“I have met my demons and they are many. I have seen the devil and he is me.”
Mirrors have always terrified me. No, I am not going to vent to you about my insecurities. This fear does not concern physical despondency; instead, it speaks directly to the heart of my childhood anxieties. When I was a kid I was a slave to my imagination. Which is great, unless you spend the majority of your time with The Twilight Zone, Stephen King, and Goosebumps. As a result, nightmares plagued me.
Many of these dreams involved malevolent forces inhabiting my mirror. Doppelgangers. Mannequins from other worlds who wanted to make me their child. Ghostly figures. Or falling through and not being able to get back. There's something to say about me finding out I'm trans and the dissatisfaction I used to find with mirrors as well. I'm far from the only person to form some sort of anxiety around their mirror. Being such a prevalent fear throughout history, it has become a cliché. Unfortunately, few depictions have been able to get under my skin the way I like horror to do. Ash coming out of a mirror to grab himself by the shoulders was a good one but minor, Aja's take on the theme was . . . bad, and Candyman never made me scared of them for some reason as much as I enjoy the movie. But then Mike Flanagan came along to thrust these reflectors back into my mind.
By now, Flanagan is recognizable as a prolific master of horror. Hush and Gerald's Game are flawed, but fun as hell. The run of shows he's done with Netflix have been almost entirely wonderful. And Doctor Sleep might be one of THE great Stephen King adaptations. Oculus (2013) sits between these as a spark of what was yet to come from his brain.
I've been following Flanagan since his first movie; so, I was expecting something great eventually. THIS is what I was looking for. Oculus is perfectly paced and tautly written to reveal the darkest trenches of our souls. It starts with an attack coming from within a family home: Father has murdered Mother and the kids are next on the menu. It's a harrowing beginning and is cut short to reveal Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) in a mental institution; reflecting on his dear old father who had tortured Tim’s mother for weeks and was on a rampage. He has spent eleven years here after shooting and killing his father to save himself and his sister from an untimely demise. After telling them he thought his father had been possessed by their antique mirror, the courts thought Tim would be unfit for the outside world. His recent dream shows his ability to take responsibility for his actions and he is released from the hospital.
Meanwhile, Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), Tim’s sister, has been left to her own devices in the outside world. She has been waiting for Tim’s release so that they may keep their promise to come back and kill the entity within the mirror. In the eleven years they've been apart, Kaylie has painstakingly researched and kept an eye on the antique mirror. She discovers that its previous owners have, suspiciously, met similar fates.
A substantial portion of the plot revolves around this contention between Kaylie and Tim. Tim now believes the supernatural beings they saw as children were imaginings so that they could escape their family’s mental instability and Kaylie wholeheartedly hinges her beliefs on a malevolent being that forced these horrors upon them. It's how they both cope. And, honestly, who’s to say one or the other is right? When Kaylie is running down a list of horrors (with accompanying photos) that the mirror has, oh so conveniently, been present for — a stroke of directorial brilliance reminiscent of 1408 — one cannot help but feel anxious. But when Tim begins to rattle on about the various psychological explanations for these events and Kaylie’s obsession, doubt starts to sink in.
From here on out, the film has the upper hand. Flanagan recognizes what many modern storytellers have, supposedly, forgotten: Fear is realized from within the unknown regions of our minds. Oculus resides within the walls of psychological terrors. The jump scares exist here, but they are by no means the director’s focal point. Instead, he leads us through an intelligent and exhilarating world of illusory horrors that seek to bend our perception of reality. Perhaps this has been done before, but how long has it been since a film has truly terrified you and sunk into your bones? One of the greatest boons of this flick is its courage to remain ambiguous.
Just consider the mirror itself. We are given no origins or reasons why the mirror is inhabited or has these powers. Hell, we don’t even get intentions. (Thank God!) This kind of obscurity is a welcome change of pace from the overly explicative tendencies of recent movies. Just let us be afraid of something. Fortunately, Flanagan is confident in his direction, showing us everything we need to see and no more.
His aplomb is especially apparent in the immaculately interlaced flashbacks (perhaps simultaneous hallucinations) of our lead’s pasts, which serve to parallel their downward spiral. His editing is adept to the point that the intertwining storylines — which could have easily been distracting — flow with such grace and urgency that they seem not only a source of unease but a fantastic way to keep you tense and guessing at all times. If you've seen how smoothly the Wachowski's move between stories in Cloud Atlas, you might have an idea of what I mean here. And that pacing is so important because it has a visceral effect and serves this bizarre allegory of familial abuse.
This exploration hurdles us into the realities of a dysfunctional family and how our inner demons can lead us to a world of violence and despair. This brings to mind one of the darkest questions underlying the film: Is the mirror simply coercing its victims, or is it revealing their inner desires? When working on all cylinders, the film succeeds as a family drama with a supernatural background. The true horror in this film is intrinsically human. Even the mirror is just a canvas for the enigmatic tunnels of lost souls.
This would be all for naught if the cast wasn’t believable; however, they take to their roles with such sincerity that the characters start to come alive. Karen Gillan’s ardent tenacity sheds her of the Doctor Who roots and solidifies her as a strong addition to the world of modern cinema. From Doctor Who to Guardians of the Galaxy and here, she always impresses. I found Brenton Thwaites had an intriguing chemistry with Gillan that implied some history between the characters. He may seem like he's slowing the process down with all of his questioning, but how stoked would you be if you just got out of a psych ward and your sister insisted you dive right back into your trauma? Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan (who play the younger versions of Tim and Kaylie) fully portray their characters with a strength normally witnessed only in more seasoned performers. And Rory Cochrane (Alan Russell, the father) plays his part with a slow burn of subtlety, allowing small moments to converge patiently into an eerie climax. The standout performance, though, comes from Katee Sackhoff (Marie Russell, the mother) who, miraculously, gave the role an essence of conviction and honesty that emulates the most terrifying aspects of our inner demons. I haven't seen her in anything else since Battlestar Galactica and that's a shame. She deserves a star-making role.
Sure, the film falls into some conventional territory and not all of the dialogue lands, but any noticeable missteps are subverted with an involving atmosphere, a tight sense of direction, an exhilarating pace. All of the attention The Conjuring got that year — this deserved.
Oculus pervades as a modern portrait of family dysfunction and the distorted horrors of a traumatic childhood. What could have easily been another cheap foray into an underappreciated genre stands as an example of what these films should aspire to be.
Something that sinks its claws into your brain, refusing to leave when the credits hit.
Something that takes advantage of the philosophical undertones inherent in fear.
Something that strives for importance.
Something that feels alive.