When I picked up the Washington Post and read Michael O'Sullivan's review hailing Oculus as "the most unnerving poltergeist picture since The Conjuring," my hopes for film fun were not high. That's like calling a new comedy the funniest picture since White Chicks. We're not exactly talking benchmarks of excellence.
So I was pleasantly stunned to discover that the latest from writer-director Mike Flanagan (Absentia) is easily the most smartly made, conceptually inventive supernatural thriller in years. I can't remember the last time I watched a horror movie and caught myself thinking, Jesus, this is pretty freaking clever! I can assure you it wasn't the last time I watched The Conjuring.
You know a filmmaker's got something on the ball when he can take a trope as overused as a magic mirror and make you forget for a couple hours all the clichéd ways they've appeared in movies over the decades. That's precisely what Flanagan does. The reflective fixture at the center of his story may be 400 years old, but the uses to which he puts it are fresh from his frontal lobe.
This is a story of revenge. In 2002, the Russells moved into a suburban McMansion. The problem for mom (Katee Sackhoff), dad (Rory Cochrane), 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10-year-old Tim (Garrett Ryan) wasn't that the house was haunted. Rather, an antique mirror bought for Pop's home office was.
Faster than you can say "housing crisis," the parents began acting strangely and, before long, violently. First Dad pulled out his fingernail — he thought it was a Band-Aid. Then Mom went bonkers and he chained her to their bedroom wall. Long story short: When his father came after him with a gun, Tim managed to take it away and kill him.
This is all blood under the bridge when the movie opens, 11 years later. Tim, played in the present by Brenton Thwaites, has just been released from an institution on his 21st birthday. Kaylie (Scottish actress Karen Gillan) has the perfect gift. She's tracked down the home furnishing of evil and returned it to the scene of the crime. Her plan is to kill two birds with one stone: destroy the mirror and repair the damage to their family name.
No birds are killed in the ensuing face-off, but human beings are — and in seriously unsettling ways. The script by Flanagan and Jeff Howard eschews jump scares and gratuitous gore in favor of unusually clever ideas, an atmosphere drenched in dread and creatively creepy visuals.
Kaylie sets up a bank of video cameras and laptops to record the siblings' every move and document the malevolent power of the looking glass. The filmmaker has some truly trippy fun with these. At one point, for example, what we see the siblings doing doesn't line up with what's displayed on the monitors. At another, they hit rewind and find that what they thought had been happening for the past several minutes bears zero relation to the truth caught on camera.
And don't get me started on the siblings' cells. These are easily the eeriest phone calls since Robert Blake dead-dialed in Lost Highway. I can't recall the last time a film created such a convincing sense of otherworldliness. (Again, it wasn't the last time I watched The Conjuring.) Movie critic law forbids my saying more beyond this: Prepare for the rare experience of not being disappointed by a modern work of horror.
The tagline for Oculus is "You see what it wants you to see." I'm pretty sure it wants me to see it again.