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In my travels to the best film festivals in…
On Sunday, September 8, 2013 I attended the gala World Premiere of Oculus at the Toronto International Film Festival. The sold-out event was held in the 1250-seat Ryerson Theatre. The film was a selection in the Midnight Madness section.
The supernatural power inherent in mirrors is a chilling theme as old as storytelling. From Alfred Hitchcock to Rod Serling, and present-day features such as fest fave The Broken from Sean Ellis (Sundance 2008) and Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors, horror fans can’t get enough of the genre. In Mike Flanagan’s magnificent thriller Oculus, Katee Sackhoff and Brenton Thwaites star as siblings Marie and Tim Russell. They reacquire an ornate mirror which has been passed down through many generations, allegedly leaving mysterious occurrences in its wake. Marie is determined to get to the bottom of the object’s enigmatic past, including its horrific tenure in their childhood home and the frightening memories -- and unanswered questions -- which have haunted her day and night.
This is an adaptation of director Mike Flanagan’s own award-winning 2006 short film Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan, co-written with Jeff Seidman. Jeff Howard was brought onboard to co-write the script, his first feature. Flanagan served as editor on this, as well. His other notable movie credits include Ghosts of Hamilton Street and Absentia. This is his fifth feature.
Katee Sackhoff paid her dues in television, starring as Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace in over 70 episodes across five years of Battlestar Galactica. As Oculus' woman in charge, Sackhoff’s unrelenting intensity drives the narrative. Marie’s singular determination to conquer the curse of the villainous mirror is truly a force to contend with. Bearing the unintended brunt of her ferocity is young Brenton Thwaites, an Aussie TV teen idol who starred as Stu Henderson in over 50 episodes of Home and Away, Oz’s long running soap (25 years and counting). He crossed over into American television in 2012’s Blue Lagoon: The Awakening. His innocent nature lends authenticity to his obedience as the baby-faced younger brother beholden to his sister’s obsession. Marie is just a step ahead of Tim in maturity and yet needs him on her level to accomplish this enterprise. Other notable performances are turned in by Karen Gillan and Rory Cochrane as the siblings’ parents Kaylie and Alan Russell in the flashback sequences, while young Marie and Tim are superbly played by tweens Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan Ewald.
Oculus is a relatively low budget independent film but has the high production values characteristic of a Hollywood movie. That distinct look owes much to master cinematographer Michael Fimognari. He shot five of my favorite festival films of the past decade: Black Irish with Melissa Leo, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Angarano, Tom Guiry, and Emily VanCamp (Hamptons 2006), Brotherhood with Lou Taylor Pucci, Trevor Morgan, and Jon Foster (SXSW 2010), Beautiful Boy with Kyle Gallner, Maria Bello, and Michael Sheen (Toronto 2010), and 96 Minutes with Brittany Snow and Christian Serratos (SXSW 2011). Fimognari holds the distinction of being the only cinematographer who shot more than one film on my annual "Best of the Year" list (Brotherhood and Beautiful Boy in 2010). Other notable credits include Fighting Tommy Riley, Yonkers Joe, and Dare. He received an Honorable Mention from the American Society of Cinematographers in 2002 for their ASC Heritage Award.
Fimognari's conscientious camerawork in Oculus hearkens back to classic Hitchcock. The layered narrative’s multiple storylines cut back and forth between flashbacks and the present day, often moments apart, necessitating some visual sleight of hand lest the audience get lost in the time periods. Fimognari achieves this, in part, with the childhood scenes characterized by a warm color palette of ambers and browns, while the modern period is colder with prominent blues and greens. Most of the action takes place in one house but, for example, several doctor’s office scenes are bathed in white. Naturally, mirrors are featured prominently, along with windows and glass objects as a way of extending the cursed object’s power throughout Marie and Tim’s environment. Thus, a two-person character study becomes three with the focus on the glass objects literally consuming their energy. How the camera is kept out of the mirror's reflection is a filmmaker secret.
The Newton Brothers, with a résumé approaching 30 features and short films, composed the foreboding score and played much of the music, as well. Like any good genre picture, the soundtrack is a character unto itself. The piano and string-heavy orchestration enhances the ominous atmosphere that pervades Oculus.
Flanagan and Howard’s script is filled with rapid fire dialogue, unusual for the genre but necessary to counteract the static and potentially stale nature of the location. The action is nonstop as well, with a steady dose of crowd-pleasing reveals and jump scares throughout, featuring shocking visual effects even to the seasoned horror fan. We truly don’t know what’s coming, and there are enough “How did they do that?” moments to keep viewers engaged right through the spectacularly breathtaking third act.
Like most genre films, Oculus is recommended more to an audience that appreciates horror. While this two-person one-location psychological thriller owes more to Hitchcock and Serling than the Saw franchise, there's enough blood and gore here to qualify it as a pick not for the squeamish. But for fans of the creepy and sinister, Oculus is a delightfully frightening treat.
NOTE: See my photos of the World Premiere Q&A. I selected Oculus for my Toronto International Film Festival Top Picks. The film was first runner-up for the Midnight Madness Audience Award. It was produced by Trevor Macy and Marc Evans with executive producer Anil Kurian for Intrepid Pictures. Focus Features is worldwide sales rep. FilmDistrict is handling US theatrical sales along with Paradigm for all media. Four days after the screening, Relativity picked up theatrical distribution rights for North America in partnership with Blumhouse Productions. A wide release is planned – no date is set yet.
Some stills are below.
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…