Oculus (2013)

Oculus first published by Film4

Synopsis: Mike Flanagan (Absentia) realises a long-gestating horror project in feature-length form, as a brother and sister face evil – and themselves – in an antique mirror. Karen Gillan (Doctor Who) and Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) star.

Review: In 2005, Mike Flanagan directed and co-wrote a 32-minute short about a man’s conflict with a maleficent mirror. Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With The Plan drew a lot of attention on the festival circuit – but Flanagan was distracted from completing the other eight chapters of his conceived ‘Lasser Glass’ ennealogy by production on his excellent ‘underground’ horror feature Absentia (2011). Now he goes back through the looking glass with the feature Oculus, while retaining Absentia‘s focus on both siblings and psychologically resonant chills.

Ten years ago, 13-year-old Kaylie Russell (Annalise Basso) and her younger brother Tim (Garrett Ryan) witnessed their parents Alan and Marie (Rory Cochrane, Katee Sackhoff) undergo a horrific breakdown in their new suburban home. Now the adult Tim (Brenton Thwaites) has just been released from a mental home, and is finally at peace with himself over what he did to his own father – but Kaylie (Karen Gillan) remains convinced that an antique mirror was the supernatural cause of everything, and has misappropriated the Lasser Glass so that she, with Tim’s help, can prove her family’s innocence and bring an end to a centuries-old evil.

“You were perfectly normal when they locked you up,” Kaylie tells Tim, “you had to go batshit for them to let you out.” One of the great ironies of Oculus is that long-institutionalised Tim represents the film’s apparent voice of reason against sane sister Kaylie’s rigorously methodical mania. Rationalism and madness are just two of the opposites that Flanangan’s double-edged film shows in distorted reflection, as his skilful editing at first interweaves the stories of these siblings’ past and present before merging them into a disorienting mirror image of one another. The results are a high-stakes adventure in a haunted house which accommodates richly drawn characters, dysfunctional family history and unbearable mental trauma as much as supernatural mechanics, leaving the door wide open to uncanny ambiguity.

strap: Mike Flanagan’s hallucinatory hall of mirrors uses horror to reflect upon the inherited, intergenerational nature of mental illness and family dysfunction

Anton Bitel