Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan Ewald
Running time: 105 minutes
The Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness section is notorious for its raucous audiences, those ravenous horror movie junkies who stay out until past 2 a.m. eight nights in a row every September just to be on the cutting edge of the genre's next wave. Sunday night, before the Midnight Madness legion finally settled in for 2013 edition of TIFF's fourth MM film, Oculus, the party atmosphere was in full effect. A pungent air of Hennessy filled the theatre. An inflatable, camouflage-colored beach ball the size of a medicine ball was punched all around the crowd, including the upper balcony. The energy was high, especially when programmer Colin Geddes stepped on stage to introduce the film shortly after midnight. Everyone was ready to rock out to what Geddes has labeled this year's equivalent to Insidious, a 2010 Midnight Madness premiere itself.
But then a strange thing happened—the usually live-wire crowd went silent. For the next 100 minutes, you could hear a pin drop. Well, except for the moments where everyone broke out into loud applause. But for the most part, one quick glance around the Ryerson Theatre's attendees confirmed one thing: There wasn't a single person whose eyes weren't facing forward, directly at the screen, in pure, nerve-wracked silence. Oculus had them all. And it wouldn't let go, from its instantly brooding opening to the disturbingly grim ending.
Get ready, horror fans, because, whenever Oculus gets picked by a worthy distribution company and hits a theatre near you, you're in for something really special.
You'll also want to get familiar with the name Mike Flanagan—he's the director/co-writer of Oculus, and he's now two-for-two. Early last year, Flanagan's made-for-pennies debut, Absentia, quietly made its way to DVD after a 2011 film festival run, but anyone who gave the film a chance acknowledged its first-class creep-out factor. Making the most out of his limited resources, Flanagan cast his friends and family and utilized his natural filmmaking skills to convey his subtle, unique story about a tunnel found in a suburban neighborhood that just so happens to be a gateway to another dimension, one occupied by insect-like creatures. The creatures are never shown, but their presence is consistently felt throughout Absentia. The film's a superlative example of DIY horror, and promised big things for Flanagan—that is, as long as someone gave him a chance.
Fortunately, someone—i.e., the folks behind the indie Intrepid Pictures—did. Working with a larger budget, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard haven't held anything back with Oculus. With their ambitions sky-high, the filmmakers have pulled off that rarest of horror movie tricks: creating something wholly original. It's supernatural, but not exactly a ghost story. Blood and viscera flow, yet it's not a gore-fest by any means. Character-driven and audacious in its mythology, Oculus is an intelligent horror fan's dream come true.
The antagonist is an antique mirror. More specifically, it's the Lasser Glass, a piece of reflective, decorative furniture that dates back to the 1750s. In 2002, Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Marie Russell (Katee Sackhoff) bought the mirror and placed inside their new home's office, where Alan works. As their children, 10-year-old Tim (Garrett Ryan) and 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Russo), watch helplessly, something inside the mirror sends both of their parents into different states of insanity before, through a nightmarish series of events one night, mom and dead are killed. Flash forward 11 years, when a grown-up Tim (Brenton Thwaites) comes home from a mental facility and reunites with Kaylie (Karen Gillan), who's now obsessed with the Lasser Glass and determined to somehow destroy it. Having rigged their old childhood home with cameras to record what happens (thankfully, Oculus never flips to the found-footage style), Kaylie convinces Michael to spend the night with her there and confront the mirror and whatever kind of malevolent forces it's about to send their way.
The beauty of Oculus is that—save for spoilers, of course—there's no way to predict what it's in store for Kaylie and Michael. Without giving too much away, Flanagan's film is comparable to Insidious in its dedication to looney-tunes imagery and ideas, but there's no carnival funhouse trope like The Further or iconic ghouls like the red-skinned demon or the manly bride. Oculus uses memories as its scare tactics—aggressively blurring reality for Kaylie and Michael, the Lasser Glass is a manipulator more than a monster. The present collides with the past; the characters' younger and older versions continually switch places, as do the house's various rooms and, even more effectively, everyday objects—just wait until you see what Flanagan's able to do with an apple and a lightbulb. Going H.A.M. with the characters' perceptions throughout its final act, Oculus is superbly edited. The leaps through time and space are all seamless and perfectly disorienting.
The film is also efficiently paced, with Flanagan setting up its hellish end-game with assured patience. The sound design—all ominous strings and rattling—keep the dread on full tilt, yet co-writers Flanagan and Howard aren't in any rush, as evidenced by the clever manner in which they explain the Lasser Glass' dark, sprawling back-story: Kaylie dictates the mirror's origins directly into the cameras she's positioned in her father's old office. A 13-minute sequence in which someone gets all exposition-happy could have potentially been insufferable, but it's played terrifically and with convincing urgency by Gillan. A veteran of Britian's beloved Dr. Who TV series, Gillan shares Oculus M.V.P. honors with Sackhoff, who's put through the ringer—e.g., glass meals, chains, physical assaults, and more—and believably sells every last trauma.
Films like Oculus are why genre fans flock to TIFF's Midnight Madness screenings. They want to be freaked out into a soundless submission—that just happens so infrequently, but that's what Mike Flanagan's all about. With Absentia and now Oculus, the upstart Salem, MA, native is gaining a reputation for mature, smart, eyes-peeled-to-the-screen horror.
Good news: He's already working on his next one—the other day, news surfaced that Flanagan's been given the money to re-team with Oculus co-star Katee Sackhoff for Somnia, a "a haunting, emotionally absorbing horror film about an orphaned child whose dreams—and nightmares—manifest physically as he sleeps." Midnight Madness 2014, here we come.