Originally published September 10, 2013. Every story has pretty much been told. When it comes to supernatural horror, every concept and image has been exhausted. What sets the effective entries apart from the lot comes down to the filmmaker’s personal sensibility he injects into the material. James Wan’s The Conjuring doesn’t break any new ground yet I found myself invested in the family and fearing for their lives. That personal immersion made Wan’s first-rate theatrics all the scarier. Oculus, Co-Writer/Director Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to the impressive Absentia contains all those attributes…and more.
Traumatized siblings Kaylie and Tim Russell decide to take on an ancient, cursed mirror that was responsible for the death of their parents when they were children. The feature was inspired by his 2006 short, Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan which he also co-wrote and directed. I was initially skeptical going into this because of the whole killer mirror angle. The mediocrity of Alexandre Aja’s sole misstep, Mirrors was still fresh in my mind. 105 minutes later, I ate my words.
Elements of Oculus will look familiar to genre fans in some shape or form. What sets it apart from every other supernatural genre picture is the manner in which it tells its story. Flanagan daringly tackles two intercutting timelines from start to finish. He is aware how it may be tricky for an audience to follow so he methodically increases this technique slowly and slowly as the picture progresses. Flanagan allows us to get accustomed to this different way of watching a movie. Once the third act kicks in, Flanagan has successfully got the viewer accustomed to viewing dueling stories, so much so that he increases the intensity to the point that we’re watching the interjecting timelines practically from one shot to the next. It’s an overwhelming, whole new intensity I’ve never experienced before. What’s even more astounding is the fact there was zero confusion with the plot progression. I didn’t leave the film thinking there were logic gaps. Flanagan masterfully makes it all make sense at all times. At the same time he leaves just enough ambiguity at the end to make us theorize, as well as allowing the experience hauntingly linger with us long after it’s over.
Flanagan keeps the violence to a minimum but whenever it does abrupt, it hits its maximum impact on the viewer. One reason for that is the well-developed relationship of the family. The cast which includes Sci-fi fan favorites Katee Sackhoff (Battleship Galactica) and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) are totally convincing at every turn. They successfully ground the supernatural element. It was a quality I enjoyed in Absentia too. Flanagan seems to deeply care about his characters and getting the viewer connected on an emotional level which in turn makes the ride that much scarier. The tension builds beautifully, as the timelines begin to blur. The third act is made all the more terrifying and claustrophobic because of this mash-up. It’s uncharted territory when the audience has no clue where the film will go from edit to edit. It’s a revolutionary way in which to play out a horror set-piece.
It’s great to see more and more filmmakers resisting the use of CGI which has destroyed countless of supernatural horror films. Like Insidious, the ghosts here are played by actors. Any use of visual effects is kept invisible. Mike Flanagan has taken a huge leap to the forefront of today’s genre filmmakers. He proves that with imagination and care for the craft, originality can still happen when telling a familiar tale. The experience of watching Oculus is that of being caught in an unrelenting nightmare you just can’t wake up from. The best horror film I’ve seen in some time.