Review: With Mike Flanagan at the Helm, American Horror is Making a Comeback

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By Edwin Pagán

(Special to Latin Heat Magazine – April 5, 20014)

OCULUS – Release date: April 11, 2014 / USA / R  / 104 mins
Relativity Media, Blumhouse Productions, Intrepid Pictures, WWE Studios

I have to say off the bat that I really got into Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (and you know coming from this hard-ass that’s saying a lot). There is a dynamic synergy between director/editor (Flanagan) and cinematographer (Michael Fimognari) at work here. The film is tight and Flanagan seamlessly inter-cuts the past and present to move the story and plot along nicely. The build up of the dual time-lines as the film’s protagonists relive their past trauma and attempt to resolve their unfinished business, was brilliantly done. I purposely tried to find fault with the execution on this but could not on a first pass. The onscreen chemistry between the brother and sister at the core of the story – both as innocent children and flawed adults – is fantastic and only adds to the magic. The cinematography also hits all the right genre conventions without going into ‘stylized hell.’ The Newton Brothers’ score wraps it up in a bow.

Oculus.Miguel SandovalOculus begins with 21-year old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) in a therapeutic triage session with his psychologist (Miguel Sandoval) to determine if he is fit to be allowed back into society after a 10-year stint in a mental institution for murdering his parents. Answering all the prerequisites to the doctor’s satisfaction, a favorable recommendation is made to the bin’s review board and he is indeed released.  Elsewhere, stunning redhead Kaylie (Karen Gillan) floats about during an auction, her attention riveted on a particular lot – a dark, ornate 300-year-old mirror known as the Lasser Glass (named after its first owner, and its first victim, Philip Lasser). The unit is sold and she unceremoniously excuses herself, and we’re back with Tim as he as emerges awkwardly into freedom, finding his older sister – Kaylie Russell (23) – there to greet him. These two, we will see, have promises to keep and miles to walk before they can sleep.

Oculus.youngkidsIn a blink we’re back in 2002 during a simpler time for the Russells as the family is moving into a new home. There is promise in the air and they make a handsome unit. Father Alan (Rory Cochrane) and Mom Marie (Katee Sackhoff) have purchased a few new items to go along with their new nest, including the Lasser glass. Young Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and Tim (Garrett Ryan) are 13 and 11 years old, respectively.

In the present, Kaylie works her organizational skills, and per the doc’s orders, quickly has Tim settled into a small apartment as part of his acclimation process. In short order, Kaylie is attempting to immerse Tim into her overzealous plan of not only clearing his name of the tragic deaths but also prove the Lasser glass is to blame. Kaylie’s plan involves confiscating the malignant mirror from her fiancée’s auction house and have it delivered to their childhood home, and scene of the murders. After a bit of kicking and screaming, big ‘Timo’ relents.  The coming together of dualities is a theme that will effectively weave its way throughout the film.

It’s obvious that while Tim underwent a decade-long incarceration, and deep-seeded mental fuck at the hands of his handlers, Kalie was busy doing research into the mirror’s history and kill ratio. She finds it has roots dating back to the 1700s and forward to the death of their parents, and a rather eclectic mix of all manner of shortcomings for its previous owners. Kaylie and Tim’s world is turned upside down as they increasingly cannot dispel reality from fiction – or the past from the herenow as the unknown entity lurking in the glass defends itself from annihilation.

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Taking a page from a police procedural, Kaylie’s rigged the home with enough tech to make any IT technician or NSA operative salivate. This includes a multi-cam setup, gauges that detect rapid fluctuations in room temperature, and a host of alarms geared to remind her to eat and hydrate during the long haul. Then there’s the spring-released pendulum that holds a ship’s anchor and weights set to swing and plunge into the mirror’s heart – or rather that of the deadly force residing inside (whatever that is). And since life forms seem to wilt in the mirror’s concentric field of influence, she’s placed dozens of potted plants through the house to judge the toxic and safety zones. But the plans of mice and men must come undone as the very malevolent vanity has a say in the matter, too.

