Why is horror not respected by the Academy?
Broad daylight. The interior of a battered old Volvo. A small boy explains to his mother that he can communicate with dead people; he goes on to relay a message from his Grandma to his mother. The woman’s face at first expresses building rage, infuriated by her son’s games of make believe. As the boy talks however her features seamlessly transition from fear to incredulity to melancholy and ultimately belief; all in the space of 90 seconds. Next, a family dinner scene. A son, father and mother sit in an impenetrable air of tension. The son speaks up and triggers the mother who unleashes a tidal wave of fury. She spits her accusations and frustrations with venom and regret in equal measure, rising from her seat, unable to contain herself. Her face contorts in her spasms of sadness, before finally she leaves the table exhausted. Toni Collette gave these two herculean performances (The Sixth Sense and Hereditary) 19 years apart. Arguably the best of her career, but both were overlooked by the Oscars in their respective years.
Awards season has hurtled back round again and with it comes the annual game of Oscars cliché bingo. In the middle square, the obligatory A-list group selfie. Check! Top right, the graceful star in their glittering attire. Check! Bottom left, the odd couple pairing looking painful awkward whilst they try to present a heartfelt monologue. Check! And although the evening can present its fair share of shocks (looking at you Beatty) one thing will almost always ring true: there is no place for horror at the Academy Awards.
Oscar turns 93 this year, which means that in close to a century there has only ever been one horror film that was awarded the coveted Best Picture prize. To put that into context dramas have won the accolade 74 times and romance films 34. In fact, the only genre to have a worse record than horror is science fiction, which has never taken home Best Picture (and that includes Kubrick’s 2001).
Despite these statistics Jonathan Demme hit gold in 1991 with his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ lip-smacking Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster starring as Clarice Starling, a young FBI cadet seeking the help of incarcerated serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) as she tries to catch a murderer. It’s a film made almost entirely of iconic moments and continues to eat away at one’s nerves long after the credits have rolled. For once the Academy recognised the power of the genre and Silence of the Lambs was nominated 10 times, eventually winning The Big Five (Best Picture; Director; Screenplay; Actor; Actress). “This is very unanticipated” stuttered Jonathan Demme after being handed his Best Director gong. What was perhaps more surprising was Anthony Hopkins’ Best Actor win, despite the fact that his performance racks up to a grand total of 16 mins: perhaps the most lucrative quarter hour of his illustrious career. Horror fans were left wondering whether this would be the year that Oscar welcomed the genre and finally embraced it for all its worth, but alas it was not to be: it was the first and last time that a horror film ever won Best Picture, to date.
Since then, the genre has had to settle for being the Bridesmaid of Frankenstein rather than the Bride, with titles heavily represented in the nominations without them materialising into actual honours. Black Swan was nominated six times, but Natalie Portman was the only winner. Jordan Peele’s debut Get Out had four shots at Oscar history, but only Peele came away with a statue for his highly original and perfectly poised screenplay. The Exorcist, deemed by many to be the scariest film of all time, was overlooked by the Academy who punted instead for The Sting: a damning verdict considering the particularly weak Best Picture line-up that year. One thing should be apparent (unless you consider Parasite a horror – which it isn’t): the genre continues to be undeservedly overlooked at each major ceremony since 1992.
Other notable omissions include Mia Farrow, Lupita Nyong’o and Shelley Duvall, who all pushed the boundaries of performance without recognition; DP Stanley Cortez’s work on Night of the Hunter, which blended nightmarish landscapes and stark German expressionism to make for an experience like no other; and perhaps the biggest snub in movie history, which was for a film that is homaged, parodied, cloned and honoured more than any other – Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was nominated for a number of the big awards in ’61 without actually winning anything, something made worse by the failure to even nominate composer Bernard Herrman for his iconic score; everybody knows it, children who have never seen Psycho copying the gesture and imitating those strings. It’s the stuff of folklore and legend: but for whatever reason Herrman’s name did not go down in history that night at the 33rd Academy Awards.
Defining horror is no simple feat. It’s a genre which mutates, contorts and spreads like a flesh-eating mist. Moments of horror exist in all genres, but though audiences often find genre pictures uncomfortable, exhilarating, devastating and entertaining to Academy voters it seems to be often unpalatable. Perhaps it’s the immorality of it all, that these dark, fantastical images surface from some buried urge that threatens virtue. To deny this though would be to deny the genre’s greatest ability: to shine a spotlight on society, turning the screen into a mirror that gazes upon our own humanity.
It is conceivable, frustratingly so, that the Academy just feels that they are superior to horror, that to be worthwhile a picture should be grounded, realistic and preferably a biopic. I’m sure Hitchcock, Kubrick, Argento, Craven, Kusama, Amirpour, Carpenter would disagree.
This evening marks the 93rd Academy Awards. There aren’t any horror films in the running this year, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been any outstanding horror movies made: there has – indeed we are currently living through a golden age of genre cinema. Maybe one day the Academy will catch up and recognise the fantastic work being done, and horror can once again step out of the darkness and into that Oscar limelight.