Horror fans celebrate: There is a new film out from the good side of Blumhouse Productions. You know, the side that doesn’t just put out an endless series of Paranormal Activity sequels where nothing ever happens. No, this is the side that produced Insidious, Sinister, and Dark Skies, and now Oculus. Co-written and directed by Mike Flanagan, based on his earlier short film, Oculus brings a wonderfully creepy atmosphere with some smart, inventive techniques that more than make up for a thin story.
The hook is simple: an antique mirror is haunted, or possessed, or something, it’s never made completely clear, and it doesn’t need to be. All the information we get about its history comes from Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan), who recounts a litany of murders and suicides she ascribes to the workings of the mirror. She’s interested because the last names on the list are her parents, Marie and Alan (Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane), the latter at the hands of her brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites).
It’s ten years since that horrible night; Kaylie has managed to track down the mirror through her fiancé’s job at an auction house just in time for Tim to be released from the mental hospital. Back then, they promised never to forget what happened, and to destroy the mirror when they got the chance. Tonight she means to carry through with that threat.
How is the mirror responsible for all this death? It seems to be able to control the perceptions of people around it. Did you get up and move to the next room, or are you still sitting in your seat? Did you pick up an apple or a lightbulb before biting into it? Did the mirror trick you into picking up the lightbulb by making you think it was the apple, or did it want to scare you into thinking you’d just shredded your mouth on the broken glass? And how long have you been there anyway?
Kaylie has come prepared with alarms to remind her and Tim when to eat and drink, and her fiancé will call every hour. She wants not only to destroy the mirror — more difficult than it might seem — but to provide documentary evidence for what it does. Tim is less certain; he’s just gotten well, and wants to move forward with his life rather than stay mired in this fantasy of an evil mirror.
But as the story plays out, it’s clear that Kaylie’s been right all along. Weird things start happening around them. They remember the last days before their parents died, and how their younger selves (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) survived. And then the film starts to change. The flashbacks start out as memories displayed to the audience, but the mirror starts using them to entrap Kaylie and Tim themselves in a nightmare landscape populated by the mirror-eyed apparitions of those who have been consumed.
The genius of the film is how it’s edited — again by Flanagan — to blur these lines between memories and projections and realities. Trying to hold on to a notion of “what’s really happening”, you quickly become lost, just as those under the influence of the mirror lose track of their own minds, and the creepy score by the Newton Brothers doesn’t help matters. It can be maddening to an audience set on believing in some objective movie-reality, even if that reality may contain paranormal elements. When we get deep into this film, there is no point in trying to find any solid ground; it just doesn’t exist here.
It’s easy to dismiss this as “cheating” on the part of the filmmakers, but only if you insist that there must be some discernible “real story”. This is not a ghost story, but a waking nightmare, and Flanagan does a fantastic job of bringing the whole audience into it.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: it’s close at times, but I’m going to say it fails.