I posit Mike Flanagan as an underappreciated breath of fresh air when it comes to the horror genre. Over the past decade, the Salem, MA native has eschewed flogging the bankable-yet-bereft dead horses of slasher/spook franchises in favour of inquisitive and emotionally intelligent works that prioritise narrative originality and character development over jump scares, gore or lurid sexuality. In his feature-length debut, 2011’s Absentia, Flanagan used Three Billy Goats Gruff as the baseline template for a harrowing urban fairy tale that examined grief brought on by a certain supernatural inescapability. Going on to slap slasher cliches upside their head in 2016’s Hush, he has also drawn deserved praise for inverting the ‘sequels=bad’ supposition by vastly improving on Stiles White’s lacklustre Ouija with his follow-up Origin of Evil and helming Gerald’s Game and Doctor Sleep, two noteworthier screen adaptations of a King novel.
With Halloween upon us and The Haunting Of Bly Manor still fresh on Netflix, I fancied an examination of what I still consider to be Flanagan’s strongest offering. Oculus, Flanagan’s full-length rendering of his own 2006 short, is a genuinely terrifying and shocking supernatural mystery that riffs on the complexities of sibling relationships, facing off the literal and figurative ghosts of one’s past and the verisimilitude in settling scores with things that are not of this world.
In 2002, 10-year-old Tim Russell (Garrett Ryan) was committed to a psychiatric hospital for the murder of his parents, authorities stipulating that he couldn’t be considered for release until his 21st birthday. On the night that he was taken into custody, Tim and his 12-year-old sister Kaylie (Annalise Basso) were separated by the police and both hysterically shrieking about his innocence, their parents not being themselves and something to do with a mirror.
Fast forward to 2013 and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is back on the streets as an official adult, understandably disconcerted with the overwhelming task of having to suddenly adjust to normal life, orphaned with the best years of his life taken from him and his name irrevocably associated with unspeakable tragedy. Making contact with the now 23-year-old Kaylie (Karen Gillan), Tim merely wishes to cultivate as much of a normal existence as he can, satisfied with the official explanation that he caused the death of his parents in the throes of a pre-pubescent psychotic episode that he barely remembers. Kaylie, on the other hand, has an entirely divergent reading of events and insists on her little brother’s help in a theory that she has been toiling away at for the past decade.
When the siblings were still children and moving into a brand new house in Alabama, their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) purchased a striking antique mirror known as the Lasser Glass to furnish his office as he worked from home as a software engineer. The moment it took its place on the wall, bizarre and troubling events began to occur. All of the family members started experiencing vivid and dangerous hallucinations, the house plants rapidly died, the family dog inexplicably vanished and Alan and his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff) slowly and surely lost their grip on daily functioning and reality. As Alan’s unhinging increased in irrationality and violence, he forcibly secluded and tortured a broken and malnourished Marie in their bedroom, Tim & Kaylie forced to bear witness to the horrors amid visions of a spectral mirror-eyed woman.
An auctioneer in the present day, Kaylie has used her position to locate the Lasser Glass after it was appropriated along with everything else in the house after the tragedy, having it transported back to the family home for a unique experiment. Setting up a controlled space in their father’s former office with visual and audio recording equipment, Kaylie explains to Tim that she has painstakingly researched the history of the mirror and found that all of its previous owners met with unnaturally disturbing ends.
Resolute in her conviction that the Lasser Glass conceals a malevolent otherworldly force, Kaylie endeavours to catch the mirror in the act and objectively prove her brother’s innocence of any wrongdoing, destroying the glass after the fact for good measure. As a bewildered and resistant Tim desperately tries to refute Kaylie’s assertions with scientific reasoning, their minds begin to deceive them. Plants once again start to wilt, the aforementioned disappeared dog scampers in and out of view, and they see and hear things that have an extremely hazardous potential upon their well-being. Is the pain and exhaustion of their trauma all coalescing into one sudden psychological maelstrom, or has the mirror come back to finish them off?
Unfolding in a parallel linear narrative as the contemporaneous events of 2013 are contrasted with everything that actually happened back in 2002, Oculus is quintessential in its showcasing of Flanagan’s flair for humanistic horror. Ryan and Basso capturing the abject fear and confusion that would befall two little kids under these circumstances, the chronological framework is suffused with palpable emotion as the elder incarnations of the siblings alternate between plaintive reconciliation and vehement arguments while re-treading past suffering, Flanagan’s steady hand keeping a seamless ambiguity around proceedings as Tim & Kaylie are thrown into confusion as to whether their lives are the product of extreme familial dysfunction or the Lasser Glass is a genuinely evil-as-all-hell object. There is a discernibly subtle naturalism at play here, Gillan disappearing into her role of a fiercely intelligent and determined young woman who dearly loves her brother but is never loath to chastise him for his scepticism. Thwaites similarly illustrates an authentic pain as a young man who has never stopped being a lost little boy, and even though his articulate cogency is applaudable, you just want to hug the poor bastard.
The element that ultimately sees Oculus as a singular work in horror is its comprehensive minimalism. On a paltry budget of $5 million, Flanagan virtually transforms the idiom ‘less is more’ into an objective mandate as events rarely leave the confines of the Russell siblings’ large and soulless childhood abode, ensuring an appropriately urgent and claustrophobic slow-burn as the duo are plagued by shockingly cruel sensory delusions. Michael Fimognari’s cinematography brilliantly encapsulates the sensation of encroaching ensnarement and doom, the eerily bright and clinical lighting of Kaylie’s scrutiny room met with jolting forays into pitch-blackness as neither they nor the viewer is certain if it’s flashbacks leading them into a gruesome trap or something far worse.
The wonderful score by The Newton Brothers compounds this distress with a thoroughly creepy and pulsating soundscape that teases at the introduction of garden-variety tropes but, thankfully, never gives up the ghost. The cherry on top of this calculating nuance is the mirror itself. Aside from a brief history of ownership, exposition surrounding the object is economical. It is this very lack of hackneyed origin splurge that fortifies the sheer terror. If someone or something wants to do you harm for the sake of the harm, how can you hope to process that?
If you’re looking for something different to view on this ghoulish occasion, you cannot go far wrong with what is easily one of the greatest horror films released in the past twenty years. It is smart, sadistic and very scary yet believably poignant, the disturbing nature of the picture found in the destruction of innocence and tragic futility rather than any by-the-numbers boogeyman or storytelling devices. I imagine you’ll require a stiff drink and some contemplation after the fact but, as far as I’m concerned, that’s what proper horror is all about.