Based on his short film from 2006, Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” is an eerie time at the movies. There’s the potential for camp in the premise - which sees a brother and sister do battle with a potentially haunted mirror from their past – but proceedings are played with the straightness of an arrow. Flanagan cuts between timelines and conjures the aura of a particularly macabre fairy-tale, using tricky visuals and an unsettlingly repetitive soundscape to ignite an appropriately ethereal demeanour.
At a lean 104 minutes and oscillating between sparse interiors, “Oculus” boasts a savage b-movie sensibility, Flanagan focusing his energy on simple but solid character beats to drive the horror, punishing his leads on both physical and psychological terms. There’s an unspoken but crucially believable bond anchoring the drama, and “Oculus” has a keen weapon in the form of Karen Gillan’s trenchant contribution. The delicate Scotswoman is all fire and stoicism, her vigorous obsession with the mirror bouncing nicely off Brenton Thwaites beta ambivalence. Flanagan dips his toes into the murky pastures of mental illness and unreliable narration, but ultimately commits to the gothic trappings of spectral maleficence, handling the business of scaring his audience confidently. Even more admirable is that he should be so miserly with cheap jump scares in doing so. Atmosphere and nightmarish iconography trump loud noises in “Oculus”.
“Oculus” is something of a precise mess, using its disjointed narrative arrangement to disconcerting effect. It becomes impossible to detach reality from lethal illusion, culminating in a cleverly edited finale that often combines past and present in the same frame. The digital photography and production design are thin, robbing “Oculus” of true grand guignol aesthetic, but the director showcases a dab hand for visceral imagery and foreboding. Some of the later stalk and slash elements taste stale, but everything leading up to the finish registers menacing intelligence, and the final twist provides a black, punchy farewell.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014