After picking up The Washington Post and reading Michael O’Sullivan’s review hailing Oculus as “the most unnerving poltergeist picture since The Conjuring,” my hopes for film fun were not high. That’s like calling a new comedy the funniest picture since White Chicks. We’re not exactly talking benchmarks of excellence.
So I was pleasantly stunned to discover the latest from writer-director Mike Flanagan (Absentia) is easily the most smartly made, conceptually inventive supernatural thriller in years. I can’t remember the last time I watched a horror movie and caught myself thinking Jesus, this is pretty freaking clever! I can assure you it wasn’t the last time I watched The Conjuring.
You know a filmmaker’s got something when he can take a trope as overused as a mirror and make you forget for a couple hours all the cliched ways they’ve been utilized in movies over the decades (Here’s a link to an EW supercut that will help you remember. It’s a hoot). That’s precisely what Flanagan does though. The reflective fixture at the center of his story may be 400 years old but the uses to which he puts to it are fresh from his frontal lobe.
This is a story of revenge. In 2002 the Russells moved into a suburban McMansion. The problem for mom (Katee Sackhoff), dad (Rory Cochrane), 12 year old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10 year old Tim (Garrett Ryan) wasn’t that the house was haunted, but rather that an antique mirror bought for pop’s home office was.
Faster than you can say “housing crisis,” the parents began acting strangely and, before long, violently. First dad pulled out his fingernail-he thought it was a band aid. The next thing you knew, mom had gone bonkers and he’d chained her to their bedroom wall. Long story short: When his father came after him with a gun, Tim managed to take it away and kill him.
This is all blood under the bridge as the movie opens eleven years later. Tim, played now by Brenton Thwaites, has just been released from an institution on his 21st birthday. Kaylie, played now by Scottish actress Karen Gillan, has the perfect gift. She’s tracked down the home furnishing of evil and returned it to the scene of the crime. Her plan: kill two birds with one stone-destroy the mirror and repair the damage to their family name.
No birds are killed in the ensuing face off but human beings are and in seriously unsettling ways. The script by Flanagan and Jeff Howard eschews jump scares and gratuitous gore in favor of unusually clever ideas, an atmosphere drenched in dread and creatively creepy visuals.
Kaylie sets up a bank of video cameras and laptops to record their every move and document the malevolent power of the looking glass. The filmmaker has some truly trippy fun with these. At one point, for example, what we see the siblings doing doesn’t quite line up with what’s displayed on the monitors. At another, they hit rewind and find that what they thought had been happening for the past several minutes bears zero relation to the truth caught on camera.
Don’t get me started on the siblings’ cells. These are easily the eeriest phone calls since Robert Blake dead dialed in Lost Highway. I can’t recall the last time a film created as convincing a sense of otherworldliness. (Again, it wasn’t the last time I watched The Conjuring).
Did I mention Kaylie has a massive anchor blade rigged to the ceiling ready to smash the mirror into a million pieces if she simply pulls the switch? As the evening progresses, suspense builds and the flip-out factor escalates. You want her to pull it. Tim wants her to pull it. She wants to but whatever’s in that crazy hunk of wood and glass on the wall keeps filling her head with fake realities and getting between her and the life or death task at hand.
You’re reminded of that feeling you get in a dream when you run and run but stay in the same place. Movie critic law forbids my saying more except prepare for the rare experience of not being disappointed by a modern work of horror, and that the tagline for Oculus is “You see what it wants you to see.”
I’m pretty sure it wants me to see it again.