Becoming a huge horror fan in the mid-2000s, I witnessed one of the worst eras of theatrical fright films in the genre’s history. While independent filmmakers were making some fantastic work, mainstream horror was a jumble of uninspired slashers, shockingly bad remakes of Japanese films and gore-for-gore’s-sake torture porn. It was enough for me to lose faith in theatrically-released horror films. But a funny thing happened at the turn of the decade: things got good again. Suddenly, we had Insidious, The Cabin in the Woods and Sinister. And, this week, I watched the latest piece of work that has me hopeful about the modern era of mainstream horror: Oculus.
Tim Russell is released from a mental asylum after killing his father 11 years ago. He is reunited with his older sister Kaylie, who brings up the past immediately. You see, Kaylie is convinced that the death of their parents was due to a haunted mirror, the Lasser Glass, and, with the release of Tim, is ready to conquer the mirror and destroy it once and for all. But the mirror has other plans.
First things first, the film is just as much a psychological thriller as it is a horror film. The mirror’s primary defense is its ability to burrow its way into people’s heads, leaving them with the inability to tell what is and isn’t real. The longer the film goes on, the more pronounced the effect gets.
The main way writer-director Mike Flanagan accomplishes this is by jumping forward and back in time between Kaylie and Tim’s childhood and present day. In the beginning of the film, the transitions are clear-cut and lengthy. Near the end, however, the jumps are constant, with characters from 2002 passing right by characters from 2013 without even noticing each other. It sounds confusing, but it works really well and reflects the mental state of the characters; they’re going nuts and you start to feel like you might be too.
The techniques used to create suspense make for a film that is more mysterious than out-and-out scary. Flanagan definitely leaves you on edge throughout Oculus‘s running time, but his overarching goal doesn’t seem to be to terrify you. Films like The Conjuring or Sinister have more effective scare scenarios, but Oculus does do an admirable job of keeping up a feeling of dread. As such, gore and jump-scares are left out of the picture for the most part, though both make appearances (one character taking a bite out of a light-bulb is rather squirm-enducing).
Flanagan is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye out for; his direction here is quite stylish and looks very nice. There were some camera shots that impressed me, and horror usually isn’t the go-to genre to find superb camerawork. His screenplay is also well-done; it handles the constant flashbacks with ease while never becoming confusing or overwrought. He’s got a bigger-budget thriller in the works now and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the one that propels him into the top ranks of modern horror directors.
It can get a little predictable, it’s treading on well-worn territory (it especially reminds me of 2007’s 1408), and Insidious and The Conjuring are bigger successes, but Oculus is another tally in the win column for 2010s theatrical-release horror. October is the month to watch fright flicks, and so it’s perfect time for a little Oculus in your life.
Zach Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.