Childhood frights guided director


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First frights, like first kisses, stay with you forever.

Ask Mike Flanagan, director, co-writer and editor of "Oculus," what spooked him and he says: "An episode of 'Fraggle Rock.' They had this thing called the Terrible Tunnel where all the Fraggles were afraid to go, and the tunnel was full of the ghosts of little dead Fraggles."

He was in first grade, or younger, and it freaked him out and gave him nightmares.

"As I got older, I was scared of the Michael Jackson 'Thriller' video. I think I saw 'The Shining' when I was in eighth grade, and that did me in for, like, a year," he said in a phone call this week from a Philadelphia publicity stop for "Oculus."

And yet these experiences helped to shape his future livelihood.

"Because I was such a scaredy-cat, making it through horror movies that really got to me as a kid was kind of cathartic, it was character building. It was a little way to be brave for an hour and a half. So I always kind of gravitated toward it."

In college, he wondered why he wasn't trying his hand at it himself.

"I started out doing character dramas, and there's not a giant market for those, actually, especially on an independent level," he said, but it was perfect preparation for horror movies.

"A good horror movie, you don't actually get invested in the scares unless you care about the people going through them. I'm really glad I went that way first, because it was really great training."

In "Oculus," a family moves into a new home and decorates the dad's office with an antique mirror, unaware that it comes with a horrifying history.

Very bad things happen and they start again, when the orphaned brother and sister now in their early 20s revisit the home and frightful furnishing. The mirror is like a portable Overlook Hotel from "The Shining," the filmmaker says.

Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane portray the parents, and two sets of actors play siblings Kaylie and Tim. Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan appear as the 12- and 10-year-olds, with Karen Gillan ("Doctor Who") and Australian Brenton Thwaites as the pair a decade later.

Although the office was reproduced on a soundstage, the movie was shot in a real home in Fairhope, Ala., while the family members stayed in a hotel. After filming, the owners asked for a "cleansing ceremony" for the house, and a producer contacted a church and arranged for the house to be blessed.

"They were pretty superstitious, it turned out," he said of the residents. The movie required not one but three mirrors, all now in storage in a warehouse one of the producers likens to the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Watching the movie, it's easy to think, why doesn't someone figure out a way to destroy or bury the mirror, although it does appear impervious to damage and radiates a zone of destruction.

"One of the big things we wanted to get into was just the nature of obsession with Kaylie. It was more important for her to exonerate her family, I think, and the other thing to remember with her is that she's going into this pretty convinced that she has this beat.

"The system that she's put in place, she's very confident in. I don't think she perceives the danger she's actually in. ... Kaylie's got enough tricks up her sleeve at the beginning that I think she feels she's got it in checkmate."

She's not interested in the execution of the mirror, he says, as much as the indictment, with execution (she hopes) to follow.

Although the movie slides between past and present, Mr. Flanagan shot all of the earliest scenes first. Nevertheless, the adult Kaylie and Tim came to the set to observe their younger selves.

"It was real important for me that they spend as much time with each other in between shoot days as possible. It's hard enough to build a three-dimensional character. It's really fun when you have two people trying to do it and so it was very important that they be able to build off what the kids were doing and they have continuity there."

"Oculus" asks more of its young performers than most horror movies. "They have equal screen time to their adult counterparts, and they're required to run through a pretty complicated range of emotion; it's not just a cower-and-hide movie."

The grown-ups were cast first and then the youthful actors. Annalise knew about the project through her actor-brother and made an audition tape that produced the sentiment, "We can stop looking, there she is." The director says, "It's the best self-taped audition I've seen from any actor, ever, and I could have edited it into the movie."

"Oculus" arrives at a time when horror and death haunt the news every day.

"That's actually why the genre exists. It's a chance for us to, culturally, reflect on real-life horrors in a safe space. When you talk about the idea of a parent turning on their children [as happens in 'Oculus'], it's so primally wrong. It goes against our basic wiring and we can't understand it.

"When we come up against real evil in the world, we try so hard to come up with an answer for it and to try to wrap our heads around why it exists, and I think we try in a number of different ways. We try with religion, we try in our fiction, but answers are hard to come by.

"I think one of the things the genre is there for is for us to meditate on the darkest corners of our nature in an environment where the lights will come on, and where there aren't actual consequences."


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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