There’s a wonderful horror revolution skitting about my ears at the moment and it’s making me very excited. Everywhere I turn there are horror movies popping up in cinemas, sequel scripts being actioned for great recent films, eerie viral marketing campaigns going on. On Saturday I saw Mike Flanagan’s Oculus at O2 Vue cinema on Finchley Road (a forgettable place, but aptly scary at midnight, being echoey and empty and vast and chilly like an abandoned shopping centre…), and it’s had a domino effect in my brain thinking about all the great horror films I’ve seen in the last five years. Not to mention new directorial talent in the genre.
Mike Flanagan encapsulates all the raw potential and high energy that a young innovator should. Out of his 2006 short ‘Oculus – Chapter 3’ he’s created a revamped-horror story classic that hasn’t been touched in years. It’s not just the gesture to old classics such as Robert Hamer’s sequence in Dead of Night (1945, above) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) that has us reeling – it’s his ability to successfully combine a film about the fragility of memory and fragmented time frames, with a high octane, nail-biting horror, that is captivating until the last.
As the plot of Oculus slowly stitches itself together, we are pushed deeper and deeper into the memory of two siblings who are currently in the middle of trying to coax a mirror into attempting to kill them. We all (us and them) know that the answer lies somewhere in the blurred past, and as they fight to unravel it, we get a sense of an inevitable culmination looming, a fate that was imposed upon them since their childhood. This is a new take on the horror genre, at least as of recent. In this way, Oculus has the same circular narrative as Dead of Night: it doesn’t matter what precautions are taken, or what medical help is sought, because the final horror is in knowing that the characters are trapped inside their own nightmarish destiny.
Kaylie and Tim Russell (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) had their family ripped apart at 13 and 10 when an antique mirror, bought by their father (Rory Cochrane) to adorn his office at home, drives both their parents mad, a situation that ends in Tim being blamed for their deaths and sent to a rehabilitation centre. 11 years later, Tim has been ‘rehabilitated’ (convinced he was psychotic), and released, but Kaylie, who’s grown up into the feisty independent type, is determined to reveal the mirror for what it really is. They embark on a carefully monitored experiment to see if the mirror can be caught in the act of inflicting evil on the living things around it.
The film relies on the depth of the story rather than jumpy moments or gore, and with convincing performances from Gillan and Thwaites, as well as their younger counterparts (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan), you as the viewer find yourself being drawn into the time-travelling tangle (against your will?….Is it the mirror….?).
Katie Sackhoff is particularly convincing in the role of demonic mother-gone-mad. The mirror seems to prey on her specifically as the mother of the house, sickeningly inverting her maternal instinct and inducing her to try to kill her family. Through her downward spiral of paranoia and hysteria (she is convinced, by the mirror’s tricks, that her husband is having an affair in his office), we fall with her. Perhaps the most successful moment of horror in the film is when Kaylie slowly creeps into her parents bedroom to find her mother chained to the floor, writhing and spitting in an attempt to get hold of her daughter, fully decayed into her monstrous form. There is something particularly horrifying about the idea of the mother-monster: the first place of protection turned against you.
On an equally important note, Karen Gillan’s hair is completely mesmerising throughout Oculus. There’s something deliciously erotic about the colour and sheen, a visceral pleasure that feels interwoven with the story itself. It’s one of those specific elements that I would attribute to the Blumhouse touch; an original quirk that brands the film.
Oculus is the latest flick from horror-house Blumhouse Productions, headed by the devastatingly handsome and successful Jason Blum, and who I would deem largely responsible for the current ‘horror revolution’ we find ourselves experiencing. Blum has managed to cultivate a micro-budget, high-concept method of mainstream filmmaking in the horror genre that holds dear those old-school methods of creative free reign and unpatronising stories. He’s made horror cool again.
Back in 2007, Blum’s release of Paranormal Activity inspired a new wave of ‘found footage’ filmmaking and changed the scope of horror from there on. Blum and director Oren Peli used the power of the film’s fans via an online marketing campaign to force Paramount to wide-release the film – it was the first time that a major motion picture studio had ever virally marketed a film. From there he’s gone on to produce low-budget, highly successful film franchises Insidious, Sinister and The Purge.
And there’s a visual and conceptual continuity to these movies that doesn’t have anything to do with the amount of money spent on them (or maybe everything to do with them. Maybe it’s the lack of focus on the finance that gives them a unique glow). Behind every possessed family member and decomposing dead body there’s a sophistication of ideas that we’ve come not to expect from mainstream horror. Blumhouse reminds us that we’re still intelligent enough to deal with conceptual genre films.
It also can’t go unnoticed that women feature heavily in the realm of Blumhouse movies – and not as bodies to slash. Horror is a sensationalist genre; it works on an emotional basis, exposing our inner demons in a contained environment for us to experience and then dismiss. The rational has to be relinquished in order for us to be drawn in. This is female territory: hysteria, passion, family, the home, mystery and evil allure.
The female characters dominate our attention, overcoming nightmarish obstacles, and showing strength where the male characters often crumble. Blumhouse films of late are taking horror back to a place where, I think, it should naturally be.
Oculus is getting the Iguana status: it initiates thought processes that are going to be thrilling to watch evolve, elevates Mike Flanagan (the next James Wan?) into the mainstream scene with a swish of Gillan’s ginger hair, and reconfirm’s Blumhouse’s reputation as the chief house in horror today.
(p.s, Jason – please marry me)