the film’s originality and clever hooks, as the picture was screening as part of the Midnight Madness program, Flanagan has created a unique — part hallucinatory and disorienting, part stressfully shocking — haunting feature that’s worthy of the mirror’s historically ominous and foreboding reputation.

Oculus tells the story of a haunted mirror possessed with a supernatural phenomenon, having been linked to the slaughter of over forty-five people in its four generations of existence. The film begins when twenty-one year-old Timothy ‘Tim’ Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is discharged from a mental institution by his psychiatric Dr. Shawn Graham (Miguel Sandoval), completely healed from a childhood trauma, being solely labeled responsible for the death of his parents. Tim spent the better part of ten years clearing his jumbled recollection of the past while in the facility, as he originally believed that external unnatural events were involved in the incident leading to his parents’ misfortune. His sister Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) welcomes him upon release and attempts to take him home. Kaylie soon reveals that, on the contrary, while Tim was locked away at the psychiatric hospital, she had spent most of her young adulthood researching the history of a mirror, known as the Lasser Glass — an antique mirror that hung in the pair’s childhood home — obsessively documenting the lives and deaths of everyone who’s ever owned it. Using her position as an employee of an auction house, Kaylie obtains access to the mirror — which the siblings blame for the horrific events of the past — and has it transported to their old family residence, where she places it in a room filled with surveillance cameras in an attempt to document its powers. Using a ‘kill switch’ — an anchor weighted to the ceiling and set to a timer — Kaylie intends to end the night with the mirror being destroyed, whether or not she herself survives.

Always look ahead, forget what lies behind!
Always look ahead, forget what lies behind!

The reluctant Tim follows his sister along on what he believes to be a ludicrous operation; to fulfill a promise the young siblings made to each other, to reunite as adults and obliterate the murderous mirror that took the lives of their parents. While aiding Kaylie on her vendetta campaign, Tim attempts to convince his sister that she has rationalized her parents’ passing as being caused by a mystical force in order to avoid the confronting truth. However, Tim has fragmented recollections from his childhood, when his mother, Marie Russell (Katee Sackhoff), purchased a mirror for the home office of his father, Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) and the shocking weeks that followed, whereas Kaylie believes to recall the whole affair relatively clearly. Nonetheless, Kaylie remains convinced that their parents’ murder was not caused by Tim’s actions, but was instead, the work of a wicked paranormal foe unleashed through the Lasser Glass.

Expanding the premise to a feature length screenplay proved challenging for filmmaker Flanagan, as he felt that he had ‘pushed the limit’ of what could be achieved with the minimalistic premise in his previous short. The solution Flanagan came across was to combine two storylines, past and present, interwoven with one another, which happens to be one of the film’s strongest assets. With the simultaneous storylines running side-by-side, a sense of distortion and hypnotization is created, putting viewers in a similar mind frame to that of Tim and Kaylie, who are stuck in the shadowy house with the malevolent Lasser Glass, unaware of what is real and what is simply placed in their psyche by this diabolical force.

Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?
Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

Somewhat of psychological thriller and a fear provoking ghost story mixed into one, Oculus works on multiple levels, as the film is rather unpredictable and impulsive, particularly for a run-of-the-mill type horror. As Tim and Kaylie begin to hallucinate and experience visions of everyone killed by the mirror — in the form of ghostly figures with mirrors in place of their eyes — they eventually begin to succumb to the Lasser Glass’ baleful influence, just like their parents and all its previous proprietors beforehand. Viewers too become subjected to this unsettling feeling; unaware of what is real and what is simply a delusion experienced by the protagonists. There are numerous filmic techniques in play within the narrative that maximize shock, distress and scare tactics. The use of cameras and mobile phones for instance, commonly seen in contemporary horror feats, are used to present what’s real and what’s merely illusion — it’s apparent that anything captured on camera is sincere — giving the picture an added point-of-view component.

With explicitly eerie and stylish set design, Oculus is viscerally spine-chilling, from the faintly lit hallways of the old Russell home to the daunting LED lit room holding the Lasser Glass ‘hostage,’ the mood and ambience created by cinematographer Michael Fimognari, Unrest (2006), hits the right marks on all accords. Furthermore, the intricate choreography, intertwining past and present, adds an overt sense of dread, rather than the customary cheap, quick-scare devices commonly seen in modern genre films today. While Oculus does have its fair amount of violence — which isn’t all too subtle — it doesn’t by all means rely on gore as its major draw-card, as the film is primarily a disturbing psychosomatic ghost story rather than an in-your-face bloodbath; though the film does feel somewhat reminiscent of pictures produced by Italian splatter maestro Lucio Fulci, The Beyond (1981), in his prime. Add a pulsating atmospheric soundtrack by composers The Newton Brothers, Detachment (2011), and Oculus ticks all the boxes required to certify an eminent panic-stricken tone.

Lighten up ... It's only a film!
Lighten up … It’s only a film!

As far as performances go, the clear standout is Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), who portrays Kaylie Russell with the right amount of conviction, compassion and believability; being a fan of redhead women, I was naturally drawn to her cherry stained hair, fair skin and onscreen charisma. Brenton Thwaites, Maleficent (2014), was rather wooden and relatively forgetful in his exposé of Tim Russell, but gets the job done to an acceptable standard. Katee Sackhoff, Riddick (2013), comes off as slightly miscast as the maltreated Marie Russell — being renowned for her tough-girl persona — but does a credible job in playing the victim none-the-less, while counterpart husband, Alan Russell, played by a fiery Rory Cochrane, Argo (2012), pulls off a good enough performance to come across as partly convincing. On a side note, it was humbling to see One Tree Hill (2003) star James Lafferty on the big screen, playing Kaylie’s love interest and fence Michael Dumont. Tim and Kaylie’s younger selves — played by Garrett Ryan, who is no stranger to the horror genre starring in 2013’s Insidious: Chapter 2 and Annalise Basso, Bedtime Stories (2008) — are particularly good as young artists, giving off the right amount of emotion and fear in their anxiety driven scenes.

Left open for future installments — as no solid closure is offered at the conclusion of the picture — the final act is, to some extent, a tad frustrating and unsatisfying. While nowhere near as terrifyingly scary as James Wan’s Insidious (2010) or The Conjuring (2013), Oculus is laced with fine performances and enthused direction and exists as an intelligent, entertaining, and unnerving picture, sure to gratify genre aficionados and deter or discourage those not-so-regular horror connoisseurs from having a decent, peaceful, night’s sleep.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

Oculus is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia