Horror at the Oscars

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By Laurence Boag-Matthews, Final Year, Liberal Arts

Horror has existed for as long as cinema, and the horror tradition stretches far beyond cinema’s genesis. This begs the question: why does the Academy still not view the genre as eligible for the acclaim granted to others?

Horror has a fraught history in Hollywood, particularly with the Academy: only six films from the genre have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar - The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the sole winner. Some now considered to be among the greatest films of all time, regardless of genre, e.g. Psycho (1960) and The Shining (1980) weren’t even nominated for Best Picture.

The history of horror is a history of a wildly popular genre that people can often be unwilling to admit they enjoy. Before cinema - in the origins of the Gothic genre, the precursor of horror - the novels of those such as Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis were popular fiction pushing the boundaries of what was socially acceptable; though these differed from much of modern horror, in that the social balance is always ultimately restored.

One of Psycho's iconic, horrific shots | IMDb / Shamley Productions

Horror classics such as Frankenstein (1818) and Dracula (1897) transferred seamlessly to cinema; the visually striking imagery lends itself to photography of all kinds and while gothic elements definitely existed at cinema’s birth, the German expressionists definitely escalated the popularity of horror. Horror films can allow a kind of catharsis, allowing audiences to escape the horror of reality by exploring primal fears in a safe space outside the real world.

Classically many truly great horror films have been independently made, which puts them at a disadvantage in comparison to large-scale studio productions when it comes to awards

In post-WWI Germany this was important: films such as Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) are hailed as classics of cinema. However, once the studios picked up on the popularity of horror, in particular the monsters of the genre - Frankenstein (1931) was the highest grossing film of that year - it became a genre of near constant imitations and sequels. Studios attempted to capitalise on the popularity by following similar templates, catching on to their ability to make large returns even with a minimal budget.

The horror genre was home to Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, who were central to countless films and paired up with other monsters to combine popularity. This mash-up format itself has been imitated - see early 00s slashers such as Freddy vs Jason (2003) and Alien vs. Predator (2004). The popular horror films being made in the mid 20th century were often B-movies, produced at rapid rates by the studios to generate ticket sales.

This is a major contributor to the cultural feeling - shared by the Academy - that horror is a trivial genre less worthy of acclaim. Classically many truly great horror films have been independently made, which puts them at a disadvantage in comparison to large-scale studio productions when it comes to awards.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 'paved the way for the slasher sub-genre' | IMDb / Vortex

Horror thrives when boundaries are broken to establish new rules. Recently the most critically acclaimed, groundbreaking horror such as It Follows (2014), The VVitch (2015), and Hereditary (2018) were independently produced and received no Oscar nominations, following historical trends in the genre. Classics that shape trends in horror are often made with little formal support and very little money.

To view a horror film as ‘good’ we require it to make us feel scared, the most effective horror gets under our skin and stays with us beyond the screen

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was made with a budget of less than $140,000 yet is one of the most effective horror movies of all time and paved the way for the slasher sub-genre that followed, originating many elements common to later films. Large studios still seem unwilling to fund more ambitious horror projects, which risk losing money, therefore the most visible horror films are the less innovative sequels, remakes, and imitations that are likely to be less impressive than new projects that break conventions.

A further reason that horror films may receive fewer awards is that it occupies a place in culture where it allows us to explore base-level fears such as the dark and death, albeit in a controlled manner. The dependence upon viscerality and an audience’s physical reaction seems to hold the genre back from acclaim. To view a horror film as ‘good’ we require it to make us feel scared, the most effective horror gets under our skin and stays with us beyond the screen.

Alien vs. Predator is a classic mash-up horror film | IMDb / Twentieth Century Fox

An example in contrast - the biopic has historically been well decorated by the Academy. This genre typically recreates a historical or popular figure’s life and allows us a peek in - costuming and performance that is ‘true to life’ is seen as a great feat. However, often even if a horror film is not very good, a jumpscare can catch us unaware and we momentarily experience real fear. This ability to evoke ‘real’ reactions and feelings is less rewarded.

Being that often praise for a film centres around how authentic the actions on screen feel to the audience, one may expect horror to perform particularly well. Get Out was perhaps the most talked about release of 2017, highly praised for how uncomfortably true-to-life it felt to audiences. Yet while it received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor, it only won in the screenplay category. Another example is Hereditary (2018), a very highly discussed film which received no Oscar nominations despite being released by the same production company - A24 - as Lady Bird (2017), which was nominated in five categories.

It is perhaps the most cinematic genre, as to be effective horror relies on our buying into the reality of the action, at least for a short time

Some may argue that horror doesn’t make us think deeply, or operate on the same level aesthetically as the Oscars’ usual suspects. However I would argue that it is perhaps the most cinematic genre, as to be effective horror relies on our buying into the reality of the action, at least for a short time. Horror films are probably the films we talk about the most often as truly affecting us, even people who don’t really watch many films and or are not that interested regularly have stories of seeing a scary movie as a child which they remember particularly vividly. I believe that this qualifies the genre as worthy of higher acclaim than it currently receives.

Featured: IMDb / Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences


Do you agree that horror films are unfairly overlooked by awarding bodies?

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