By Kat Ellinger
You see what it wants you to see….
If you look back through history mirrors have had a long standing relationship with supernatural and superstitious beliefs. For instance in some countries it has been custom to cover mirrors in the house when a death occurs, to stop the soul going astray. Mirrors are often seen as doorways to another world, places for ghosts to appear. They carry connotations that breaking one can render a person seven years bad luck. This idea- that mirrors are often much more than they seem- has been used in horror films time and time again. For example, the age old trick of discovering a vampire has been established with the no reflection trope; vampires do not have souls, and, therefore, lack a reflection. Apparitions are often known to appear in mirrors during films concerning hauntings. Finally films such as Candyman (1992) have used a mirror as a vehicle to carry a malignant force into the physical plain. So it is that Indie director Mike Flanagan brings his own ‘mirror’ horror to the fold with Oculus – due to hit cinemas in the UK on June 13th, 2014, however, where Flanagan’s effort differs from the herd is that the mirror is the main villain of the piece and not just a plot device to usher in the main event.
Placing, what could be considered, a fairly unthreatening piece of antique furniture centre stage in his feature could be considered by some as a bold move by Flanagan. A mirror after all is an inanimate object and, therefore, what possible harm could it pose to anyone? Well consider this… what if what the mirror had the power to distort vision in the real world, control an individual, penetrate an individual’s soul and make that person unwittingly carry out heinous acts without them even being aware? What if a mirror could take everything good from an environment and poison it with a sickness that was so subtle, no one could see it until it was too late? Mike Flanagan poses such questions in Oculus. The story of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan- Dr.Who) and Tom (Brenton Thwaites) who set themselves up in their old family home, with an antique mirror Kaylie believes led their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) to torture and kill their mother Marie (Katee Sackhoff), and then ultimately take his own life. Kaylie believes that it was the mirror- known as the Lasser Glass- which drove their father to act against his own will, and she is intent on proving it. The narrative successfully blends past and present into a heady mixture of distorted reality. Can the siblings believe anything they see, or remember, and just how did their parents really die?
Flanagan’s inspired story grew from his 2006 project, an award winning short ‘Oculus: Chapter 3- The Man with a Plan’ which saw an individual pit his wits against a mirror that he believed had caused the deaths of innocent people. With this new feature length project, the director expands this idea to encompass a typical family which falls foul to the malignant force that silently invades their home. This arrives in the form of a rather gothic but fairly innocent looking antique mirror; a mirror with a deep dark secret of bloodshed and murder for those who have previously owned it. As such the film, which has done well on the festival circuit Stateside, has been polarising viewers. Marketed as a jump scare type of venture, think James Wan’s The Conjuring, Oculus is anything but. Flanagan crafts his narrative from a deeper canvass than thrill-seeking bangs and things jumping out, instead moving on a psychological level. Strong performances throughout and some inspired editing make this film a must for those who love a slow, brooding horror that can seep into your pores. Some have commented on that lack of fast action pacing; however this subtle crafting of a tale leaves something far more resonant and deep. While the pace is low-key to begin with, Oculus is not a film without its more explicit moments. Rated R for violence in America, the smouldering plot is embellished with some outstanding and graphic visuals- maintaining a resonance in contrast to the largely dialogue heavy plot; all building to a mind bending conclusion that goes hell bent for leather on maintaining shock and tension.
Whatever the opinion Oculus is definitely a title which has been the topic of discussion in recent months, SCREAM were interested to know more and met up with director Mike Flanagan to ask him all about it…
Scream: So Oculus started life as a short- which was a massive hit on the indie scene- a couple of questions about that- first where did you get the initial concept from, why a mirror in particular?
Mike: Mirrors, mirrors have always freaked me out. One of the things that strikes me about them is the interaction with them every day, multiple times a day. In fact it’s always one of the first things we do. When we see our reflection, we assume that it is reality, and actually our entire self-image that we’ve built for ourselves in our minds is based on that. We give it an awful lot of trust. But our reflection is actually distorted. All of us think of ourselves backwards. So that’s the first major distortion. Then each reflective glass surface has hundreds of tiny little distorting factors that we ignore. So that’s always been fascinating to me. Then the idea in the Jewish faith of covering mirrors at funerals to prevent spirits from coming back into the world that always really terrified me! Those two ideas together are what started it.
Scream: So the initial film it was just one guy and a mirror?
Mike: Yes that’s right.
Scream: How difficult was it to make that into the feature length film which brought in different characters?
Mike: It was really difficult, it took many years actually. The initial concept, no one could have expanded that to feature length without it being incredibly boring *laughs*. But then we finally hit on the idea of having two protagonists who are in disagreement about what was actually happening, and then being able to balance that with a past storyline which would illuminate how they got there. That took a few years. What was a frustrating part of the process was that every studio that was interested in expanding the short- and there were a number of them- saw that there were cameras in the room and immediately said this should be a found footage movie. We never wanted to do it that way.
Scream: Talking of cameras and mirrors, did that pose any technical difficulties shooting around a large mirror?
Mike: Oh yeah! *laughs*. We learned most of those lessons making the short. Where you have a giant reflective surface there’s about three places in a room where you can put a camera without seeing it. For the feature that was always a serious concern. One of the things we did was, we put the glass of the mirror on a gimbal, so we could tweak it even a couple of inches in any direction. What that also gave us that I loved, was the mirror when you see it on the wall is never actually reflecting what it should be. Everything is always a little off. I thought that, that was really exciting, just from a creative point of view. But I guess that’s just the challenges inherent with mirrors, cameras, dogs and children! *laughs*. They are not normally elements you want to bring together on one shoot.
