Horror and the Oscars: A Match Made in Hell
When looking at the Best Picture line-up of nominees of any given year, it’s likely there will be a common theme. The category is usually stacked with biopics or period dramas. It’s even more likely to find specific directors’ films landing in the category, such as common nominees Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. What you won’t find is horror movies. Commonly overlooked at the Oscars in any category, a horror film finds itself on an uphill battle to guarantee a Best Picture nomination, with only six ever vying for the top prize. What does it take to get a Best Picture nomination as a horror film?
The Exorcist, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan and Get Out are the only six horror films to ever compete in the Best Picture category. What made these particular films stand out enough to join Academy ranks? Sure, they were all popular films upon their release, all making above $100 million at the domestic box office. The Sixth Sense was the top-grossing film of 1999, making it a smash hit at the box office and biggest earner of the six. The Sixth Sense is the only film in this group that went on to win none of the Oscars it was nominated for, the others accruing awards in different categories such as editing (Jaws), original screenplay (Get Out), and leading actress (The Silence of the Lambs and Black Swan). The Exorcist received a whopping ten nominations at the 46th Oscars, only winning two (Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay). The Silence of the Lambs is the only film in the genre that has managed to nab the top prize, though, cementing that to win Best Picture as a horror film is almost unheard of. The Oscars have a history of alienating people who often say they haven’t seen or heard of some of the nominees, so why wouldn’t they honor a genre that manages to draw audiences to theaters and connects them to what they’re watching? It seems that the horror genre is seen as less-than when looking at it against other genres, such as epic war films or picturesque character studies.
Best Picture isn’t the only category that these films face challenges in. While it’s difficult to secure a Best Picture nomination, it still remains pretty challenging to get noticed in any other category. At the most recent Oscars, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse managed to snag a nomination for cinematography. The most recent horror nominee in the category before that was in 2011 at the 83rd Academy Awards, when Black Swan was nominated for cinematography. Horror often uses shadows, colors and light to tell stories, so cinematography should be a category that the genre should naturally excel in. Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) took home the Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography yet didn’t find its way to a nomination at the Oscars. Similarly, Thom Yorke’s score for the film received critical praise, earning nominations and wins amongst different critics’ groups and associations across the country, but failed to earn an Oscar nomination for his score and his original song contribution to the film. A film’s score can be its heart, and a horror score shouldn’t be undermined just because its primary goal may be to unnerve the audience. Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016) uses its score to propel the narrative of the film and even took home the Cannes soundtrack award but was still unable to secure a nomination at the Oscars.
Being nominated as a performer in a horror film is equally as difficult, with only six wins coming from the horror genre: Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931), Ruth Gordon (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968), Kathy Bates (Misery, 1990), Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), Jodie Foster (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), and Natalie Portman (Black Swan, 2010). Though the performers may have gotten enough attention, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Rosemary’s Baby and Misery were all neglected to be included in the Best Picture race. In recent years, there have been a couple of performances in the genre that were thought to be Oscar-level in quality yet didn’t go on to receive nominations. In 2018, Ari Aster’s Hereditary made waves for lead Toni Collette in one of her best performances to date, an outcry occurring on social media when the nominations were revealed and Collette’s name was excluded from the list. Similarly, in 2019, Jordan Peele’s sophomore feature Us garnered critical attention for its lead actress, Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o earned herself a SAG nomination as well as a Critics Choice nomination but was left with no Oscar nomination for her performance as two opposing, dynamic characters. She was thought to have a good chance because of her previous nominations for the role, as even Toni Collette missed out on a SAG nom for her performance in Hereditary. It seems that getting into the right awards bodies before the Oscars, such as critics groups and guilds, the Golden Globes, and the SAG Awards, could be key to landing nominations at the Oscars.
A film’s nomination for a Producers Guild of America (PGA) Award usually signifies that it has higher chances at the Oscars, with all but two in the last decade predicting the eventual winner of Best Picture. Similarly, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Awards and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) can bolster the chances of an Oscar nomination in those categories as well, also catching more attention for a film to get more nominations at the Oscars. Films that have their eye on the top prize will want nominations from these guilds, but how often do they actually nominate horror films, and is this lack of attention from guilds part of the larger issue?
