M.L. Miller here! As I go into the tenth year of reviewing horror films, I wanted to go back to the beginning and repost some of the films I loved. Moving on to Year Four of my year-long Retro-Best in Horror I’m recapping the Countdown beginning officially on October 1, 2013 and going through September 30, 2014. I have posted compilation lists in the past, but a lot of those old reviews haven’t seen the light of day since they were first posted many moons ago. Being the OCD person that I am, I have also worked and reworked the list, looking back at my own choices and shifting them around, and even adding a few that I might have missed or looked over from the year in question. So, if you think you know how these lists are going to turn out, you don’t!

How did I compile this list? I simply looked through films released between October 1st, 2013 and September 30, 2014 and worked and reworked the list until I had the magic number—31. Again, I never call myself any kind of expert in horror. I simply watch a lot of horror films and love writing about them. Don’t forget to like and share my picks with your pals across the web on your own personal social media. Chime in after the review and let me know what you think of the film, how on the nose or mind-numbingly wrong I am, or most importantly, come up with your own darn list…let’s go!

Released on April 11, 2014. Available on digital download, On Demand, and DVD/Blu-ray!

OCULUS (2013)

Directed by Mike Flanagan
Written by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard (screenplay), based on a short story by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Seidman
Starring Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, Garrett Ryan, James Lafferty, Miguel Sandoval, Kate Siegel, Scott Graham, Michael J. Fourticq, Justin Gordon, Dave Levine, Stephanie Minter, Allison Boyd, Skye L. Johnson, Alexandra Beer, James Flanagan, Marc D. Evans, Toni White
Find out more about this film here

One might think a film about a cursed mirror would be boring, but OCULUS is anything but. I first interviewed Mike Flanagan when he was touting his short film; OCULUS: CHAPTER 3 – THE MAN WITH THE PLAN around and was one of the first to review it. Even in that short film, I knew Mike Flanagan was destined for something great. For me, there is something truly creepy about mirrors as they show one’s reflection, but never really show us exactly what we look like. We are often astonished to see ourselves caught unaware in a photo as it doesn’t look like the way we look to ourselves when we gaze into the mirror. While a broken mirror brings bad luck, it seems even an unblemished mirror lies to us. That’s some scary stuff to base a horror story on. It’s no wonder Mike Flanagan mined so much chills and thrills from the subject matter in his film, OCULUS.

Yes, OCULUS is about a cursed mirror, but it’s about so much more than that. DOCTOR WHO’s Karen Gillan and PIRATES OF THE CARRIBBEAN: TELL NO TALES’ Brenton Thwaites are siblings Kaylee and Tim who return to their childhood home in order to bury some old ghosts. Kaylee believes that their childhood problems all started when their father Alan (Rory Cochrane) acquired an ornate antique mirror. It was right about then that Alan’s marriage to Marie (Katee Sackhoff) began crumbling as did her parents’ sanity. As they try to make sense of the last night they stayed in their old home, Kaylee has a plan to destroy the mirror once and for all and exorcise the demons of both her and her brother’s past.

If anyone’s seen OCULUS: CHAPTER 3 – THE MAN WITH THE PLAN, you know that there is something off with this mirror. As with the short film, Kaylee explains to Tim and the audience how the mirror affects those who look into it. Loss of time, loss of control of one’s actions, and loss of sanity can come from this ornate object that has been passed down through the generations. Flanagan unfolds this story in a way that is not clunky. The writing is perfect here, like a well told campfire tale that doles out the previous owners of the mirror, how they met their demises, and how it was passed on to the next poor soul to own it. Most of what works in OCULUS comes through what could be clunky exposition, but Gillen’s Kaylee delivers the lines with passion through trembling lips and wide eyes to her brother Tim and it all feels natural and convincing.

Once the blueprints are laid out, Flanagan drives the cart right off the rails, flipping back and forth through time, telling the story Kaylee and Tim are trying to forget from their childhood and then experiencing their own madness with the mirror in the present. Flanagan makes each era interesting, imbuing each with emotional heft and building the tension as both times reach a horrific climax. Knowing that Kaylee and Tim were scarred by their past is one thing, but details are cleverly withheld so when we are retold the tale, it is electrifying. Soon past and present collide as the mirror’s power grows and Kaylee and Tim’s fate seems dire. It’s all orchestrated marvelously.

Across the board, Flanagan got lucky with an amazing cast. The women, Gillen and Katee Sackhoff, are both beguiling in their separate but connected tales. Sackhoff is put through the physical and mental wringer in this one and she is beyond up to the task of being one of the scariest mothers in horror. Gillen shows a lot of vulnerability, but also a deranged focus that makes her character unique and unable to look away from. Rory Calhoun kind of bops in and out of films, picking and choosing some cool ones to star in. Here, he is great, though somewhat cliched as the head of the household. Too many times in haunted house movies (BURNT OFFERINGS, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, INSIDIOUS), the patriarch is overcome by an evil force, so Calhoun’s character isn’t the most original. Still, he does a great job with what he’s got.

There are some absolutely original horror sequences that bend perception and sanity like a funhouse mirror in OCULUS. The film is like a non-stop waking nightmare and if there ever is a chance for Flanagan to head to Elm Street, I think he is perfectly qualified. While he made some cool films, OCULUS remains of one Flanagan’s closest to perfection. There are moments of sheer terror and heartbreak. The film feels like a rollercoaster, but it goes to some very twisted places along the ride that one doesn’t normally see in mainstream horror. It seems Flanagan has hunkered down and become comfortable in the world of horror and I for one hope the man never leaves the genre.

THE 2013-2014 COUNTDOWN!

#13 – TUSK
#15 – FOUND
#16 – PLUS ONE

M. L. Miller is a wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of MLMILLERWRITES.COM. Follow @Mark_L_Miller.

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