“The mirror reflects people’s own insecurities, their fears,” says Mike Flanagan. “The way that we look at a mirror to evaluate ourselves, the mirror does the same thing to us. It can zero in on the cracks inside of us. That’s how it gets in.”

Soon enough, the Lasser glass is making its presence felt in 2002 as Marie incrementally begins to lose it. What starts out as a jealous pang when the children query about the “new woman” in dad’s study, quickly plummets into a full, all-out nervous breakdown as the demonic power takes hold of her soul and senses. At first, Alan is too entrenched in his work to notice the dire changes, but eventually comes around to the dark side as well, as he too is overpowered by the unseen force and becomes its obsessed guardian in human form. From there all hell breaks loose, including Flanagan’s astute touch, making the well-timed spurts of suspense well worth the wait.

The film’s 3rd act showdown contains some nice blocking of the actors that posits the young and adult iterations of Kaylie and Tim interacting with each other in visually interesting and frightening ways. The events of the present begin to mimic and retrace the tragic course of the past. The siblings get to observe each other in the contrasted decades as if bridging the gulf of time and space via a black hole. For example: adult Kaylie hears Tim scream from another room and runs to his aide, only to burst in and come face-to-face with a young Tim. Sometimes they even finish their other self’s sentence in this warped, linear timeline. The one aberrational shift between past and present is that as children in 2002, Kaylie leads the escape from their possessed parents being the older sibling, while in the present, Tim takes charge while Kaylie becomes shocked and incapacitated by the ordeal. “We have to get really, really brave,” she tells her younger traumatized brother in 2002. Tim echoes these same words to Kaylie in the present in an attempt to help motivate her onward to safety.

Oculus (2014) starts out with the slow simmer of a tea kettle and quickly ramps up to a boiling and screaming head of steam. Working from a complex and psychological screenplay by Jeff Howard, Flanagan effectively wrangles stories that takes place in the past and present – often simultaneously – and blends them into one pulsating narrative. There’s an elegant slight of hand, a magician’s bait and switch, if you will, that keeps us wanting more and not quite allowing us to get ahead of the plot. Flanagan plays foreshadowing to great effect – nothing revealed is wasted – and even something as minute as a hairline crack on the glass eventually bears fruit.

The current film is based on Flanagan’s 2005 short of the same name that he made for a mere $1,500, and helped get him on the industry’s radar. Oculus contains a good mix of story and plot – and a few gags that will make you sit upright. While it’s rare for me, one got me shielding my face before collecting myself and looking around to see if I’d been made by any of the other reviewers. Maybe it was because I was so close to the screen (ahem), but nevertheless it got me.

Not to give anything away, but the guilty jolt in question happens during a moment when young Kaylie goes to peek in on her ‘sick’ mother after being kept away by her increasingly strange father. YIKES!

By now, I can imagine, you know where I’m going with this. So here it is…

THE FINAL WORD:

‘OCULUS’ manages to flawlessly mix the suspense of classic horror with modern ingenuity to produce genuinely stunning chills sans the tired clichés. With Mike Flanagan at the helm, American horror is making a comeback.

Edwin.Pagan PixEdwin Pagán is a New York-based writer, photographer, filmmaker and cultural activist. He produced the hard-hitting documentary Latinos Beyond Reel, and is currently in production on his signature project  Bronx Burning, a documentary that chronicles the rise, fall and resurrection of the South Bronx. Pagan is the founder-in-chief of LATIN HORROR, a website and online publication geared to the genre of Latin horror in all its forms. He is also writing a book on the subject titled “MIEDO – The History of Latin Horror.”
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2 thoughts on “Review: With Mike Flanagan at the Helm, American Horror is Making a Comeback

  • April 8, 2014 at 12:45 PM
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    Amazing review!

    • April 8, 2014 at 1:21 PM
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      Thank you. Edwin Pagan sure knows how to bring out the essence of a film through his reviews. This review has got us all waiting to go see this film.

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