Killer mirror on the wall
With its brilliant mix of Insidious and Inception, Oculus is the horror film to beat this year.
HORROR fans have long accepted that if you’re looking for quality fare, the mainstream is not where you would usually look. James Wan will release the occasional mainstream horror standout, but it’s on indie names like Ti West (The House Of The Devil, The Innkeepers) and Adam Wingard (You’re Next, A Horrible Way To Die) that hopes for the future of horror are pinned. Now we can add the name Mike Flanagan to that list.
With Oculus, his haunted mirror movie that got tongues wagging at the Midnight Madness section of last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Flanagan has more than confirmed the talent and promise shown with his previous film, Absentia.
This, folks, is his ticket to the big time. This is that indie horror film that we’ve all been waiting for, the one with immense potential to cross over to the mainstream and earn big bucks at the box-office, not only because it’s scary as hell, but also because it’s incredibly well made.
What makes this one so different, you ask? Well, for starters, if The Conjuring had two strong characters for the audience to care about, Oculus has four of them, played by six actors, which works out to six great performances, already more than enough to sustain any movie. The other, even more outstanding thing is the movie’s narrative structure.
The story is actually simple, it’s about siblings Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie Russell (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan), who witnessed a family tragedy when they were children wherein their father Alan (CSI: Miami’s Rory Cochrane) killed their mother Marie (Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff), and Tim had to shoot his father to save themselves. After 11 years in a mental hospital, Tim is finally released and reunited with Kaylie.
Tim is the more pragmatic of the two, accepting and viewing the tragedy in normal psychological terms. Kaylie, on the other hand, is convinced that the whole thing was caused by an antique mirror that their parents acquired before moving to their new home where the tragedy happened. If Tim spent 11 years trying to get over the whole thing, Kaylie has spent them researching the origins and many travels of the mirror, along with the body count that comes with each new home it occupies. Now that Tim is out, she plans to destroy the mirror once and for all.
This simple story is made infinitely more interesting, and even scarier, when Flanagan decides to tell the two stories – one with the adult Kaylie and Tim trying to destroy the mirror, the other showing what actually happened when they were children (where they’re played by Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, both outstanding) – at the same time.
Some may call this non-linear storytelling, but it is actually more complex than that as it involves not only their own conflicting memories of what actually happened, but also what the mirror wants them to see or believe.
In short, it’s almost like the movie is combining the netherworld of Insidious with the Russian doll dream-within-a-0dream-within-a dream conceit of Inception, but grounding it all in reality instead of the fantastical.
The movie even makes clever use of technology which Kaylie employs as a fail-safe in her quest to beat the mirror’s mind games. Watching video footage or even the very mundane act of looking at things through a phone’s LED screen take on new meaning in the context of this film, adding another layer to the many “is this real?” or “is this happening?” questions you’ll find yourself asking throughout the movie.
Remarkably, Flanagan puts it all together (he also edited the film himself) in a way that’s never confusing, despite the endless mind games the film plays with us and its characters. He’s even clever and brave enough to not only blur the two storylines together through a quick edit or cut, but even in the same shot as the film progresses towards its climax, with both young and old versions of the siblings swapping places in the same shot as the two timelines unfold.
Most importantly, this movie is terrifying. The fact that it’s structured to give the audience no clue as to where it will go next, not just from scene to scene but from one timeline to another, makes it all the more terrifying as there’s nothing scarier than not knowing what will happen next.
Also, remember the much talked-about ending of Inception? The one where the spinning top doesn’t seem to stop? Well, Oculus has something similar too, albeit in such a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way that you might be asking yourself if that really was the film’s ending. Or did I just dream that up, a result of Oculus playing mind games with me long after it ended?