Written by Anthony C. Francis
Why are horror films not well recognized by the Academy? Among horror fans and aficionados this is the eternal question.
Throughout film history, genres come and go. Westerns were popular until the mid to late 1970’s, but the public lost interest in them. Today there are very few made each year and even fewer of those make any noise at the box office. The great and bloated action flicks of the 1980’s and early 90’s no longer find an audience. Classy dramas get limited releases and comedies still have popularity but only a chosen few are big hits.
The one constant film genre that never dies, and has interested audiences since Tomas Edison’s weirdly creepy silent Frankenstein film shocked anyone who saw it, has been horror. The popularity of the horror film does not ebb and flow. There has always been an audience. Horror fans, coupled with fans of the Star Trek and Star Wars sagas, are considered the truest fans of all. This is why the argument must be raised for Oscar recognition for this great and enduring genre.
There have been horror films that have either been nominated for or won an Oscar, but these have mostly been relegated to special effects and design awards. Only a handful have been nominated in acting categories, and even fewer have garnered Best picture or Best Director nominations.
Certain horror films throughout the past 3 or 4 decades have been Oscar worthy in one way or another, but there is a horror backlash when it comes to awards. The academy is hesitant to recognize exceptional direction or writing when it comes to this genre. To the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the horror genre is almost taboo.
This was not always so. The first Oscar presented to a genuine horror film was in 1932 when Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde won for Best Actor in a Lead Role.
The next Oscar handed out to a horror film was in 1943 when Phantom of the Opera won for Best Cinematography and Art Direction.
Most agree that the period between 1930s and the 1950s was the golden age of horror. Hitchcock was at his prime, the Universal monsters ruled the cinemas, Invasion of the Body Snatchers changed the face of horror/sci-fi cinema, and filmmakers, horror and otherwise, were taking chances and bringing true style and originality to the screen.
There are so many fine examples of “should’ve had an Oscar” caliber work during that time.
As the acting categories go, look to Vincent Price’s amazing body of work and you will find many examples of fine acting. The best of them, in my opinion, is in Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death or Corman’s Tomb of Ligeia.
Deborah Kerr was amazing in her role as a caretaker in the brilliantly spooky film, The Innocents. Her performance was both haunting and heartbreaking. It represents some of her finest work, cloaked in a terrifying film.
Catherine Denuve gives what I feel to be her best work in Roman Polanski’s creep fest Repulsion. It is a breathtaking performance as we watch her descent into hallucinatory madness.
As far as the directing categories are concerned, why was Hitchcock not a winner for the game changing and enduring classic film, Psycho? Don Siegel’s work in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is among the finest of all time in any genre. Last but not least would have to be the great George A. Romero, who announced his skill and became king of his own genre with the terrifying Night of the Living Dead.
Overlooked as horror films were during those decades, they still fared better with the Academy than horror films have done since the 1970’s.
The last big horror film that was nominated in most major categories was William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. In 1974, it was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress and Actor, Editing, Sound, Cinematography, and Art Direction. It won awards for Best Screenplay and Best Sound.
The following year, Steven Speilberg’s Jaws was nominated for Best Picture, Sound, Editing, and Score. It won three of its four nominations, losing out on Best Picture. Two of cinema’s scariest and most superbly made horror films lost out on Best Picture awards. These were the most potent examples of the Academy shying away from awarding the big prize to a deserving film in the horror genre. Why does this happen?
Horror films have always existed in their own little part of the film universe while so called “legitimate films” get all the glory with major releases and accolades.
A drama or social comedy works with an audience and everyone screams “Oscar Nominations!” When a horror film works, everyone is shocked and studios rush to duplicate the success with rip offs and endless sequels.
I believe studios and the Academy are uncomfortable with horror. The genre is full of blood, nudity, and terrors beyond anything we have seen. Many horror films are considered “B” movies, and more than half are now consigned to the straight to video market. The horror films that are backed by major studios, and are made by skilled directors not confined to the genre, sometimes slip through such as the aforementioned Exorcist and Jaws.
It was surprising in 1990 when Kathy Bates won a Best Actress Oscar for her work in Misery, and the following year Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for his turn as Hannibal Lector. Silence of the Lambs went on to sweep the Oscars that year and holds the record as the first, and still only, “horror themed” film to win the Best Picture Oscar. Truth be told, I have never recognized these films as horror. They have horror elements and truly horrifying moments but I feel them to be really creepy and terrifying thrillers.
To be fair to the Academy, in 1981 they awarded the inaugural Best Make-up Effects Oscar to An American Werewolf in London. The award was created especially for the film’s groundbreaking make up effects. It is in this category that horror films still have a glimmer of hope for a nomination and perhaps an award. The film, however, did not get any other nominations, even though it received great reviews and changed the horror genre in many ways. It is still the best example of combining sheer terror and dark humor. John Landis should have at least been nominated for Best Director.
That said, the 1980’s was a wonderful time for horror films yet it was all but ignored by Oscars. The only true horror film to get a nomination, and win, was David Cronnenberg’s masterful remake of The Fly, which won Best Make-up. Stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis along with director Cronnenberg should all have had nominations.
Genre classics such as Poltergeist, Christine, The Shining, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Howling, The Changeling, Creepshow, The Dead Zone, Dead Ringers, etc. are glowing examples of horror films made with style, class, and originality. All were ignored by the Academy sans for a couple of effects awards and one Original Score nomination.
The most shameful horror related snub by the Academy is the shunning of the great genre filmmaker John Carpenter. His Halloween is considered by most to be one of the top five greatest horror films ever made. Critics cited Carpenter’s mastery of the camera and how the look of the film would, at times, rival an artist painting on a grand scale. His direction should have been recognized with a nomination along with Donald Pleasance’s classic supporting performance as Dr. Loomis, the editing, the instantly classic score, and the film itself.
Carpenter’s vision has given the horror film world more than a few classics, as he would also make the frightening The Fog, the award worthy remake of The Thing, and the truly terrifying Prince of Darkness, which, along with The Fog, is a noteworthy example of superb film editing. There should have been a Best Editing win there.
Sadly, Carpenter’s only film to get a nomination in a major category was Starman in which Jeff Bridges received a much deserved nomination for Best Actor.
There can be argument for what separates a horror film from a thriller. As I stated, many consider Silence of the Lambs to be a horror film, and M. Night Shamaylan’s The Sixth Sense has elements of horror, but, in truth, is a psychological thriller. That film was nominated for Best Director and Picture.
Is there a bias held by the Academy toward our beloved horror films? We can never be sure but we do have the facts before us. From 1927 to 2010 only three percent of all nominations were for horror films with The Exorcist being the first horror film, up to that time, to be nominated for Best Picture.
Filmgoers in general consider the horror genre to be rather “low brow” compared to the big guns trotted out during awards season. Perhaps the Academy recognizes and shares these views.
I am a fan of film; a true connoisseur. I believe cinema is a gift and each year we are treated to many fine films in all genres.
There is a place for all films at the Oscars. Westerns, comedies, dramas, and war films have all won a Best Picture Oscar. Science Fiction has come close a time or two. It is now time for horror. Give it a chance Academy! It is a fine genre that displays some very real talent and attracts some of our finest filmmakers and actors.
Would the reputation of the Oscars have been tarnished by having George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and John Carpenter’s Halloween as two of the five nominees in the 1979 ceremony? Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter was the big winner. It would have been in good company.