by Preston Wilder
How to describe Oculus? Maybe as one of the rare films whose director is also its editor – which may explain why the film is so tightly structured, and why its extended climax alternates between two timelines (our heroes in childhood and adulthood) without apparent strain. Or maybe, if you want to be less technical, as a haunted-house thriller in the vein of Insidious and The Conjuring, and just as effective. Put it this way: even allowing that it’s mid-August, there must be a reason why a non-franchise, low-budget movie with no recognisable stars is playing in a Cyprus multiplex.
The dynamic is slightly different here: brother and sister Tim (Brenton Thwaites) and Kaylie (Karen Gillan) aren’t just victims of a demonic ghost, they’re taking revenge. 11 years ago their parents died, the official story being that abusive Dad killed Mum, then Tim killed Dad – but now, as Tim comes out of custody and a doctor proclaims him sane, Kaylie confronts him with the past: “You promised you wouldn’t forget what really happened”. It was the mirror! Dad wasn’t evil, Mum didn’t go insane – or rather he was, and she did, but it wasn’t their fault. It was the mirror.
The ghost, as in other cinematic ghost stories (‘The Haunted Mirror’, an episode in the 1945 Dead of Night, being perhaps the best-known), lives in an antique looking-glass – a mirror world, just like childhood is a mirror of adulthood, and the spectre of child abuse throbs beneath the surface which is why the film is so painful. That’s actually my main reservation about Oculus: it’s too disturbing. We see a happy family falling apart and the brunt of it falls on the kids, 10-year-old Tim and slightly older Kaylie. Suddenly Dad is being visited by a strange lady, whom he then denies having seen. Suddenly Mum is crying, then withdrawing into herself, then having a breakdown. Suddenly their parents are having violent arguments, waking them up in the middle of the night. This is scarier than any mere ghost.
And it doesn’t end there – because survivors of bad childhoods are often in denial about what happened, or try to blame it on something else. Is that what Kaylie’s doing now, blaming the mirror? Is her mission of revenge simply an unwillingness to face the past? She takes her newly-freed brother to their old childhood home, where she’s managed to locate the evil object. (“Hello again,” purrs Kaylie to the mirror; “You must be hungry.”) It’s not a matter of simply destroying it; besides, it won’t let them. An elaborate plan has been devised to uncover the truth while resisting the mirror’s blandishments. Every half-hour an alarm goes off, reminding the siblings to eat and hydrate. Every hour, on the hour, Kaylie’s fiancé calls, to make sure they’re all right. Cameras film every detail, each with its own power supply. And an axe is permanently perched on the ceiling, ready to swing down and smash the mirror if all else fails.
There are echoes of Paranormal Activity in this set-up, using technology to try and tame a supernatural force. There are also echoes of The Haunting, and indeed The Conjuring with its husband-and-wife ghost hunters. All these films have the same subtext, the hubris of humans who think they can harness pure Evil – though in this case Tim and Kaylie do it to heal their childhood scars, which is more sympathetic (and more painful, as already mentioned). Tim thinks Kaylie is deluded, telling his sister of the “fuzzy-trace theory of human psychology”; she counters with a history of the mirror’s previous victims, going back centuries. One thing’s for sure: whatever happens, this cannot end well.
Oculus is an admirable horror film, working cleanly and imaginatively. It cost $5 million (1/20th of the budget for Hercules) and is notably low on blood and gore, its main special effect being a woman with glowing devil eyes – but it doesn’t feel simple, like the unambitious vibe one often gets from Paranormal Activity. Reality blurs as the mirror spins its seductive lies; there are ironies – our heroes trust the camera more than they do their own eyes! – and rhymes between past and present. The flashbacks may be callous, but they get under your skin: bewitched Dad urging “champ” and “princess” to go upstairs and play, or intoning “That’s on my list” in a zombie voice when the hungry kids plead for food. It’s a small film (actually based on a short Flanagan made a few years ago) and not exactly a masterpiece – but it works in the way of a good horror novel, playing with toxic relationships more than jump-out-of-your-seat moments. How to describe it? Just go and see it.
DIRECTED BY Mike Flanagan
STARRING Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff
US 2013 104 mins