For the best part of a century, horror has fared poorly at the Academy Awards, rarely nominated, hardly ever awarded. This year’s Oscars, the 90th, hold out hope: ‘The Shape of Water’ is widely seen as the frontrunner for Best Picture, and ‘Get Out’ as the possible dark horse. Never before have two horror movies competed for Best Picture at the same Oscars. Of all the nominees in the previous 89 editions, less than 1% have been horror — just five out of 537. That is to say, only five of the Best Picture nominees are listed as horror on IMDb. There is often debate over whether a certain movie qualifies as horror; ‘Get Out’ itself is an example. A couple of Best Picture nominees that could present a case for being horror — ‘Rebecca’, which won Best Picture in 1941, and ‘Deliverance’, which competed in 1973 — must be left out of this count when IMDb is the yardstick. Of the five IMDb-certified horror films nominated up to last year, only ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ won Best Picture, in 1992. Besides, none of these nominations came during the first half of Oscars history; horror broke the barrier only at the 46th Awards, in 1974, courtesy ‘The Exorcist’.
Horror films before ‘The Exorcist’ were not short on quality, said John E Browning, a gothic and horror studies expert who teaches at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, Georgia Institute of Technology. “Instead, juries were apprehensive, I think, of distinguishing with an Academy Award any film deemed too base or ‘low-brow’, especially a horror film,” Browning told The Indian Express, by email. “This helps to explain why ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was (post-)marketed so much as a thriller (not horror), even though it’s a film that contains both cannibalism and the wearing of human skin (or leather) as clothing.” Both these landmarks were major studio films crafted around memorable acting performances, helping them buck the trend. ‘The Exorcist’’s 10 nominations included three for acting; ‘The Silence of The Lambs’ won both leading acting awards. Kevin Heffernan, who teaches film courses at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University, Texas, cited these as well as another exception: ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, which won Best Actor in 1932.
“But for most of American film history, the horror film has served to fill periodic product shortages when film distribution struggled to provide enough movies for the voracious maw of exhibition,” Heffernan said by email. Heffernan, whose book ‘Ghouls Gimmicks and Gold’ studies the economics of the post-war American horror film, described low-budget “B” features of the 1930s-40s, drive-in movies of the 1950s-60s, and low-budget horror during the video boom of the 1980s-90s. “Films produced, distributed, shown, and watched in these industrial contexts just aren’t in the same cultural or economic zone as major-studio films built from the ground up as ‘Oscar bait’,” Heffernan said.
The great horror films before ‘The Exorcist’, on the other hand, were often appreciated only in retrospect. This has been true of Gothic literature as well as classic horror cinema, observed Stacey Abbott, a reader in film and TV studies at University of Roehampton, London. Abbott, who is particularly interested in zombies and vampires, cited the examples of ‘Dracula’, ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, initially considered pulp novels but now literary classics, and the movies ‘Dracula’ (1931), ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935) and ‘Cat People’ (1942). “There are of course other ways of recognising quality horror films,” Abbott wrote to The Indian Express. “While (George A) Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ did not receive an Oscar nomination — it was in fact panned by the critics upon its original release in 1968 — by the early 1970s it was being screened at the Museum of Modern Art.”
After ‘The Exorcist’
At the Oscars, horror continued to flatter to deceive. In the 17 Oscar editions between ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, horror competed only twice more for Best Picture: ‘Jaws’ in 1976, ‘The Elephant Man’ in 1981. Even after ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ won a rare Grand Slam (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay), the 157 Best Picture nominations of the subsequent 25 years included only one more horror — ‘The Sixth Sense’, in 2000.
This denial came in a period when Dracula got his most lavish screen treatment yet, courtesy Francis Ford Coppola; when Nicole Kidman sought to protect her children from ‘The Others’ in a Gothic atmosphere; when ‘The Conjuring’ and its sequels drew from the best traditions of The Exorcist. Now, there are signs of recognition finally being on its way. “We are going through a period in which horror is highly visible and crossing over into the mainstream with films like ‘It’ and ‘The Conjuring’, as well as in art cinema circles with ‘The Witch’, ‘Ghost Story’, and ‘The Invitation’… I would say that a number of them are emerging in response to a period of cultural anxiety and social tension,” Abbott said, describing ‘Get Out’ as a film that captures racial tension in the US better than a conventional movie could.
Browning calls the current period the “Post-Millennial Gothic”, whose beginnings he lays at 9/11. “Our monsters are more often than not becoming more god-like and heroic, and not essentially ‘bad’,” he said, citing ‘Hellboy’ and some vampires in ‘True Blood’ or ‘Twilight’. “This new wave of monsters is effectively critiquing normalcy. So, in essence, what’s changing is terror, or what evokes terror.”
Heffernan, for his part, calls it “The New Hollywood”, one of its defining features being the upscaling of genres. “There will be many fine exemplars of what now can only be called ‘prestige horror’ releases from the major studios (often directed by international directors such as Guillermo del Toro… regardless of the country in which he is working),” he said. Del Toro directs ‘The Shape of Water’, on which rests so much of horror’s hopes for 2018 — the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ — and for beyond.