OCULUS (2013, directed by Mike Flanagan)
An antique mirror that possesses an insatiable evil. A sister and brother's desperate plan to exonerate a family's legacy, and rid the world of the mirror's malevolence. A maze of memories and terror from which there may be no escape.
Welcome to the world of OCULUS, the best ever Stephen King adaptation not actually based on anything written by Stephen King.
The modern wave of 'throwback' horror is, as far as I'm concerned, the best thing to happen to the horror genre in ages. As much fun as the over-the-top gore of the '80s was, seeing that trend give way to shocking-for-shocking's sake films like Hostel and the Saw franchise didn't leave the genre much of anywhere to go, and while the Paranormal Activities of the world make a tidy profit they're still nothing more than cut-rate re-hashes of Wise's The Haunting (still, in my opinion, the scariest goddamned movie ever made). James Wan's continuing atonement for unleashing the Saws on us is a welcome gesture but it's time for some other directors to step up and join the party, and that's exactly what Flanagan has done here.
OCULUS has a simple setup. Ten-odd years ago, a dad bought a cool-looking mirror for his home office. Within a couple of weeks he'd gone mad, tortured and killed his wife and nearly killed his young son Tim and daughter Kaylie before Tim shoots him in self-defense. Tim gets sent to an institution to try and come to terms with what he'd done, while Kaylie gets churned through the foster care system. Now adults, they re-unite when Tim gets released from the hospital, but with very different recollections of what happened in those final days in their childhood home. Kaylie has a plan to prove their dad's innocence and destroy the mirror, but first she needs to re-awaken the suppressed memories in her brother's head to get him to help her.
While the performances of all four leads are rock-solid (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff as mom and dad, Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites as grown-up Kaylie and Tim. Yes, Starbuck and Amy Pond are in the same film. Your slashfic dreams are one step closer to reality) it's the direction and ultra-tight script that really set OCULUS apart. Once the war between mirror and siblings begins, the film tightly intertwines two parallel timelines as the foul glass uses their own childhood memories to confuse and incapacitate them. While the scenes of rampaging crazy dad certainly recall The Shining, the back and forth between brave children fighting evil then returning to fight it again as adults is far more reminiscent of King's It (although, thankfully, the mirror doesn't turn into a giant fucking SPACE SPIDER at the end. Yes, Stevie, I'm still bitter about that ending. Oh, sorry folks who haven't read It – spoilers!) The way the film layers those memories, and makes a puzzle out of trying to determine what's really happening and what's simply the mirror toying with Kaylie's and Tim's perceptions, is frankly astounding. It would have been so easy for a film like this to go off the rails and become a tangled mess, and it never does. Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard deserve a ton of credit simply for creating this labyrinth and getting in onto the screen intact and allowing it to retain its full, creepy impact.
If you're looking for gore or a big body count, keep looking. The film's far more about building up a sense of dread than it is makeup and blood effects. But if Insidious or The Conjuring gave you the most delightful nightmares, you'll want to stare deeply into OCULUS.
Oh, and if the post-credit teaser and Flanagan's Q & A after the Midnight Madness screening is any indication, there's a massive backstory and world built around the mirror, so if this thing clicks at the box office you can be sure there'll be more films in the series on the way.
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