Everyone has that thing that freaks them out more than anything else in the pantheon of scary stuff. For me it is mirrors doing something different from what the person looking into it is doing. It is that most basic of fears because you, me and most everyone we know looks at a mirror or reflective surface many times a day. Yeesh. I only bring this up because if the basic details of Mike Flanagan’s Oculus have only registered for you as ‘that haunted mirror movie’ to this point, you need to put that thought out of your mind. It is a remarkable film in nearly every facet: story, execution, acting , atmosphere, score and just about everything else you can think of – just a home run of a film that is so very much more than that vague thought that it might just be a teen-jump-scare-scream-bait movie via a bunch of mirror gags and not much else.
The film centers around Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan – Dr. Who, Guardians of the Galaxy and Brenton Thwaites – Maleficent, The Signal) a brother and sister who suffered a family tragedy early in life that dramatically affected their adult lives in very profound ways. Tim was charged with murdering their father and institutionalized when he and Kaylie were young and he has had to endure years of therapy and institutional isolation to work through the guilt of it and the strange circumstances that led to the murder.
Thier father (played wonderfully by Rory Cochrane – Empire Records, Argo) had started to grow slowly and steadily unhinged through increasingly unsettling sequences of visions, apparitions and mistaken fantasies for realities (seeming to originate from an antique mirror) that are relentless and scary and deeply uncomfortable. One particular one involving a specific office supply tool made our entire audience go all manner of wincing-chattering-goofy upon its execution. Once his madness and cruel, awful behavior had carried over to their mother (Katee Sackhoff), their lives were seriously in danger and Tim kills his father in a moment of sheer terror in defense of his sister and to save his own life.
For her part, Kaylie has spent a great deal of time, energy and money from that awful moment building to the point where she can prove that it was not madness on the part of her brother that caused him to murder their father. Instead it was a supernatural force inhabiting that antique mirror that slowly drove their father crazy, their mother into a sad, feral state and their lives into emotional ruin.
The real, visceral humanity of this story is the heart of why it all works so well. Against the backdrop of idyllic upper-class suburban America, the undoing of this family becomes a very personal affair for the viewer. You either see yourself or your family or people you knew growing up that had the outward appearance of normalcy and success. Beyond that facade, though, could be something truly scary or tragic that you don’t see from the outside. It is that isolation and helplessness that drives the story but never in a gimmick way or a way-to-convenient-to-be-believeable way. They didn’t bring this upon themselves by being bad people or by committing some awful crime: it just happened to be them.
This is further driven home by Kaylie’s research into this mirror’s history and the path of destruction that seems to have occurred to all who’ve owned it. Tim is initially skeptical of all of this and points out the sheer randomness of the ‘victims’ and the seemingly convenient way in which Kaylie has assembled all this data to support her memories of the tragic event. Instead of it just being chance, it is Kaylie trying to make sense of an awful thing via another explanation than the obvious one. Her obsession with this is carried out to a point in which she seems to have surrounded her life with things that won’t get in the way: milk toast fiancé, antiques dealer profession etc etc. So you can see, in pretty real world terms, that Tim’s observation is likely not far off the mark.
Once things get going and Kaylie’s plan to figure out a way to destroy this thing and clear her family and brother’s name goes into effect, the film is just a nonstop charge forward to the climax. Part of this is done by the near-constant jumps backwards and forwards from present time (them setting up to destroy the thing) and their childhoods when the original tragedy took place. This is done with such ease and such skill that at no point do you get angry you’re being distracted from the ‘real story’ or having to sit through a bunch of padding. The drift between past and present is done so seamlessly and so adeptly that one could argue it was absolutely the only way to tell the story. I cannot see a situation in which the first half is all past stuff and the second half is all present tense or anything along those lines. It only works because the balance is perfect, the timing and pacing are spot-on and the storytelling never wavers.
This is a finely crafted film from start to finish. It is deeply scary and sad, unsettling and exciting; hitting all the right notes at the right times. It was wonderful to see folks from Flanagan’s first feature (the excellent Absentia) make appearances including Courtney Bell, Justin Gordon and the lovely Katie Parker – although the latter is barely recognizable and quite freaky. The great Miguel Sandoval plays Tim’s shrink early in the film and handles it well too – really there is not a single weak link in the whole cast. This is made all the better by the young actors cast to play Tim and Kaylie in their youth (Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso, respectively). Had these kids performances not matched up to the adult versions of their characters, or worse, to the excellent performances by Cochrane and Sackhoff as their parents, then the balance would be way off. But both these kids do an excellent job holding up their end of the film with true emotion and grit and humanity.
The bottom line here is pretty simple – this is a film that is this confidently handled, acted and realized in every way you can think of. It is smart, well thought out , scary and emotionally dynamic. It is the way a supernatural film should be done.