Think about the best Hollywood horror movies from the last few years and where their scares came from. The Conjuring? The demonic ghost of a former witch. Insidious? Ghosts and demons trapped in a netherworld known as "The Further." Sinister? An ancient deity called Bughuul. The Paranormal Activity movies? More witches and evil spirits. The Cabin in the Woods? Lovecraftian gods that play Big Brother and employ an arsenal of classic horror monsters, everything from zombies to murderous clowns and werewolves.
Throw in the endless vampires, demonic possession victims and Michael Myers knockoffs that have populated recent indie genre films and you've got a horror market that's been impressive as of late but certainly not for an overabundance of fresh antagonists. Mike Flanagan, though, is here to shake things up. The 36-year-old writer-director is the brains behind Oculus, the latest mainstream, low-budget horror flick to have the Blumhouse production company's stamp, putting it under the same umbrella as Insidious, Sinister, The Purge and the Paranormal Activity franchise. But it's something entirely different from all of those successful wide-release horror pictures.
Oculus, as those effective and omnipresent TV commercials have promised, is about a haunted mirror. Yes, a reflective piece of glass that causes terrible things to happen to good people. Again, a frightening, malevolent mirror.
And guess what? That damn mirror will creep you the hell out. It's not quite the first movie of its kind—German filmmaker Ulli Lommel's 1980 movie The Boogeyman features broken mirror shards that glow red and draw blood. The Boogeyman is Attack of the Killer Tomatoes when compared to Oculus, though. The same with 2008's Mirrors, a film Kiefer Sutherland surely wants to forget ever happened.
Along with co-writer Jeff Howard, Flanagan has dreamt up a wonderfully unsettling back-story for his terrifying strip of glass. It's known as "The Lasser Glass," a name that refers to its original owners, Philip and Virginia Lasser, both of whom, way back in 1754, died horrifically once the mirror came into their possession. Nearly 300 years and 50 casualties later, the Lasser Glass gets bought by Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane), who, with his warm-hearted wife, Marie (Battlestar Galactica fan favorite Katee Sackhoff) and their two kids, 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10-year-old Tim (Garrett Ryan), has just moved into a new home. Before long, awful tragedies befall the Russell's one night, resulting in Tim being sent to a mental hospital and Kaylie forced to start a whole new life on her own. Flash forward 11 years—grown-up Tim (Brenton Thwaites leaves the psych hospital, reconnects with a now-engaged and well-off Kaylie (Doctor Who breakout Karen Gillan). But she has next moves figured out—she's gotten a hold of the Lasser Glass, and she's determined to prove that it, not Tim, caused their family tragedies.
Criss-crossing the Russell kids' two crucial timelines, Flanagan elevates what starts off as an unassuming and effectively unnerving supernatural tale into a narratively ballsy and downright head-spinning horror film that's unlike anything the genre has seen in a long time. It's a bold, demanding experience, especially considering that Oculus is opening on thousands of screens nationwide. With its preference for brains and characterization over gore and routine jump scares, Oculus is a risky endeavor for its backers, Blumhouse and WWE Studios. For Flanagan, however, it's exactly the movie he set out to make. Being that he shot it independently and acquired the Blumhouse/WWE distribution after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere last September, the indie-minded filmmaker never had to contend against Hollywood standards, big studio objections or pesky producers' interferences.
But will mainstream audiences embrace his unique and somewhat renegade style of horror? For the sake of the genre, let's hope so. Before that's answered by Sunday night's box office numbers, though, get better acquainted with one of the genre's most exciting newcomers. In this candid interview, Mike Flanagan explains how a Stephen-King-loving kid from Maryland worked his way through college angst, a Kickstarter campaign and numerous big-wigs' rejections to get to Oculus. Plus, co-stars Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff each discuss what attracted them to Flanagan's project and why it ultimately scared the you-know-what out of them.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)