Mike Flanagan’s Oculus


What scares you most in the horror genre? Masked killers in isolated settings? Booby trapped razor wire rooms? Demon possession? Werewolves? Ghosts? Those are all well and good, but nothing messes my shit up more than psychological uncertainty, the feeling that anything you see might not be real, and the layers of your perception are gradually being fucked with in a subtle way. Such are the terrors that Mike Flanagan’s Oculus traffics in, a film that takes postmodern horror expectations and strangles the life out of them in favour of something far more effective. You’ll read surface level summaries claiming this to be about a haunted mirror. It…is. Sort of. And it isn’t. Then it is again, and before you know it you have no idea what’s real and feel like leaving the television and hiding in a back room for fear of an incoming dissociative episode (true story). See, the haunted mirror is just the suggestive tip of a very dense psychological iceberg, a starting point to a narrative that’s disturbing in ways that few big budget horror films understand. When an idyllic American family moves into a perfect new house, life seems peachy. Following the arrival of an ornate antique mirror, things take a darker turn. The loving patriarch (Rory Cochrane, exuding natural charisma) turns fiercely psychotic, preying on his doting wife (Katee Sackoff) and terrorizing his son (Garrett Ryan) and daughter (Annalise Basso, terrific in a performance of true hurt and horror). The mirror seems to indeed be the source, but no clear correlation is ever established by the film, only heavy suggestion gnawed at by the notion that the parents may just be irreparably sick in the head, an idea just as, if not more scary than a sentient looking glass. After brutal tragedy, we flash forward a decade or so, the parents are gone and once again the daughter, now played by a dynamite Karen Gillan, tries to get to the source of what happened by locking herself, her brother (Brenton Thwaites, the only weak leak in an otherwise excellent acting ensemble) and that dang pesky mirror in their old house to destroy it. Bring on a panic inducing haunted house of the unconventional variety, one where something, either the mirror or inherited mental illness, plays endless nasty tricks of the mind on both of them until the viewer feels uncomfortable in their own thoughts, the fabric of internal reality ready to disintegrate into shards. Their plight is carefully interspersed (big kudos to Flanagan, serving as his own editor) with flashbacks to the harrowing ordeal they went through as children, as the loving parental unit collapses into madness before their eyes. Listen for a hair raising, subversive score by The Newton Brothers that just adds to the queasy cauldron of unease that this film is. It’s more brilliant than any widely released horror film has any right to be these days, a huge step in the right direction for the genre and a waking nightmare for anyone whose worst fear is losing their mind. 
-Nate Hill

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