TIFF 2013: Oculus – Mike Flanagan

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Ever since I first discovered the awesomeness of TIFF (1998 or so?), the Midnight Madness program has kind of always been my thing. I used to set up ticket-buying with friends, meet everyone in line, and have a blast at whichever movie we saw. But things started to fall apart after a few years, and when I made the decision to go in by myself when a couple of friends didn’t show up on time for the screening, I started planning to go alone, and never really looked back. There’s just something special about the crowd at a Midnight Madness screening. From inflatable items being passed around, to rhythmic clapping through the Loreal commercials, to the near-patented “YAAARRRRR!!!” that found its way to the anti-piracy warning screen before every festival screening – the MM crowd is one of a kind. Everyone is there to have a great time, to cheer and jeer between the screams. Colin Geddes gets the house whipped into a frenzy of excitement and anticipation before every film, and the post-screening Q&A’s are among the most hilarious and enjoyable I’ve ever seen.

So when I was diagnose with MS and started going on this weekly injectible medication that makes me feel like ass for a couple of days each week, I quickly found out (last year) that midnight screenings are way harder on my body now than they ever were before. When three of them nearly did me in last year, I decided that I had to cut down to one per TIFF…maybe two at most. But I definitely have no intention of giving them up all together, and while it wouldn’t be the same seeing a daytime screening from that program, it would still be better than missing some of the films completely, just because my body and brain aren’t working together so well anymore.

This year, my film of choice was Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan. In one sense it was a no-brainer for me, because Katee Sackhoff is in it, and she is awesome. The fact that it seemed to be a twist on the haunted house story – which is one of my favourite kinds of horror tale – only with a haunted mirror instead of a whole house, just made it all the more intriguing to me. I even played it past a couple of friends after I’d gotten my ticket, just in case anyone wanted to join me, and lucked out with my old pal, Jen, with whom I’d last seen You’re Next as a Midnight Madness screening. We got in, chose our seats, and as soon as the giant inflatable globe started bouncing around, we settled in happily for the madness.

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That was a long-winded way of explaining why I was so excited to see this particular film, and why my anticipation level was so high. Now, maybe, when I say that not only was I not disappointed at all with my choice, but that my expectations were actually far exceeded, you’ll understand just how much I freaking loved this movie! Oculus introduces us to a pair of siblings who apparently went through something pretty horrific when they were children. The brother, Tim (Brenton Thwaites) in fact, is just being released from some sort of mental hospital ward ten years after whatever happened happened. His sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan) is doing far better, happily engaged to a nice man, and working at some sort of auction house. She seems particularly interested in a huge black mirror which gets sold for a tidy sum while she looks on.

Kaylie picks up Tim upon his release, and within moments of his first breaths of free air in the past decade, she tells him that she “found it”. From there, the film flips back and forth between past and present, showing us what happened in their house ten years ago, and what’s being done about it now. There’s only one trouble: The siblings don’t seem to share the same memories as to what actually occured. Tim is keen to find his place in the outside world again – he gets a hotel room to have his own space, buys a cell phone and figures out how to work it, etc. Kaylie, however, has other plans. She still owns the house from when their parents died that night, and she works out a temporary way of getting the mirror back into it under the disguise of a repair work order through the auction house. Her plan is to provoke the mirror into action, and then kill it.

Wait…who was the crazy one again?

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She gets her brother to agree to stay for awhile, at least, and then explains her whole set up – everything she’s discovered over the years – recording everything as she goes through it. Her obsession is palpable, and the flashback scenes between the two show two completely different sets of memories – one pretty normal, and one not so much. Before long, it was difficult to tell whose recollection was more accurate. At least, if we weren’t at a Midnight Madness screening, it would be hard to tell. As it was, however, I was pretty sure the crazy-seeming girl was bang on, and that little brother had been rationalized out of his memories.

For awhile, however, nothing happens. The mirror is just a mirror, the plants are all alive, Dog is practically napping, and it’s a peaceful evening in an almost empty house. Then, without warning, the shit hits the fan. Within seconds, the film flips us on our heads and the ride is begun in earnest. Nothing we see can be trusted. Young Tim and Kaylie and events from the past collide and inhabit the same space as the sibling duo in the present, and nothing is what it seems. Just the mirror, hanging there all innocent, watching over everything with an evil grin on its…no wait, it doesn’t have an actual face, per se. Still…

Oculus is brilliant, terrifying, and even rather sad. At one point, I thought the flashbacks to the kids when they were little would be fine, since we know they survived their first mirror ordeal, but after awhile, I wasn’t even sure I could rely on that idea as fact. For all I know, they never really got away from it in the first place. Maybe they never really left the house. It is THAT messed up! And that’s what I loved about it. The film is put together so well, and doesn’t rely on gimmicks to get the scare. Even when you think you can guess what’s about to happen – and then it does – your smugness is short-lived, because chances are, it wasn’t what you thought, after all. I love when a film can keep me guessing, I love when it legitimately scares me rather than just making me jump a few times, and I really love when I can’t stop thinking about it or talking about it after. I can’t say enough about this one, and I am so glad I made it my one allowed Midnight Madness screening that I could see actually AT midnight. The perfect film with the perfect crowd at the perfect time of the year. I need to see it again.

Just one major question that I didn’t think to ask during the Q&A – did Dog go off and live a happy, healthy life somewhere after? Or was he ever really there at all?

Oculus is screening at TIFF 2013 as I write this, but then once more again on Sunday September 15th at 6pm. Don’t miss it!

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