The only writer to ever win a WGA Award for writing a horror film is Jordan Peele for 2017’s Get Out. Peele was also nominated for a DGA Award, but only one director has ever won for for directing a horror film, Jonathan Demme for The Silence of the Lambs. The Silence of the Lambs is also the only horror film to ever win the top honor at the PGA Awards, winning at only the third ever ceremony hosted by the guild. Get Out won the Stanley Kramer Award at the PGA Awards at the 2019 ceremony, a distinction given to films that “illuminate provocative social issues”, sharing the title with films such as Hotel Rwanda and Precious. It seems easier to give horror films awards such as these that almost shoehorn these movies into these categories where they have to have a grand social message to be considered worthy of honors or accolades. Get Out shouldn’t have just been considered for these awards because it’s a good horror film, it should be considered because it is just an overall great film. It has become so difficult for horror to get nominated for these awards because they aren’t even being seen for these awards. It seems Academy voters are similar, in that they only really recognize horror films with massive cultural impact like The Sixth Sense or because they tackle dark topics with force like Get Out or Black Swan. Black Swan also made it to the PGA Awards, yet lost to The King’s Speech.
Part of the hurdle of getting a Best Picture nomination could be avoided if such films were included amongst what is considered “Oscar bait.” It doesn’t make sense as to why horror is overlooked if the Academy is so keen on honoring films that depict a character study or emotional trauma. Manchester by the Sea, a film about a family undergoing loss and grief, won the award for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars in 2017. Three years before in 2014, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, another film about a family dealing with loss and grief, premiered to rave reviews and a near-perfect Rotten Tomatoes score. What’s the difference between these movies when they’re reduced to subject matter? The Babadook is an expertly directed film with a screenplay that truly satisfies but was once again left out from the Oscars. Is the Academy comfortable playing it safe with films that tells stories in a traditional sense? While terrifying, this is also a stirring film with an emotional core in its lead, Essie Davis. Manchester by the Sea’s lead, Casey Affleck, won the award for Best Leading Actor, while Essie Davis wasn’t even considered for Leading Actress. The Academy should attempt to start leaning into these films that use these traditional themes and subvert them through genre, even if it involves a jump scare here or there. When a film is good, it’s just good. It shouldn’t matter the genre of the movie when looking at possible awards talk.
This is where critics and film journalists step in. These films might be getting the reviews they deserve, but they’re not getting the hype they deserve. Without a momentum of any kind heading into awards season, it becomes difficult for films to keep up with the pack. Horror movies deserve a special push because they are usually not considered for these types of awards. They also deserve to be reviewed and discussed by people who understand and appreciate the entire genre. If film journalists and critics start talking about these movies more, discussing them more, writing even more pieces on horror, then perhaps they can start breaking through to awards shows. This could also help drive a For Your Consideration campaign, to which many horror movies do not receive. Hereditary is a movie that comes to mind with this specific challenge, A24 not really delivering any kind of FYC campaign for the movie or for Toni Collette’s lead performance. Perhaps if A24 had mounted a large campaign for her with even more hype circulating around the film, it would have found itself in a better position for Oscars season. It cannot solely be left to journalists and critics, but it could be a push in the right direction.
Critics even have the Critics’ Choice Awards, where films are honored and voted on solely by critics. This is an awards body that has already added a special category for Best Horror/Scifi film to honor them, so it could also be the awards body that starts the path for horror films if they can get nominated outside of just a specific genre category. If these films could start pushing into Best Picture at the Critics’ Choice, they could find themselves being mentioned by other bodies, including the previously mentioned guilds. If they can get into the guilds, they could start positioning themselves to get nominated for more Oscars, breaking into every category, not just Best Picture. A well-structured FYC campaign along with glowing reviews for a film, plus inclusion into a major awards body could definitely propel a film right into the race with the biopics and war dramas of the year.
Perhaps this year could be different, as most major studio films are now being moved to late 2021, leaving room for films that perhaps wouldn’t usually get a shot at Oscar chances. The sheer number of films is usually a big reason why horror gets pushed to the side, but this year could be different. The Invisible Man brought plenty of discussion around Elizabeth Moss’s lead performance and the originality of the screenplay. Maybe it could flourish in these categories if considered for precursor awards, such as the SAG Awards and WGAs, respectively. Never having been nominated for an Oscar before, Moss could find herself at a disadvantage, but the screenplay could push through with the right FYC campaign. Could Brandon Cronenberg, son of legendary filmmaker David Cronenberg, be considered for Best Original Screenplay for his horrifying Possessor? Best Cinematography could be something this film could look for if it could gather a nomination from an awards body like the Critics Choice Awards. If either of these movies is to manage to get an Oscar nomination, they will have to mount a huge FYC campaign and need critics to want to push these movies further to garner more attention. If not, it looks like it could be another year of horror being left out of the conversation.
Horror films deserve to be seen as much as any other genre of film. These films deserve the same visibility and attention from the Academy as any biopic that comes out. The Oscars are a historical snapshot of any given year’s group of films and should be representative of that year’s best and most deserving. Modern horror is subversive, engrossing, and emotionally nuanced that could rival biopics or war dramas, the genre allowing for a different type of storytelling. The Academy, and other awards bodies quite frankly, need to begin recognition in a genre that is only getting bigger and better by the year.