Oculus, released in 2013, is one of the most impressive and effective horror films of the last decade. However, the story behind its development is nearly as interesting as the movie itself. Like many major Hollywood movies, Oculus is based on a pre-existing work, but the source material for this film is unique.
Essentially, Oculus began as a bare-bones horror short. Director Mike Flanagan, who would also direct the feature-length version of the film, made the original short film using three simple elements: one setting, one actor, and a mirror.
Oculus illustrates how important it is for producers to recognize the unique talents that skilled horror directors can bring to a project. In an age in which it’s easy to simply throw digital effects on the screen in an effort to thrill audiences, Oculus showcases a filmmaker who can leverage a good script to create a truly scary film through strategic direction and editing. Often, movies like these are much more frightening than high-tech and high-budget films, in which an overabundance of special effects removes any of the subtlety that’s often a very necessary component of a strong horror movie.
Luckily, the original short film was strong enough to attract the attention of major producers. However, Flanagan was not willing to sacrifice his own artistic vision for an opportunity to make Oculus into a feature film. Some of the initial offers from producers involved making the film in the “found-footage” style that was popular at the time thanks to movies like Paranormal Activity. However, this did not match Flanagan’s vision for the film, and he passed on these offers in favor of waiting for ones that gave him more freedom as a director.
It was worth the wait. The production team that eventually embraced the project did so on the grounds that Flanagan not direct it as a found-footage movie.
While finding a production team to fund the project was certainly a step in the right direction, it didn’t mean that the process of making the movie suddenly became simple. One of the major difficulties Flanagan encountered involved trying to stretch the screenplay for a short film into a story that could sustain an entire feature.
Flanagan eventually solved the problem by deciding to include two storylines: one that takes place in the past and another that takes place in the present. Flanagan pointed out that this solution wasn’t simply a means of padding the film’s length. By frequently shifting back and forth between the two storylines, he could generate a sense of disorientation in viewers that would enhance the movie’s overall unsettling effect.
As such, Flanagan chose not to explain too much about the origin of the Oculus mirror, which is the source of the horror the characters encounter. In fact, he revealed in an interview that he was inspired to keep the nature of evil in the film relatively unexplained because this is the same approach that great authors like H. P. Lovecraft took.
This makes the mirror even scarier than it would have been if Flanagan had decided to expand on its backstory. Like the evil forces in the works of Lovecraft, the mirror in the film takes on an almost alien quality. It’s not simply that Flanagan won’t let the viewer understand it; in this case, the evil that is suggested would simply be impossible to understand even if a person were to try.
It’s interesting to consider what Oculus might have been if a production team that wanted to force it into a popular sub-genre had been involved. Luckily, Flanagan stuck to his artistic values, finding partners that were willing to trust his vision. Oculus succeeds because it’s scary. It also represents an unconventional approach to making horror films that makes the picture truly unique.