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Mirror Mirror on the Wall
Reflecting on the effective horror flick Oculus.

In the realm of modestly budgeted horror cinema, it takes little to be crowned king. Oculus is a surprisingly good entry in that category, and I don't mean that with faint praise. Carefully constructed and unusually thoughtful, director Mike Flanagan has expanded his short film of the same name (from nearly eight years ago) and made an unsettling picture. It’s filled with indelible images and editing that is buoyed by an extremely solid lead performance from Karen Gillan (best known for her work on the BBC show Doctor Who). Gillan and actor Brenton Thwaites play the grown-up versions of Tim and Kaylie Russell, two kids scarred by horrific events involving their parents from childhood. The parents are played by Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff. The younger versions of themselves are played with great wide-eyed efficacy by Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso. The events left Kaylie in the foster care system and Tim in a mental health facility. On Tim's release, Kaylie pulls him back into the family's sordid history with a carefully thought-out plan to destroy the antique mirror that she believes to be the source of all of their strife. But not before absolving their family name by recording its ill effects.

There's quite a bit of The Shining contained in Oculus' DNA, with its tale of a family unit (distant father, faltering mother) disintegrating under the withering glare of a possible supernatural force. Oculus is strongest while playing with the notion that this might just be the tale of a family whose collapse is indebted to mental illness instead of a malevolent antique furniture. Genre conventions must assert themselves though. The notion, never exactly tossed away, gives way to a more standard third act, bringing the events of the past and present to a definitive conclusion. What assures the film of avoiding sinking into a morass of convention, is the aforementioned work from actress Gillan and director Flanagan. Flanagan could have easily turned the film into a series of parlor tricks involving brief glimpses of spooky reflections, but he instead takes a more metaphorical tact with the cursed object that causes our heroes to reflect instead of its shiny surface. From her introduction (a hypnotic shot of her ponytail bobbing back and forth like a blazing red pendulum) all the way to the film's conclusion, Gillan does fine work. Managing to project anger and strength alongside instability and vulnerability throughout she early on, she hisses, “I hope it still hurts” at a crack in the baroque mirror's façade. She shoulders the bulk of the film's expository dialogue with the film's emotional resonance and doesn't sag under the weight of either.

 For a film largely set in one location (we're pretty much locked into the family home for most of the film, slickly shifting between the past and present) the film feels expansive in scope. Where the strictures of low-budget filmmaking often cause a filmmaker's ambition to chafe around the edges, Flanagan shows no such strain and immerses you in the film's intimate setting. There are problems, of course. Thwaites fares considerably less strong that Gillan for most of the run time (through no fault of his own - he's given the unenviable task of spitting out dialogue such as “Have you heard of the fuzzy-trace theory?” in the midst of emotional arguments). The film suffers when its delicate balance tilts too far in the direction of the overtly supernatural with glowing-eyed past victims of the mirror, but these are small defects in what is a very slick production. Horror movies prove rarely effective in mainstream cinema, and rarer still is a horror film that is clearly grappling with broader issues through the lens of genre (inherited illness and childhood victims without a support system are both tackled here), so for Oculus to do both is certainly praise-worthy. And even if it lands in an all-too familiar place by film's end (you have to leave room for Oc-2-lus, I suppose), the journey toward that destination is too well performed and ingeniously crafted to ignore.

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