In an attempt to give a new twist to what he calls the “well worn” horror genre that features some kind of evil presence disturbing a happy family in their happy home, filmmaker Mike Flanagan, 35, hopes he’s pushed the right buttons with “Oculus,” a horror/thriller adapted from his own 2006 short film of the same name. In the film, a young woman (Karen Gillan) and her brother (Brenton Thwaites) must find the truth behind a creepy antique mirror that may or may not have been the cause of their parents’ death when they were children.
During our interview at the South by Southwest Film Festival, Flanagan talked about why he feels this kind of “suburban horror” movie is where real horror can be found and explained the importance of editing “Oculus” himself since it constantly jumps between the past and present throughout the entire film.
I don’t want this interview to sound like a counseling session, but can you tell me about your relationship with your parents since there is such an eerie family dynamic in “Oculus?”
It was actually incredibly happy. I had a very well adjusted, normal childhood. I’m sure my parents and my brother are curious, too, when they see this stuff. I’m sure they’re like, “What’s going on here?”
Are there things during your childhood that you thought you remembered, but as you got older those memories started changing little by little like the characters in this movie?
Oh, yeah. I think we all have that. If I’m alone in that, then maybe something is wrong with me after all. There are certainly a lot of things I remember happening in my childhood, especially in grade school. I’ll talk to my brother or my parents about it and they’re like, “No, that’s not the way it happened!” I think our memories are very subjective things.
What struck me about “Oculus,” compared to other horror movies where a parent goes crazy like in “The Shining” or “The Amityville Horror,” is that these kids have no one on their side since both parents are possessed. I felt a deep sense of hopelessness for them. Was that a conscious decision when writing the script?
Yeah, as a horror fan, I tend to really like suburban horror, which is really well worn territory – the haunted house and the intrusion of evil into what we assume is a really safe environment. I think that’s why we keep telling these stories. That strikes something very primal in us. Evil can infiltrate where we’re supposed to be the safest. There’s nothing that’s supposed to be safer than our relationship with our own parents. Those are the two people in the world who are supposed to protect us at any price. To turn that relationship on its head, especially when we see it happen in real life, those events are so traumatic to us as a society because we can’t possibly wrap our heads around how that can happen. It just seems like it’s against our basic wiring. I think that’s where true horror lives.
How important was it to you to be both the director and the editor of this film? There are so many edits between the past and present, were you editing the film in your head as you were shooting it?
Yeah, it was actually critical for me to be able to edit the movie myself. The transitions between the two stories were actually so specific that we had to write them into the script. The structure in the finished film exactly reflects the structure of the screenplay. All of those edits had to be planned out very meticulously. If we hadn’t been able to keep track of the edits, we never would’ve been able to complete the movie on schedule. There wasn’t room for any error. It was certainly in the front of my mind throughout the entire process.
Was there time to stop and explain to the actors what was going on during certain scenes? I mean, I can only assume it got a bit confusing on the set.
Yeah, they were an exceptionally bright cast and this was a very challenging process for everybody. One of the things we did try to do to make it easier for them was take the script and italicize everything that was part of the past storyline and leave [the text] in the present normal. By the third act, there were paragraphs of descriptions that had different individual words italicized. I hoped that it would give the actors a sense of how the timelines were merging. It was just as confusing for me and the script supervisor as it was for the cast. Fortunately, we chose actors who responded to that kind of challenge with excitement.
The kids in this film are really good. On that note, I’ve read that some of the scenes where violence against the children is depicted, specifically the choking scenes, bothered some people. How do you defend those choices if people bring those scenes up and say they were uncomfortable watching it? Or is making them uncomfortable the point?
I don’t think I really need to defend it. Movies speak on their own terms. I think there are horror movies you can go into and expect comfort and then there are horror movies like “Martyrs” that push you so far out of your comfort zone, that it could be a traumatic experience to view. There’s a wide section between. [“Oculus”] is the movie we wanted it to be. Danger to the younger [actors] is what makes it a horror film. I’m sympathetic to the people who find that to be too much for their taste, but I think that means [actors] Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan have sold their performances and played them with conviction that people are having that reaction. I can tell you from shooting the movie, those scene were some of the most fun for the kid actors to shoot. They had a blast. I’m sure if Annalise knew those scenes disturbed people so much, she’d be grinning from ear to ear.
So, what becomes of Dog, the French bulldog in the film? He goes outside and we never hear from him again. A fellow critic at the movies with me hoped you’d make a sequel and call it “Dogulus.”
(Laughs) Yes, there is a story to be told of Dog’s incredible escape from the backyard! I think regardless, based on the rest of the way the movie went, I think Dog is going to require some extensive therapy for the short amount of time he spent caged up against the mirror. But I think a lot of people are very grateful that Dog lives to fight another day.
See more 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival coverage here.