It was only a matter of time before Flanagan gave horror a shot. And in 2005, with less than $2,000 at his disposal, he made a 29-minute short film called Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan, a single-location piece about, simply, a man versus a haunted mirror.
Flanagan: I finally got so frustrated with the lack of forward momentum, for me becoming a filmmaker, that I wanted to make a short. I really thought it was time to try horror. Horror had always been my favorite genre to consume, but I’d never tried my hand at it. In college, those angst-heavy stories were what was in my head. I don’t know why my thought process didn’t go towards horror at that time, and I kind of wish it had. I really felt like I was going to make this very important, with a capital “I,” cinema. It’s an instinct that a lot of people have as they get into film school, because you watch a lot of really incredible, classic, avant-garde and groundbreaking genres. You want to emulate that and get out there and be like, ”This is my voice and this is what I have to say!”
But I didn’t have any consideration for commercial viability. The student film tropes become cliched as you go through them. There’s a whole lot of people drinking, suicide themes, angst and turmoil, and it really gets kind of numbing. Or it’s the other side of it: the endless avalanche of “first date” movies. But, yeah, I don’t know why it took me so long to say, “Why can’t I make a film that I feel is personal and is a way for me to make a statement of some kind, but to wrap it up in a genre I love and focus on making it entertaining?” Horror has such a passionate and built-in fan-base, of which I’m a part, so it was like, “Why don’t I make a movie that I would actually go out of my way to watch? Why don’t I make a movie that’d I run over to a friend’s house and say, ‘You have to watch this!’” Which I don’t do with collegiate dating movies.
The penny finally dropped. “Oh, I’ve been wasting a lot of time.” So, that led to the short film for Oculus, which was really an exercise in having no resources and saying, “What can we do to make a well-lit room with nothing in it frightening?” We rented the back of a coffee shop in Venice Beach, and it was funny because we had to stop shooting whenever they’d make a cappuccino. [Laughs.] We found this sterile space; it was an artist studio in the back of a coffee shop. We had this plastic mirror we bought online, one actor, a crew of eight people, hardly any lights and no effects. A little bit of makeup. It became, “OK, we don’t have much to work with, but let’s see if we can create something interesting and build a lot of tension.” It was really just an exercise in tension.
And the short came out pretty good. I was really happy with it, and it was received so much better than my college-angst stuff, so I thought, OK, this is definitely the right direction for me.