DIR: Mike Flanagan • WRI: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard • PRO: Marc D. Evans, Trevor Macy • ED: Mike Flanagan • DOP: Michael Fimognari • DES: Russell Barnes • MUS: The Newton Brothers • CAST: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane
If the superstition surrounding the day itself doesn’t inspire sufficient dread, then rest assured that Friday the 13th’s cinema-going experience still aims to infuse the most mundane of household objects with horror. Rather than a spider-walking clothes-horse or a kettle suddenly spouting ancient Aramaic, however, Mike Flanagan’s Oculus instead returns to the most tried and true of mystically malevolent McGuffins – the haunted mirror.
After years in a mental institution, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) is discharged from psychiatric care, his doctor confident that a murderous passage from his youth will not recur once he protects his recovery. Cue elder sister Kailee (Karen Gillan), who wastes no time reconnecting with her brother and attempting to puncture years of psychiatric reasoning to convince him that the long-ago slaughter of their parents was not his fault.
Instead, she has tracked down the item she believes to be responsible – the Lasser Glass, an antique mirror to which she attributes the supernatural possession and murder of its previous 45 owners, including that of the siblings’ parents ten years ago. Over years she has tracked and reclaimed the item and, with a reluctant and disbelieving Tim in tow, she lays the groundwork for a final confrontation with the malevolent force, hoping to exercise the siblings’ own demons in the process.
It’s a basic enough premise on paper, but the true ambition of Oculus comes into play in how it handles the inciting murders ten years previously. Rather than an obligatory voiceover or a throwaway dream sequence, their horrific past is instead drip-fed throughout the narrative, with all of the action taking place in one house, past and present.
Arguably delivering as much screen time as the leading duo in the present day are Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane as the initially-loving but increasingly-dysfunctional parents. Sackhoff in particular impresses, playing a loving mother who increasingly shows the strain as the mirror begins to insinuate itself among her deepest insecurities and turns her against her children, rendered believably wide-eyed and shit-scared by young actors Garret Ryan and Annalise Basso.
The ambition evident in the script, however, often gets in the way of the story. Flanagan’s eschewing of cheap scares in favour of more insidious, cerebral fare works well to begin with, the occasionally hammy exposition of the first hour balanced by grisly tricks of perception and visually powerful moments where the darkness of the siblings’ past encroaches on the harsh, rational daylight of the modern day.
Though more than capably portrayed, one-dimensional characters make it difficult for Oculus to truly get under the skin, and overused audio cues and increasingly incomprehensible cuts between past and present ultimately cause the bubble of dread that Flanagan so desperately tries to preserve to burst far too quickly.
Often feeling better suited to the short it was originally adapted from, the premise of the film is ultimately stretched and folded under its own weight and it becomes easier to respect the effort and ambition than it does to enjoy the outcome. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus desperately wants to lead us down the rabbit hole but, laden down with an overwrought plot that’s not quite as clever as it wants to be, ends up lodged in the entrance instead.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Oculus is released on 13th June 2014