Scream: A little birdie tells me you are a Doctor Who fan, so what was it like working with Karen Gillan?
Mike: *laughs* I’m a huge Doctor Who fan! And it was a dream come true to work with Karen. I had, had her in mind when we were writing the script because I was such a fan of the work she had done on the show. The biggest challenge for me was to sort of get over the fanboy stuff in the first couple of days *laughs*, which she was really gracious about. But then we got to work and everything was fine. I am also a big Battlestar Galactica fan so I had a kind of incredible fan boy experience having both Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff in the same movie. It was a little overwhelming and certainly really fun for me. They are two of the strongest actresses in the business, I think they are both amazing.
Scream: Talking of the cast in general, there are some really intense scenes in there, what was it like directing those scenes? And also the younger cast members, how did they get to grip with acting out the emotional, powerful elements of the story?
Mike: Well we were fortunate in that our younger actors were incredible finds. Annalise Basso (who plays the younger Kaylie ), self-taped for the movie and sent us the tape and blew us away. So my work with the younger actors, it became clear very early on that they are just naturally fearless and it was about just getting out of their way. Just telling them where to stand and letting them just do what they do naturally. They have honesty in them that I think people lose as they get older.
Scream: They weren’t disturbed by anything then? Because they are put in some difficult positions, especially towards the climax, and there are some violent scenes in there. It didn’t bother them at all?
Mike: It didn’t. The funny thing they were looking forward to that stuff more than anything else! They had so much fun. Because we initially were like, oh we don’t want them traumatised these poor kids. Katee and Rory in particular were very sensitive to it, ‘we need safe words to really make sure this is fine’. And then the kids showed up ready for anything. It was everything you could do to stop Annalise Basso from jumping out the window, because she just wanted to do it! And we had to keep telling her, no we will have a stunt person do that Annalise we can’t throw you out of a window! But the kids were just game for all of the hard stuff. They were just having a ton of fun which made it fun for all the rest of us. It let us feel safe doing a lot of that, because it is really intense stuff, and my worry was going into it that those would be the hardest scenes to do and we would all have to walk this really difficult line. But they made it fun for us and I am really grateful for that.
Scream: On the subject or children, and siblings and parents, where did you get the idea to exploit family relationships to inflict terror?
Mike: Well I think we all learn what is it like to be afraid when we are children. We all learn when we are very, very young. The only thing that lets us get through that is the safety and comfort that a family provides. We get it from our parents, we get it from our siblings. That is our first lesson in knowing that we are safe in the world. From any kind of fiction to come in, to a space that sacred and turn that on its head and say the one place in the world, the safest place, the most primal, young place where we are safe is actually where the horrors are? That resonates with me in a really, really powerful way. Because I had a really lovely childhood, wonderful parents and my brothers I love very much, where everything was safe and comfortable. For me to imagine that being infiltrated by that kind of darkness terrified me, so I tend to respond to that. I think it’s more interesting and more human than a lot of the alternatives the genre will put out there.
Scream: In terms of the genre, what would you say Oculus offers to the genre that hasn’t been done before?
Mike: Well on one hand I think everything has been done before, so it’s always tough to go out and say we are breaking new ground. I don’t know if anyone really ever does. But for us, well the hope was that Oculus is going to give people more relatable and more honest characterisations than are typical in the genre. Oculus will also offer what I hope is also a unique and compelling, challenging narrative structure. One of the most exciting things for me was to try to create an experience for the viewer that would be similar to the experience a character would have interacting with this demonic force, and that’s something too. We tend to watch movies as an objective and removed third party, we get to watch other people experience things. For this one I wanted the viewer to have to sit and experience it the way our characters were. I think that’s different. I can’t think of too many times it’s been attempted, mostly because it’s really, really hard *laughs*. That’s my hope, people will get a smarter, more complex, and more immersive experience than the genre typically requires.
Scream: The film has done really well Stateside, and it is just about to hit Britain, just finally what has the feedback been so far, from fans?
Mike: Fans have been very happy. I had a similar experience with this movie that I had with Absentia which is they tend to be really embraced critically, and they tend to be embraced passionately by people who don’t typically go in for the horror movies. For the horror fans we run the gambit of that it’s either a big percentage of the fans will come out and say ‘oh my god this is one of the best horror movies I have ever seen, love it, love it, love it!’ or people come out of it having never connected with it whatsoever and are equally passionate that it didn’t meet their expectations. I think a lot of that is because the horror genre has created this bedrock of movies like Saw, and Hostel and movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th that trade on gore and much more simple mechanisms for the scares. I think fans expecting those kind of movies, and not expecting to be challenged, don’t know what to do with it. Both of the films have had a polarising effect within the horror community. But I think that is exciting, I am grateful for that. It at least tells me that we are not just cranking out what everybody else is . You know the people that love the movie and the critics tend to be pretty harsh on the genre, so those mean a lot to me when they really respond to it. So the reception for me has been exactly what I wanted it to be.
Scream: Well thank you Mike, thanks for talking to SCREAM MAGAZINE.
Mike: Thank you so much! It was my pleasure.