Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #606
Number of Views: One
Release Date: April 11, 2014
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 103 minutes
Director: Mike Flanagan
Producers: Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy, Jason Blum
Screenplay: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Based on Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan by Mike Flanagan
Special Effects: Staci Witt
Visual Effects: Bret Culp
Cinematography: Michael Fimognari
Score: The Newton Brothers
Editing: Mike Flanagan
Studios: Blumhouse Productions, WWE Studios, MICA Entertainment, Intrepid Pictures
Distributor: Relativity Media
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval, Kate Siegel, Scott Graham
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 The Sisters of Mercy “Lucretia My Reflection”
 The Newton Brothers (feat. Greta) “Oculus of Glass”
The Newton Brothers “Recurring Dream”
What sight greets you when you take a long, hard look into your mirror? For the vainglorious amongst us, I’m sure the fairest of them all would be the rejoinder while, for those of us who suffer from a lack of confidence, there is little more ghastly than one’s own reflection. Should we have committed a heinous injustice and gotten away with it scot-free, then a mirror image can soon become distorted and reveal something that nobody else could ever hope to discern. Thus it remains our dirty little secret. Just for the record, I’m speaking figuratively here as I’m as harmless as a neutered kitten named Mr. Fuzzlepaws. But if this wasn’t the case, then I’d trust a mirror to keep things firmly under its hat.
I make no secret of my fascination for mirrors where horror is concerned and this stems way back to Kevin Connor’s sturdy anthology From Beyond the Grave which first appeared on the year I was born under the Amicus banner. Since then there have been numerous films that have tackled suchlike ornate dread vessels, including Alexandre Aja’s lukewarm exercise in terror, Mirrors. The great Dario Argento shares my sentiment, Robert De Niro recited one of his most famous lines of dialogue while staring into his own reflection, and Bruce Campbell was reminded that two chins aren’t necessarily better than one while admiring himself when he should have been leveling Deadites. Indeed in 2015 I released a chapter of my long-running True ABCs of Death sequence named M is for Mirror should you wish to explore the looking-glass further. Just be mindful that it has a tendency of adding a fair few pounds.
Mike Flanagan’s Oculus arrived in 2014, almost a full decade after his original short film, Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, and went on to do rather tidy business theatrically, securing nigh-on nine times its original outlay in the process. Ultimately it’s all about timing and, with crowd-pleasing fare the likes of Insidious, The Conjuring, and Sinister clearing up at the box-office, supernatural horror was positively ripe for the picking.
Of course, it certainly didn’t harm that the critics lapped it up, and the general consensus is that this is one of the more noteworthy spine chillers to have surfaced over the past decade or so. Flanagan has since gone on to further cement his standing with the commendable Hush and appears on course to become one of the industry’s most creditable torch bearers over the next few years. Few could argue that he isn’t deserving.
Reflection is a key theme for Oculus in more than just the obvious way. You see, it tells its tale of terror via two different timelines, modern-day and a decade prior and the two connected storylines run concurrent throughout. Starting with the present, we are introduced to twenty-one-year-old Tim (Brenton Thwaites) who has recently been discharged from a psychiatric institution following a decade’s rehabilitation for apparently murdering his father.
Before he can find his feet, he is snagged by his feisty older sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and emotionally steamrolled into joining her for an overnight experiment. She is convinced that their late parents’ suffering was caused by an antique mirror by the name of The Lasser Glass and, after acquiring the cracked mirror through auction, determined to prove once-and-for-all that it was responsible for the atrocities that befell them. Needless to say, Tim is a little hesitant to say the very least but his tightly wound sibling simply isn’t taking no for an answer.
As the pair settle in for a night of meticulously rigged surveillance, we head back to 2002 for the first of numerous flashbacks to the events of yesteryear. Having recently moved into a new house with his wife Marie (Katee Sackhoff), software engineer Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane) begins to develop an unusual fixation with the mirror in his study and it isn’t long before his behavior becomes erratic. This once approachable family man grows increasingly reserved, hiding himself away for long periods while his puzzled kids (played by deadringers Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) try and suss out what’s gotten into pops.
While we continue to zigzag between timelines, it’s events in the present that make Oculus impossible to remove your eyes from for a solitary second as Kaylie’s persistence with documenting the mirror’s powers before destroying it are inevitably going to be met by fierce resistance and her ornate adversary just so happens to be very much aware of their game plan and playing its own game unbeknownst to them.
Flanagan does a masterful job of building suspense and, while we’re already aware of the outcome of earlier events, they are supremely chronicled and add infinite tension to proceedings. Performances are exceptional across the board, with Cochrane supremely sinister as daddy-no-care and both the excellent Gillan and Thwaites matched stride-for-stride by their younger counterparts.
However somewhat predictably, the true star of the show here is The Lasser Glass itself. Threading together two separate storylines works wonders in causing disorientation in the viewer and the mirror does the rest as it reminds the two leads of the unreliability of their own perception and does is darnedest to thwart them at every turn. Flanagan implements a number of ingenious twists and turns to throw his audience off centre and, all the while, the mirror remains inanimate. Indeed it almost feels as though it has its eyes on us as we play the part of voyeur and that is testament to a job bloody well done in my book.
Amongst the numerous factors that keeps Oculus standing tall amongst its peers are Michael Fimognari’s superb spiraling photography which ensures that we barely know our front from our back and a suitably unsettling score from The Newton Brothers that milks every last drop of tension from the story’s teats. In addition, Flanagan shows great restraint with regards to what is actually revealed and remembers just how creepy a vintage mirror can be, without pummeling his audience with all manner of blackened spirits every chance he gets and copping out with the obvious jolt scares like so many of his competitors.
His decision is shrewd as, by not overplaying his hand, Oculus is likely to remain with you long after the credits have rolled. Like Scott Derrickson’s similarly memorable Sinister, it rarely allows us to settle and upholds the intrigue right up to its fitting final frame. I’ve seen enough shrouded old hags to last me a lifetime at this point when all it really takes to usher me from my skin is one moody damn mirror with a chip on its framework. Thanks to Flanagan and his tightly scripted tale of accelerating madness, I’m now far less inclined to bask in my own reflection for the foreseeable. Who gives a shit about being the fairest of them all anyhoots?
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Dread Factor: 4/5
For the Dread-Heads: I always find the best indicator of whether a film has effectively chilled me to the bones to be the moment when I lay my head down to sleep after viewing and feel thrilled to report that Oculus had me jumping at shadows and cursing the fact that there were not one but two sizable mirrors in my quarters that night, both of which appeared to have it in for me. Predictable as it may sound, less really is more in certain instances, and this mercifully opts for the former, affording those racing minds the chance to do the majority of the legwork.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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