The grandfather of psychological horror was unquestionably Henry James with his novel The Turn of the Screw with it’s ambiguous ending and possibly insane heroine, Oculus could be another James creation, but on steroids. There are similarities between the two stories. Both tales consist of a relatively small cast of characters although Oculus has a damaged, but evil, mirror as its instigator of horror.
The device of the evil mirror sounds pretty close to a Stephen King short story titled The Reaper’s Image. The King bogeyman has an apparent defect in the face of the looking glass which turns out to not be there at all. Owners of this deadly mirror have been killed off like flies and the rumor is that whoever sees the image of the grim reaper in the glass will die.
Oculus has no such image and no real background of being cursed. The details of the looking glass only come to light after a lot of research by the female protagonist in the film. The movie starts with a dream. Two children are running from a man with a gun; as they stand trapped in front of a door, the man comes up and changes from the first armed individual to a young man who points the gun at the little red-headed girl and pulls the trigger.
The same young man tells a doctor at the mental health hospital that it’s the first time that he has held the gun in his dream. A short while later, the dreamer is given his freedom. Tim Russell is his name and a decade ago he and his sister, Kaylie spent a horrific night in their house which ended with Tim “shooting his father” after dad killed the two kids’ mother. Tim is shut away in a mental hospital while his slightly older sister stayed free.
While Tim spent his life being psychoanalyzed and “cured” Kaylie has been tracking down the mirror that she believes killed their parents. Rather interestingly, the sister appears to be as badly damaged mentally as her institutionalized brother. In an ironic twist, Tim is released on the same day that Kaylie finds the mirror.
She has spent the years researching the mirror and finding out about all the victims it has claimed. Similar to the cursed Hope Diamond the mirror, in the film, has a long list of unexplainable deaths and murders connected to it. Again, similar to the Henry James story The Turn of the Screw we have a couple of youngsters who have lost their parents. Oculus, with it’s steroidal plot line about what could be psychosis, does deviate from the James original in terms of cast survivors.
On the day that Tim gets out of his mental hosptial incarceration, he reunites with his sister and finds that she has planned for this day since his being locked away. This clearly puts her in a state of mind that is not very healthy. The cured Tim, questions her version of events and tries to use his mental training to make her see the truth.
While the two attempt to recreate the environment that the mirror created ten years ago, the brother and sister discover that the looking glass is more powerful than they thought.
Brenton Thwaites as the “mentally ill” brother is just the right amount of hurt vulnerability and confidence in his performance. He also is the perfect partner for his “sister” in her apparent mad desire to “kill the mirror.”
Karen Gillan rocks it as the overly confident and OCD older sister who has made it her life’s duty to kill the cursed looking glass that destroyed her family 10 years previously. Mad props need to be made to the casting directors who put Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as the young Kaylie and Tim respectively. These two young actors not only looked like their older “selves” but acted like them as well. This magnificent act of perfect casting helped the audience to almost completely suspend their disbelief.
Katee Sackhoff nails it as the disintegrating mother who finally loses everything. The actress has some impressive chops. Her character was completely different from her tough mercenary in Riddick and despite her great performance in The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia she proves that in horror she is not a “one trick pony.” Rory Cochrane walks that fine line between likable father figure and psychotic murderer with ease.
Director and co-writer Mike Flanagan, he wrote the screenplay with Jeff Howard, made this film a “lengthening” of a short film about the same mirror in 2006. For a director who specialise more in television, he does a masterful job of bouncing two different timelines at the same time. Like the Stephen King short story about the mirror, Flanagan could have taken lessons from King in terms of It, with his childish heros living up to a promise made before puberty.
The cinematography was brilliant, as were the sets and the dressings in each scene. This was a masterful rendering of a story that almost effortlessly escaped the box to present a plot and characters that were unique and interesting. The combination of the cast, the story, the cinematography, and the twists and turns of the plot line, made it difficult to tear one’s eyes off the screen.
As horror stories go, this was a great one. It was not all gloomy halls and smoky rooms. There were roughly two “jump moments” where the scare would cause one to leap out of the cinema seat. The rest of the film was a relentless twisting race to the end of the movie. The comparison to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is pretty apt, albeit, with a plot on steroids and a little more modern in terms of setting. If Oculus had been a book, the pace that pages would have been turned to get to the next part would have made them catch fire from the friction. This film, may be the best horror film released this year. Relentless psychological horror from start to finish. Do not miss this film, if you are a horror fan.
By Michael Smith
AMC Town Square 18