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“OCULUS” (TIFF Movie Review)

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Mike Flanagan’s debut picture ABSENTIA was something truly special: a quiet, slow burning indie horror film that betrayed its budgetary cramps at every turn and used an existing location—in this case, a creepy suburban tunnel—and made it into something nightmarish. Slow zooms, quiet spaces, ambiguity and minimalist music all coupled with better than average performances and the result was a work of practical nickel and dime perfection. If you haven’t seen it, do so immediately and watch in the dark…

So with that, it goes to follow that serious genre fans were watching closely to see what Flanagan’s next move would be. With a few more coins in the coffers, OCULUS (which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is based on an earlier short from Flanagan) is that follow-up picture, and though plagued with a few problems in its first hour, the director’s steady, dedicated vision prevails. It’s a serious minded horror movie sculpted with great care and with an aching emotional heft.

Admittedly, OCULUS borrows its core gimmick from Ulli Lommel’s 1980 hit THE BOOGEYMAN in that both pictures use a haunted mirror to propel their narrative. But that’s where the comparison ends. In the Lommel film, a shattered mirror houses evil but that set up serves only to kickstart a run of the mill slasher opus. Flanagan’s ambitions are much loftier. OCULUS starts in a moment of terror as two children run in panic through their home at night, trying to escape a faceless man armed with a revolver. As they fumble with the front door, a spectral woman with glowing eyes appears to their right while said man takes aim at the children’s faces and fires. It’s as unnerving and distressing an opening as you’ll find anywhere and over the next 100 minutes, the audience will slowly, surely learn what dire events conspired to reach such a frightening tableaux.

It seems there’s this grandiose, antique mirror, framed in rich, dark oak and damaged with a crack in its bottom left corner, up for auction and we find a pretty young woman bidding on it. It’s not cheap, but it is clear that this woman must have it at any cost. At the same time, a young man is discharged from a hospital after a 12 year stretch in deep therapy, apparently reformed and ready to re-enter society. The two characters meet and we quickly learn that this pair are not only brother and sister, but are in fact the now grown children seen at the beginning of the film. Kaylie (Karen Gillan) drags her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and the monstrous mirror back to their vacant childhood home where, after revealing a virtual lab of computers, cameras and timers, she tries in vain to jog her brother’s memory of the supernatural phenomena they experienced as children. Kaylie is adamant that this mirror has a century’s long history of courting death and madness and now the pair must make good on their childhood promise of destroying it. Thing is, the mirror has ways of “defending” itself, hence the glut of technology to capture it. Over the span of the night, the siblings will revisit their blood-freezing past and the true horror of what lies behind the mirror’s fractured glass.

Karen Gillan in OCULUS

Karen Gillan in OCULUS

Like ABSENTIA, Flanagan uses minimal locations expertly, trapping his heroes and his audience in only a few rooms and ratcheting the terror with music (a toney pulse soundscape from The Newton brothers) and deft editing (Flanagan also cut the film) while musing on serious themes of domestic misery. Where OCULUS stumbles a bit is the jarring way Flanagan splices the flashback story of the family’s initial encounter with the mirror with the present. It’s initially very difficult to lock rhythm as we keep haphazardly flying back and forth, watching scenes that seemingly make little difference to the tale’s main thrust. The acting is somewhat spotty too, as is the overly verbose expository dialogue that betrays some of the movie’s impressive atmosphere and mystery. There were times during that trying first hour when I even considered abandoning the film, so stretched was my patience.

But I am certainly glad I did not.

For just when you wonder where all this nonsense is going, Flanagan rips down the curtain and the method of his meandering is revealed. The very device of jamming between decades goes from somewhat clumsy to ingenious and really, I’m not even sure of the exact point when that happens. It just does. Without spoiling anything, the last half hour of OCULUS is one of the most stressful, disorienting and hypnotizing divebombs into child’s-eye horror I’ve ever sat through. In fact, last night I had a nightmare about it and I honestly cannot recall that happening in a decade or more. Flawed or not, as soon as I get the chance, I will be watching OCULUS again. And Mike Flanagan has jettisoned to top of my list as a filmmaker—not just a horror filmmaker, but an artist full stop—to watch carefully.

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About the author
Chris Alexander
Author, film critic, teacher, musician and filmmaker (not to mention failed boxer) Chris Alexander is the editor-in-chief of FANGORIA Magazine. He got his first professional break as the “Schizoid Cinephile” in the pages of Canadian horror film magazine RUE MORGUE before making the move to FANGO in 2007. His words have appeared in The Toronto Star, Metro News, Wired, Montage, The Dark Side, Tenebre and many other notable publications and he appears regularly on international television and radio.
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