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Toronto Film Review: ‘Oculus’

Mike Flanagan's latest is an impressively intricate supernatural thriller, cleverly complex if not quite as scary or memorable as one might have hoped.

With:

Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval, Kate Siegel, Scott Graham.

Five years before “Absentia,” a haunting and character-rich horror tale, Mike Flanagan directed 2006’s “Oculus: The Man With the Plan,” a half-hour fright film that won raves from genre fans on the fest circuit. His new feature expands it into an impressively intricate supernatural thriller in which an orphaned brother and sister return to destroy the antique mirror they think killed their parents years earlier. Cleverly complex, if not quite as scary or memorable as one might have hoped, “Oculus” should expand on the underseen “Absentia’s” buzz (though probably still mostly through home formats) and boost Flanagan another step up the industry ladder.

In 2002 the Russell clan moved into a nice new suburban house, buying some upscale decor items to celebrate. Among them was a roughly 300-year-old wall mirror hung in the home office of dad Alan (Rory Cochrane). Soon he was spending an inordinate amount of time locked in there, overheard talking to a “lady” who was never seen coming or going, and manifesting increasingly secretive, irrational behavior. Mom Marie (Katee Sackhoff) grew concerned with his odd manner, then started losing grip herself. The ultimate result: two dead adults, two surviving but permanently traumatized children.

After that, 10-year-old Tim was sent to a juvenile mental institution that he’s being released from now, on the brink of his 21st birthday. (He’s played as an adult by Brenton Thwaites.) His doctor (Miguel Sandoval) is confident that he’s finally, fully put into perspective the delusions that have plagued him since his parents’ demise. Reuniting with older sister Kaylie (Gillan), however, he finds she still holds tight to the version of events he’s since renounced. In fact, after spending years in foster-care homes, she began an auction-house career solely to regain possession of the “Lasser Glass” the Russells once owned. (She’s also uncovered the long history of grotesque and inexplicable deaths suffered by prior owners.)

Having inherited the house they last lived in together, Kaylie pushes reluctant Tim into participating into the elaborate experiment she’s set up to document the mirror’s malevolent supernatural powers — and absolve the family of lingering domestic-violence-turned-deadly accusations — before they destroy it for good.

This involves rigging multiple surveillance cameras, battery-run backup lighting (should electricity fail), regular check-in calls from her fiance (James Lafferty), scattered houseplants (the mirror is said to wither them), even a dog (canines tend to bark hysterically at the antique, then disappear). Naturally, just when it seems Tim’s skepticism is justified, signs occur making it very clear that the mirror does indeed still possess a malignant force.

From this point Flanagan and Jeff Howard’s script goes into overdrive, not merely with the usual false scares and “gotcha!” moments but with a genuinely complicated series of reality inversions that have our protagonists increasingly unable to differentiate between their childhood recollections (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan play the preadolescent siblings), or even between what’s actually happening now and what tricks the mirror plays on their perception. Needless to say, they are outmatched.

While there’s a certain budget-friendly claustrophobia and some thematic familiarity (especially of the “Amityville Horror” type) to these goings-on, “Ocular” succeeds in keeping the viewer’s bearings unsettled as the helmer’s effective building of dread curdles into a series of narrative twists as dislocating as an Escher-drawn staircase. The only significant flaw is that the mirror never really develops much personality of its own; it’s just something bad. There’s a seemingly dominant ghoul glimpsed occasionally, but she just resembles another glowing-eyed, stringy-haired ghost like her past victims, which in turn look like a lot of recent “Ring”-modeled horror specters.

Performances are generally strong, and tech/design contributions get a lot out of action largely confined to a few bare rooms. The Newton Brothers’ ominously pulsing score is wildly different from the Lalo Schifrin-style funky ’70s sounds they provided for Toronto fest closer “Life of Crime.”

Toronto Film Review: 'Oculus'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 12, 2013. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production:

An Intrepid Pictures and Micus Entertainment presentation of an Intrepid production. (International sales: Focus Features Intl., London.) Produced by Trevor Macy, Marc D. Evans. Executive producers, Peter Schlessel, Anil Kurian, D. Scott Lumpkin, Dale Johnson, Glenn Murray, Julie May, Mike Ilitch Jr.

Crew:

Directed by Mike Flanagan. Screenplay, Flanagan, Jeff Howard, based on the short film "Oculus: The Man With the Plan." Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Michael Fimognari; music, the Newton Brothers; music supervisor, Andy Ross; editor, Flanagan; art director, Elizabeth Boller; set decorator, Michelle Marchand; costume designer, Lynn Falconer; sound (Dolby), Michael Koff; sound designer, Stephen Hl. Flick; re-recording mixers, Marty D. Humphrey, Chris M. Jacobson; special effects makeup, Bill Johnson; assistant director, David Cluck; casting, Anne McCarthy, Ellie Roy.

With:

Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval, Kate Siegel, Scott Graham.

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