OCULUS // Turning an inanimate object into the main antagonist of a story is a huge accomplishment, especially when it comes to horror. Setting the right tone and building enough tension to get the audience invested in your otherwise outrageous ideas is pivotal in bringing that world to life. In “Oculus”, the inanimate villain is an ancient mirror that plagues the families that it comes into contact with. “You see what it wants you to see”, as the tagline insists. In the same regards, the audience sees what director, co-writer, and editor Mike Flanagan wants you to see, in his highly stylized editing sequences that blends two narratives into one. Interconnecting the story of two siblings recounting their childhood traumas involving the mirror while attempting to prove the existence of a paranormal presence within it, the lines between the narratives are so blended that you are never sure what time-frame you are in. We are in the middle of an original horror renaissance, following the success of films like “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, allowing early masters like Flanagan a chance to step up and shine sooner rather than later in their career.
Karen Gillan stands out as the star of the film. As read from a Moviefone review, “Gillan is ready to be a movie star” which is absolutely apparent in this role. She nails her emotional marks no matter what they may be, making this unbelievable tale appear that much more authentic by way of investing fully in her character. The other stand out performance comes from the young Annalise Basso, who plays Gillan’s character as a child. Bringing out some of the best scares of the film, Basso has the look that makes everything scarier through her eyes. Her small stature along with her red locks makes you cringe when bad things are about to happen to her and she really pulls off the intense emotions just as well as her adult counterparts.
In the distorted reality of “Oculus”, pulling off a band-aid results in you pulling off your fingernail or stabbing what you believe to be the ghost could result in you stabbing a loved one. These are the tactics Flanagan uses to shock the viewer and craft his world and it works. Building some of the most memorable horror sequences of this decade, I will not soon forget a perfectly framed shot of Gillan biting into what she believes to be an apple and the utter shock that follows. Flanagan and his cinematographer have an eye for horror, mastering the placement of the camera for maximum effect, whether it is the high angle shots above the mirror, diminishing its characters in front of it, or a close-up on Gillan standing in the dark, with LED lights lined down the hallway behind her. Even the design of the mirror is elaborate, looking like a giant blemish sprawled out on the office wall that it inhabits. There is a richness to the film that makes it extremely approachable and that much more intense, allowing for a much more encompassing experience.
Mike Flanagan produces some of the most visually stunning and eerie set pieces in recent memory. Replacing gore with an overall feeling of dread, “Oculus” becomes more of a psychological thriller rather than straight up horror. Although many will state that the ending is telegraphed, I was in complete shock and awe when it happened, having been so wrapped up in the characters and their plight that I had no time to imagine where it would end. Masterfully handled, Flanagan also shows his utility in developing a horror film with an open ending that could easily spawn a sequel. With low budget roots and its heart in the right place, “Oculus” wins by being the most original horror film in recent memory.
[Directed by Mike Flanagan] [R] [104 min] [11 April 2014]