Review: Oculus (dir. Mike Flanagan, 2013)


USA, 2013
Director: Mike Flanagan
Writers: Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard

Review by N Emmett.

After ten years of therapy, a young man named Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from a mental institution and reunited with his sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan). It is then that the siblings’ traumatic childhood memories bubble to the surface…

Although the official police conclusion was that the Tim and Kaylie’s mother was murdered by their father, who was in turn killed by Tim in self-defence, Kaylie is convinced that the supernatural influence of an antique mirror is to blame for the deaths of their parents. In an attempt to prove her theory, she ropes Tim into returning with her to their childhood home and conducting an experiment in paranormal research. But is it really a good idea for her to place herself and her brother at the mercies of the malignant mirror?

Oculus is based around one of the key obsessions of millennial horror cinema: the recording of images. It is not a found footage film, but much of the action is shot on video by Kaylie; when the two leads begin experiencing hallucinations, the only way they can believe their eyes is by watching home movies.

ocul1A less literal type of recording – memory – also plays a heavy part in Oculus. The film is split between two narrative strands, one set in the present and the other a series of flashbacks to the main characters’ childhoods. It is a tricky business to sustain tension across a film that is bifurcated in this manner, but director Mike Flanagan manages to pull it off. This is partly because the flashbacks steadily build to a climax of their own – the exact fate of the parents, which is only hinted at for the first portion of the film – and partly because the two narratives begin to freely blur together towards the end. When figures from the protagonists’ pasts stalk the abandoned house, it is often ambiguous as to whether they are ghosts or memories.

Dealing as it does with a father driven to murder by supernatural forces, the film has obvious echoes of The Shining. But in writing his novel, Stephen King was confronting an adult fear – the fear of what his drinking problem could do to his family. Oculus instead approaches the ocul2subject from a child’s point of view: in more than one scene the kids are shown lying in the bedrooms listening to a muffled argument from below, a situation that will be familiar to many of us from our own childhoods. It is easy to empathise with the two young’uns as they witness a rift growing between their parents, who begin acting strangely for reasons that are above the kids’ heads.

The strand of the film focusing on the characters as adults does not tap into this theme, and focuses instead on the leads’ growing inability to distinguish between reality and hallucination. The haunted mirror is, at the end of the day, a MacGuffin used to tie together the two largely unrelated themes of the film.

The fact that the mirror plays such a small role in the overall narrative suggest that Oculus does not have the firmest grasp on what to do with its supernatural elements. The uncanny goings-on work best when they are used as metaphors for childhood trauma; when they are embodied as ghostly ocul3figures with glowing eyes, evil grins and Dawn of the Dead zombie make-up, the sight is too familiar to be unnerving.

But the film’s missteps are outnumbered by its clever touches. As Kaylie grows increasingly obsessed with solving the riddle of the mirror, the former mental patient Tim (in defiance of genre stereotypes) is given the role of rationalist skeptic. When the kids spot a mysterious woman about the house, this is unnerving to different sections of the family for different reasons: to the children, it is spooky; to the mother, it is infidelity. In one scene Kaylie bites into an apple, only to find that she has actually bitten into a lightbulb, only to find – after removing glass from her lacerated mouth – that she has actually bitten into a harmless apple after all. The same basic idea turned up in Lost Boys, but not to such wince-inducing effect.

The biggest name in Oculus is Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan as the adult Kaylie, but the real star of the film is Annalise Basso as her preteen counterpart. Basso puts in a totally convincing ocul4performance as the harassed child who descends from innocent playfulness to hammer-wielding desperation as her family is destroyed by the mirror’s influence.

The pieces that make up Oculus do not entirely fit together, but this is an almost inevitable flaw when a film tries to pack so many ideas into ninety-nine minutes. Mike Flanagan does a deft job of mixing a double narrative and multiple supernatural concepts, and comes up with a satisfying and multi-layered haunted house film.