Let’s Get An Early Start On the ‘Oculus’ Oscar Campaign

By  · Published on April 11th, 2014

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Normally I would wait until the end of the year to start the For Your Consideration posts, but the campaign for Oculus could use the extra time. The challenge isn’t so much the fact that horror movies are rarely recognized by the Academy and other major awards groups as it is that imperfect horror movies don’t stand much of a chance at all. Oculus is really good, enough to make me recommend it, and I’m known for being very, very picky with the genre, but it’s no Psycho or The Exorcist. It doesn’t deserve a Best Picture nod, nor one for Best Director. It’s not outstanding enough in any categories, really, except for editing. And many other critics are noting this quality, albeit not so much with kudos in mind, so let me be the first to recommend it be nominated for the Oscar.

Even this far in advance, I’m doubting the likelihood of rallying enough support for this cause. Even if I could, it probably wouldn’t matter anyway. This isn’t the sort of film that the Academy honors. If it were, it’d still have to have some other things going for it. Better writing, noteworthy performances, a director with more prestige, these would all help it but they’re just not there. It won’t have the box office success to lift its notoriety, either. It’s pretty rare these days for any movie to be nominated for Best Editing without being represented in some other top tier categories, and usually Best Picture contenders fill most of the slots. You can find a Children of Men or Bourne Ultimatum, but the former at least had a lot of other esteem and the latter made a lot of money.

It’s been 20 years since the most out-of-the-box nominee appeared in the category, when Hoop Dreams showed up, deservedly so but also seemingly as a consolation for being snubbed by the documentary branch. There is no Best Horror Film category for Oculus to be shut out of for it to be in need of other Academy shelter. The last time a movie I’d qualify as horror made the cut for Best Editing was nearly 30 years ago with Aliens. Before that around 40 years ago with The Exorcist. Both had plenty of other nominations in major and minor categories. Movies are always the sum of their parts, craft-wise, and the Oscars tend to celebrate that idea in spite of the compartmentalization of the awards, as a lot of the nominations go to a lot of the same titles spread over the categories.

I should get to why I think Oculus has some of the finest editing of the year. Well, it’s not easy to write about the editing of a movie. And currently there’s not a way to show you unless you want to all join me and fill up a huge movie theater auditorium where it’s playing and let me talk over it. It’ll be out on video long before nominating time, so maybe by then I’ll learn how to make a video essay illustrating the merits of Mike Flanagan, the co-writer and director, who also happens to be the sole credited editor. For now, I want to at least stress, for those who’ve seen or will see it, that this isn’t simply a matter of intercutting past and present, as some reviews indicate. It’s not a back-and-forth thing going on as much as it’s a very fluid intermingling of time periods within the same space using little means besides perfectly blocked actors playing the same characters at different ages and perfectly cut action to make it look like past and present are seamlessly overlapping.

That’s necessary for the movie to work as a whole, too, because Oculus is about two occasions in which siblings Kaylie and Tim (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) deal with the effects of an evil mirror, and (sorry if this is too much of a spoiler) they sort of end up going in similar directions. At first, the following of the present with distinct flashbacks is appropriate. Intercutting during the main events, though, would only be sufficient for parallels, while this movie’s plot is about more than that. The timelines don’t just play out as laterally side-by-side, because it’s stronger, for the final moments, for Flanagan to unite them even more, as if they were one single narrative. That’s not to say the two occasions were one, just that they have to feel like it.

I’d like to share some quotes from reviews and fans that show just how much the editing in this movie is standing out for people (I’ll add any that come to my attention later, too). First, though, I want to start by spotlighting Joe Neumaier’s one-star take in the New York Daily News. He leads, “It’s often said that comedy is in the editing. The makers of Oculus apparently believe that horror, also, is in the editing.” But is it not, for many examples? Scares are about well-timed and well-cut reveals as much as humor is. Anyway, he reminds me of the importance for both genres, neither of which is much honored with editing awards. Of course, rarely is documentary, either, and that type of film is more often made in the editing than fiction is. The thing is, though, for the past century now, most of cinema has been in the editing.

“The film earns some points twisting the earlier story into the current one, a feat accomplished through some marvelously sharp editing.” ‐ Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects

“The key themes of the film, the reflections and distortions caused by the mirror’s influence, are shared by a complex yet always coherent editing schema. As we float between timelines, there’s always a clear grounding.” ‐ Jason Gorber, Twitch

“Flanagan also edited the film himself, superbly.” ‐ Adam Nayman, Globe and Mail

“In truth it’s the editing (also by Flanagan) and execution that stand out.” ‐ Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon

“Through clever tricks and smart editing, [Flanagan] turns it into one of the scarier American horror flicks we’ve seen in some time.” ‐ Austin Trunick, Under the Radar

“In lesser hands this could have been more confusing than illuminating, but the scenes are pulled off with expert choreography and razor-sharp editing.” ‐ Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times

That was some of the best editing and camera work I have ever seen oh my god I was too busy being impressed to be scared. #Oculus

— Hannah Cook (@hannahtcook) April 11, 2014

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.