When historians look back on the horror cinema of the 2010s, Mike Flanagan will undoubtedly be considered one of the decade’s most influential filmmakers. Though he lacks a distinct breakout hit, Flanagan has quietly built a reputation as one of the finest directors working in horror today, and if 2017’s Gerald’s Game isn’t considered the best of the recent glut of Stephen King adaptations, it’ll only be because he outdid himself with Doctor Sleep, his upcoming sequel to The Shining.
Flanagan’s first success, the film that made him a director to watch, was 2013’s Oculus, and, for my money, it’s still his best work. Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) is released from the psychiatric hospital where he’s lived since the deaths of his parents: the official version of events is that Alan, his abusive father, killed his wife, Marie, and was about to kill his children before Tim shot him in self-defense. Years of therapy have convinced Tim of the official story, but his sister, Kaylie (Karen Gillan), is not so persuaded. She uses her job at an auction house to get her hands on what she believes was the true cause of their parents’ deaths: a cursed mirror called the Lasser Glass with a long history of death in its wake. She invites Tim back to their childhood home to document the mirror’s deleterious effects on the human mind, proving the innocence of both Tim and her father, and then destroy it.
Suffice it to say, despite Kaylie’s extensive precautions (three cameras filming the mirror at all times, temperature monitors in every room to detect paranormal activity, alarms to remind her and Tim to eat and, most famously, an anchor suspended from the ceiling that will smash the mirror if a manual timer isn’t reset every thirty minutes), things don’t go according to plan. The mirror can completely warp human perception, even erase memories. In one of its simplest but most effective gotchas, Kaylie takes a bite from an apple, only to see the mirror has tricked her into eating a lightbulb, which then immediately turns back into an apple. Though broadly well-received, a small but vocal minority criticised the films’ ending, which leaves the viewer completely uncertain which of the film’s events, if any, actually happened. But I have the answer.
None of it actually happened. It’s a movie.
More specifically, it’s a movie about the untrustworthiness of our experience of events. Oculus does not present its narrative from an objective viewpoint, it’s always from the subjective viewpoint of the characters, showing how they experience the story. We only ever see what the characters see, the camera dutifully following them into states of illusion, delusion and memory. We never actually know objectively whether Kaylie took a bite from an apple or a lightbulb. And I guess if what you find scary about horror films is imagining yourself in the characters’ shoes, having the actual horrors they experience happen to you, that might make Oculus’s ending feel kind of abstract and toothless. But that’s a hopelessly shallow lens to apply to a film that doesn’t draw horror from the scary things that happen to its characters, but from the most fundamental facts of what it means to be a human.
Oculus is a horror film where the monster isn’t the Lasser Glass, it’s the limits of human subjectivity. Kaylie’s efforts to circumvent the mirror’s powers aren’t designed to block its effects, just to create objective records of them and allow for its destruction even if it kills them. But the effort is doomed, not by the mirror, but by the fact that the objective world, if it even exists, is only ever experienced through a subjective point of view that remains vulnerable to error and trickery. Kaylie and Tim play back camera footage of themselves doing things they don’t remember at one point in the film and decide to flee the house, but even if the camera had made an objective recording, they still watched it with their subjective eyes. How can they be sure the recording isn’t itself a product of the mirror’s powers? Oculus immediately drives the point home as Kaylie and Tim flee. They look back and see themselves through a window, still standing in front of the Lasser Glass and realise they have no idea whether their doppelgangers or their escape is the deception.
Oculus is a truly existentially terrifying film because it asks a simple but disturbing question: how do you know what you know? How can you be sure that what you experience resembles what’s actually happening in objective reality? Haven’t you ever mistaken one thing for another? Haven’t you and a friend had completely different recollections of the same event? If you were a victim of the Lasser Glass (or an evil demon or an alien plant) putting visions in your head, would you be able to tell? How do you know you’re not a brain in a jar? What if the world is just a computer simulation? Oculus takes all the classic questions of epistemology – the philosophy of knowledge – and uses them to provoke deep, existential horror. It posits a helplessness before the world so profound it makes being alive at all seem scarier than any particular danger.
Oculus ends with Tim being dragged away by the police, screaming the same thing he did as a child, dragged away from the same house for the same reason: “It was the mirror”. When he was a child, he’d pointed a gun at his father, but his father pulled the trigger. This time, Tim pushes the button to release the anchor and destroy the mirror once and for all, only to realise at the last second that Kaylie is standing in front of the mirror, hidden from his view by its dark power. By the time it comes, the film has left you so unmoored as to have no idea whether the mirror has tricked Tim into killing her or if it’s trapped Tim in a nightmare reality where his darkest fears have come true. But that uncertainty doesn’t detract from the film’s horror. It goes right to the heart of what makes it such an affecting and unsettling story.
Subjectivity and the limits of experience are a major thematic preoccupation of Flanagan’s, which he would return to with Gerald’s Game and his 2018 miniseries adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Gerald’s Game is the opposite of Oculus in many ways. The protagonists of Oculus are initially divided on whether their traumatic childhoods were mundane albeit horrific evil or the work of forces beyond this world. Gerald’s Game, on the other hand, is about one protagonist in dialogue with herself. Jessie (Carla Gugino) is left handcuffed to a bed when her husband, Gerald, dies suddenly during a kink session gone wrong. She begins to hallucinate both him and a tougher, more outspoken version of herself as hunger, thirst and exhaustion set in. The Other Jessie and Gerald function as the angel and devil on her shoulder as she desperately tries to figure out how to survive, talking through her ideas with them, processing her feelings about Gerald’s death and an underlying sexual trauma triggered by Gerald ignoring Jessie when she says her safe word during their roleplay. Jessie was abused by her father as a child and digging up the repressed memory of exactly what he did is how she figures out what she needs to do to escape. If that sounds a little tasteless, well, maybe, but it’s not Split.
