I saw Mike Flanagan's hair-raising horror short film "Oculus" at 2007's Microcinema Fest in Palatine, where it deservedly won the "Best of the Fest" award.
Seven years later, Flanagan has beefed up "Oculus" to a full-length, cinematically impressive feature, yet the nerve-jangling essence of his haunted mirror mystery remains intact with its risky, twisty tale of two siblings struggling to destroy an evil entity that's been killing people for hundreds of years.
"Oculus"★ ★ ★
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackoff, Rory Cochrane, James Lafferty
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Other: A Relativity Media release. Rated R for violence. 105 minutes
It begins with adult Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan, a striking actress with fiery red hair from TV's "Dr. Who") locating the antique mirror she believes killed her mother Marie (Katee Sackoff) and father Alan (Rory Cochrane) in 2002. Kaylie returns the mirror to the old house where her parents died horribly.
There, she presses her younger brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) into service as part of her plan to stop the evil. Tim, 21, has just been released from a juvenile mental institution.
He was 10 when Alan tortured and killed Marie, then young Tim subsequently killed his father. At least, that's the official story.
Kaylie, with Tim, embarks on an ambitious, elaborate task to document her investigation with video cameras, alarm clocks that go off (to remind them to eat and drink), temperature-change alerts and hourly checkup calls from her boyfriend.
One more piece of insurance: She rigs a weighty anchor from the ceiling, one that will be released and crash into the mirror if a timer isn't reset by hand every 30 minutes. So, if something happens to Tim and Kaylie, it's shatter time for the evil mirror.
"Oculus" marks an ingeniously inventive horror film hailing from a fine tradition of haunted house tales where mysterious forces play with human perceptions and attempt to corrupt people's souls, or force victims to commit heinous acts against their loved ones or themselves.
"The Amityville Horror," "The Shining," "1408" and the "Paranormal Activity" movies exemplify the genre, although "Oculus" does the best job of showing us how insidious the process of hijacking someone's perceptions gets.
"Oculus" frequently flashes back to 2002 when the elaborate mirror -- called the "Lesser Glass" after its first known owner in 1754 -- begins killing houseplants and messing with the family dog.
Young Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan) notice something not quite right with Dad, who spends a lot of time in his office with the mirror.
Kaylie thinks she's the only one who sees the mysterious woman hovering around Dad. She turns out to be wrong.
Flanagan writes and directs "Oculus" with diabolical cleverness in the way he juxtaposes past events with present experiences. He illustrates how the siblings' thoughts and perceptions become manipulated to the point they begin to doubt their sanity.
In one scene, Kaylie and Tim discover their video cameras turned away from the mirror. When they check the security footage. they watch in disbelief as they view themselves moving the cameras.
But they never did that! Or did they? Or is the security footage just a mental trick?
The big unsettling question the movie tacitly poses is this: How do you fight something with the power to control what you see?
Amazingly, "Oculus" juggles lots of time shifting and quick intercutting with a minimum of confusion. Still, Flanagan isn't above falling back on cheesy animated corpses with glowing eyes and decomposing flesh.
The mysterious entity isn't a particularly interesting one as far as spirits go. We never gain a sense of what this force is or what motivates it.
In the hands of George Romero, "Oculus" would be a hard-hitting metaphor for the danger of Americans surrendering their critical thinking skills and their world views to media ideologues.
In the hands of Mike Flanagan, it's a nifty creepfest of weirdness in which the last sentence Dad says to his son consists of a single word: