On the other end of the struggle to expand and find support for the story, “Oculus” is a unique entry in the category of paranormal horror. In particular, the structural approach and the way in which the film addresses the real and the logical make it the proverbial breath of fresh air in a genre that has been stifled, to a certain extent, by repetition.
“I’m a science nut and a natural born skeptic. So one of the things for me that’s really important is to present a counter-argument to the paranormal. I find that fascinating just in my own life. I also think we’re very quick in horror movies to accept fantastic ideas without scrutinizing them. And one of the things that the genre can do, unfortunately, is put people in the situation where they don’t respond to things the way a rational, normal person would. So it’s very important for me that we don’t fall into that trap of ‘why don’t you leave the house?’ It’s another layer of realism, and I think what makes the truly scary movies scary is not the scares, but the realism that surrounds them,” Flanagan said. “‘The Exorcist’ isn’t ‘The Exorcist’ if you don’t spend 45 minutes telling everybody that this is objective reality that you can relate to before the genre even comes through the door.
“There’s this kind of thought in a lot of studio movies where it’s like get the genre elements in as early as possible, give the audience the scares right away cause that’s what they are there for, but they don’t land until you’ve accepted that I can relate to this reality, it’s real and then all those genre elements are that much more effective. Trying to preserve realism is a priority for me in everything,” he added.
Flanagan is clearly an artist who puts plenty of thought into his work, so it should come as no surprise that he quickly and happily called out a few sources of inspiration that have informed his work on “Oculus” and elsewhere.
“For me, the biggest influence across the board is Stephen King. I started reading his novels when I was very young, and I’ve read every one of them. I’m a rabid, constant reader. He does so much wonderful character work,” he said. “For this one, specifically, ‘The Shining’ and ‘1408’ were big influences, and ‘The X-Files’ too. I always thought what was awesome about that show was it took the paranormal and the scientific and both viewpoints were represented through Mulder and Scully.”
It’s fortunate that Flanagan is a student of solid character work, because “Oculus” tells the story of siblings Kaylie and Tim in the present day, but also in their youth, meaning their development had to hold up through two timelines and be embodied by multiple actors.
“Having characters that needed to be made real by two different actors is certainly more challenging, but I was very fortunate in our casting because I was able to get our first choice for Kaylie, which was Karen [Gillian]––I’m a big Whovian and a big ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fan, so first of all as a fan it was insane for me to be able to work with these actresses (Katee Sackoff of ‘Battlestar’ is also in the cast)––but once the cast started to fall into place, watching them take ownership of the characters and create them themselves was a lot of fun,” Flanagan said.
“I had that kind of perfect directing scenario where at a certain point my job was to tell people where to stand and get out of their way. I didn’t have to get in there and mess with them. It was one of those rare scenarios where you get to trust a movie to its cast. In our case, we casted it better than I ever would have imagined when we were in prep,” he added.