Split uses its protagonist’s history of abuse at the hands of her rapist uncle purely for shock value and as a plot device. Just as the villain, who believes people who survive trauma are superior to the rest of humanity, is about to kill her, he sees her self-harm scars and lets her go. You could swap out her abuse with almost any other trauma and it wouldn’t affect the story or her arc, because she has none. We never get any insight into how she feels about it or how it’s affected how she thinks about the world. We never really see what she’s like before the villain kidnaps her, and when the ending of Split implies she’s going to finally tell the police about her uncle, it’s hard to tell what’s changed for her that she’s ready to speak up now when she wasn’t before.
Gerald’s Game handles similar material with all the restraint and tact that Split lacks. It doesn’t use Jessie’s abuse as a cheap twist and the film is exclusively about how she feels about it and how it’s affected her. Through her memories, we see how she learned docility as a defense mechanism, how her father manipulated her into staying quiet about what he’d done to her with the implicit threat of their family imploding if she told the truth. Through her arguments with her hallucinations, we see how she carried that docility into her relationship with Gerald, how she became habituated into a posture of constant acquiescence to the needs and desires of other people. When Split reveals the extent of its hero’s abuse, it’s just to get a gasp from the audience. When Gerald’s Game reveals the extent of what Jessie went through, it’s because she is confronting her own trauma, and it actually pushes her character arc forward in a meaningful way. Hers is a story about learning to trust herself and her experiences, not to bury them away for the convenience of others. Jessie escapes because she takes ownership of her own trauma, and I understand why so many found this film empowering, even cathartic. But, for many, including myself, the ending goes too far and wraps thing up too neatly.
Gerald’s Game, like Oculus, always shows events from Jessie’s point of view. When she sees the hallucinations of the Other Jessie and Gerald, they’re represented on screen. We don’t see her talking to thin air. But while she quickly figures out these hallucinations are figments of her imagination – something that the hallucinations themselves confirm – another figure, the mysterious and monstrous Moonlight Man (Twin Peaks’ Carel Struycken), isn’t so easily dismissed. He slips into her room at night with a pale, bulging face, and she has no idea whether he’s real or not, at least, until the end, when the Moonlight Man is revealed to be a graverobbing, cannibalistic serial killer. Jessie explains his extremely over-the-top backstory in detail in voiceover, then confronts him in court. But even here, Flanagan doesn’t abandon the subjectivity of his camera, as Jessie briefly sees his face replaced with those of her abusive father and husband, right before she tells him (and, by extension, her father and Gerald) that he’s smaller than she remembered. Jessie doesn’t just survive her horrifying ordeal, but processes her childhood trauma, moves on from her failed marriage, gives a big “fuck you” to all the men who ever hurt her and steps out on her own with newfound confidence.
Gerald’s Game received more acclaim than Oculus, but its ending proved just as divisive, maybe moreso. Brian Tellerico’s otherwise positive review for RogerEbert.com recommends “turning this off about ten minutes before the credits and just imagining what happens”, while The AV Club called Jessie’s voiceover “clunky” and “groan-worthy”. But these are still positive reviews, and Gerald’s Game got a lot less flack for its ending than Oculus. The main rationale given seem to be that since it was the same ending as the book, Flanagan only loses points for an excess of faithfulness to the source material, which is less egregious than producing this ending out of a lack of talent or taste. And, in fairness, I’m sure the film handles the ending with far more grace than the book. But, in even more fairness, Mike Flanagan could have just not done the ending and made a better film. Catharsis is a fine thing, but after dealing so thoughtfully with the effect her father’s sexual abuse had on Jessie throughout her life, an ending where she sheds all her pain and rides off into the sunset feels like whiplash. I get that the film is a kind of empowerment fantasy, but to veer so far and so fast into idealism is just a bit much.
Oculus is far less optimistic. Jessie refuses to let her trauma define her any longer, but, however you look at it, Kaylie and Tim remain trapped by theirs. The ending isn’t bittersweet, it’s just bleak. There was nothing they could do, or could ever have done, to escape the limits of their own subjectivity. And if you think optimism is always good and pessimism is always bad, I guess Gerald’s Game has the better ending. I don’t think the ending of Gerald’s Game is bad, or, at least, I don’t think it’s bad just because it’s optimistic about our ability to overcome the limits of our own minds. (Carel Struycken’s makeup, on the other hand…) I completely understand the appeal of its fantasy, and would never disparage anyone leaning on its hopeful take on the possibility of overcoming our trauma in times of darkness. But I want to stand up for Oculus’s pessimistic take. I admire the bold challenge that it poses to its audience. To answer for our own humanity. To defend our faith in our own experiences. To affirm the possibility of hope. I like that it doesn’t tell us we can break free from the weight of our history, that it gives the bleakest possible view and dares us to affirm our hope in spite of despair.
I think optimism is, on the whole, preferable to pessimism, but it’s a lazy and dangerous optimism that cannot withstand contact with despair. Ideas are the only tools that get sharper with use, the only weapons that grow keener in the clash. It’s good to find reasons to hope in hopeful art, but it’s just as important to find reasons to despair in hopeless art. Optimism that hasn’t acknowledged and answered for the challenges of pessimism is blind. When I see stories criticised for their pessimism, it just makes me wonder how weak the critic’s optimism must be, that it collapses in the face of opposition.
We need movies like Gerald’s Game, but they’re not enough. Oculus is possibly the most pessimistic film I’ve ever seen, maybe the bleakest story in any fiction I’ve ever enjoyed. But that’s why I love it. It’s a cursed mirror that will leave you forever in doubt of your own senses, and thank God. You can’t have faith without doubt.