So, you’ve just made Absentia, one of the best horror films, arguably one of the best films, of the last few years, on a shoestring; an eerie, unsettling, chilling little movie, a film that climbs inside your head and keeps you awake at night. And no one’s seen it. Outside of dedicated horror nuts. No one’s really reviewed it. Outside of dedicated horror nuts. What do you do next? Well, if you’re writer/director Mike Flanagan, you get yourself a much bigger budget ($5million compared to Absentia’s meagre $27,000), you get yourself a couple of geek-friendly stars (Amy Pond AND Starbuck! IN THE SAME FILM!) and you set out to scare the piss out of the audience that lapped up Sinister, The Conjuring and the Insidious films.

A feature-length expansion of Flanagan’s 2006 short film (Oculus: The Man With The Plan), Oculus sees estranged siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) reunited after a decade when Tim is released from the psychiatric facility where he’s been incarcerated since the fateful night when, as a 10-year-old, Tim (Garrett Ryan) shot dead their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) after he had tortured and murdered their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff) and tried to kill 13-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso).

Convinced that the responsibility for the tragedy lies not with her homicidal father but with the supernatural and malignant influence of the ornate mirror that hung in the family home which she believes is responsible for countless deaths over the centuries, Kaylie persuades the reluctant and sceptical Tim, who has little reliable memory of the traumatic events, to help her prove her theory that the looking glass is a force of evil, able to possess and manipulate its victims. Dragging Tim back to their childhood home, Kaylie sets up a series of video cameras and ghost detecting devices to record evidence that will prove her theory and clear her family while also rigging a failsafe; a weighted anchor attached to the ceiling set to a clockwork timer that will automatically release it, destroying the mirror in the process.

But as Tim tries to convince Kaylie that her version of events are an elaborate delusion and she tries to force him to remember her truth, past and present collide and mingle as their tragic history looks set to repeat itself…

Intelligent, low-key and suffused with a creeping undercurrent of tension and dread that makes The Conjuring look like the big, dumb, childish hoax about a couple of charlatans it was, Oculus, at its dark, black heart is a satisfyingly old-fashioned ghost story, eschewing for the most part the mechanical jumps, easy scares and gratuitous gore of most modern horror in favour of an atmosphere of cloying unease that insidiously worms its way under your skin. Shot through with a sadness, a melancholy ache, the villains here are not the cursed mirror and the force that resides there but memory itself, buried and unacknowledged trauma, the unreliability of perception and the mad, wild grip of obsession.

An adult fairytale, Malice Through The Looking Glass if you like, the supernatural elements could be shorn wholesale from Oculus and the film would still work as a psychological horror about the trauma of child abuse and betrayal of trust, playing as it does on the age-old fear of the murderous parent, Kaylie and Tim a 21st century Hansel and Gretel venturing into the deep, dark wood of their shared past and becoming lost there among the ghosts of a homicidal father, an unhinged mother, shiny-eyed apparitions and their younger selves, reliving their family’s descent into murderous madness. It’s no wonder then that the idea their loving parents were possessed by an evil, supernatural entity is more palatable to Kaylie than the possibility they actually may have been all too human monsters. Tim may have just spent ten ears in the booby hatch but it’s Kaylie with her paranoia, wild theories, obsessive research, elaborately precise failsafe measures and evangelical belief, whose sanity is hanging by a thread. That she’s proved right doesn’t make her any less bonkers.

As the adult Kaylie, Karen Gillan is as wonderful as you’d hope she’d be, triumphantly conquering the American accent and delivering a strong, compelling performance simmering with righteous anger and a clear-eyed madness reminiscent of the kind of ‘expert’ you’d see on a show like Ancient Aliens, persuasively laying out her case with an unarguable conviction, seducing you into believing her crackpot theories while Brenton Thwaites is a sympathetic, soulful Tim, clinging desperately to rationality, the perfect foil and audience for her, their naturalistic sibling relationship perfectly balanced, their interplay crackling like a screwball rom-com couple. Equally as good, if not better, are Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan as the younger Kaylie and Tim, their journey darker than Gillan and Thwaites’ but their relationship no less convincing. In the thankless roles of the murderous parents, Cochrane and particularly Sackhoff are excellent, Sackhoff’s spiral from suburban, loving mom to feral beast terrifying and heartbreaking as paranoia and niggling body issues eat her alive.

The true star of the film though is Flanagan. While it’s obvious the whole enterprise will end in tears and there’s an economical approach to the traditional scares and jumps of any ghost story (the sudden, threatening appearance of characters, J-horror-style apparitions) as well as some shockingly brutal, hallucinatory visuals (you’ll never eat an apple in the same way again…), a chilling disembodied phone phantom and an oppressive, doom-laden atmosphere, Flanagan knows that the half-glimpsed terror is the more effective and Oculus maintains just enough ambiguity in its first half to allow you to question just whose version of events is real. Even once Flanagan lays his cards on the table however, Oculus remains pleasingly opaque. Gillan may taunt the mirror with “You must be hungry?” but we never meet the “you.” The film’s central mystery, what the mirror is and why it does what it does, is never explained, instead serving to reinforce Flanagan’s themes of the corrosive nature of past trauma and unreliable perception. To the end, there’s a very real possibility that everything that occurs may just be taking place in Tim and Kaylie’s heads, the elaborate fantasies of unstable minds, Flanagan’s masterful skill as an editor dazzling and disorienting his audience as much as his protagonists as he smoothly blends the film’s two timelines, melding past and present, allowing them to co-exist, interact. Kaylie and Tim may not have been home for ten years but, in a very real sense, they’ve never left and never will; their lives ended too on that fateful night a decade before.

Smart, subtle and unnerving, the demons that haunt Oculus are the ones that hide inside all of us.


DVD Review: Oculus
An intelligent, satisfyingly old-fashioned ghost story
5.0Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

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