Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff
Director: Mike Flanagan
With his low budget hit Absentia, Mike Flanagan brought an eerie emotional resonance to a story about a people-snatching bridge troll. Here he does something similar with the classic ghost story, turning a tale of a haunted mirror into a study of madness, memory and unhealthy family dynamics.
The mirror in question is the Lasser Glass, a creepily ornate object that literally sucks the life out of its victims, while also distorting the reality around them and causing them to behave in an insanely cruel manner. At least that’s what Kaylee (Karen Gillan) believes. Eleven years before – as we learn in extensive flashbacks which are given almost equal weight to the main thread of the story – the mirror found its way into the house of her parents Marie (Katee Sackhoff) and Alan (Rory Cochrane). The ensuing horrors resulted in her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) being institutionalized and receiving intensive therapy. He’s now out, and Kaylee enlists his help in exposing the mirror’s evil nature and redeeming the family name. She has devised ingenious precautions, including a kill switch in the form of a 20-pound anchor that will smash the mirror to pieces. The trouble is, if everything she believes about the mirror is true, then there’s a logical flaw to her plan…
Oculus offers a winning combination of old school scares and modern knowingness. Its textures are smooth and tastefully subdued, ruffled with eerie little jump scares. At the same time, certain parts of the haunted-something format which a less canny film might make heavy weather of are taken by the scruff of the neck. There’s a bravura scene, the highlight of Gillan’s performance, where the mirror’s backstory is rattled through by Kaylee at breakneck speed for the benefit of the battery of video cameras she has set up to observe her experiment. But this self-awareness extends even further. Does the mirror play tricks with the mind? Maybe, maybe not; but one thing that certainly does is memory. What if the tragic events all those years ago had less to do with the Lasser Glass that with their own family demons? What if the mirror only does what all mirrors do – show us ourselves?
Having spent half his life on the psychiatrist’s couch, Tim is wise to these concerns, and the best scenes in the film pit him against his sister in a shifting dynamic. Gillan plays Kaylee as worldly, sophisticated, glibly self-confident, but there’s something a trifle suspect about her antagonism towards the mirror. Note her special glow, the dewiness to her eyes and lips, whenever she tries to provoke it – not even her fiancé gets looks like that from her. As for Tim, you hear the hours and hours of therapy, the longing to be well and free of trauma, in everything he says. Brenton Thwaites plays him with such sweetness and gentleness that it unbalances the movie slightly – he’s less of a mere foil to Kaylee than the filmmakers perhaps anticipated and you find yourself on his side and resenting his big sis for not taking better care of him.
As well as directing and co-writing, Mike Flanagan also edited the film, and you see his consummate skills in this area in the final act as past and present collapse into one another in a scramble of sweaty, claustrophobic images. Descending at it does into something of an intrafamilial brawl, Oculus arguably falls a twist or two short of being a great horror movie. But even if the film eventually ends up somewhere we’ve been before – most noticeably in The Shining – there’s no doubt that it gets there by a stylish and thoughtful route. Intricately scripted, beautifully lit, well-acted by all concerned and efficiently helmed, Oculus is a fine piece of intelligent horror and a worthy follow-up to Absentia. Just remember, if you catch yourself standing in front of the mirror for any length of time, you might want to think about getting help.