It’s time for me to pontificate about horror movies and the Oscars. As such, let me lay out a couple basic propositions:
1) In their ongoing attempt to reward quality filmmaking, the Oscars have infamously preferred a certain type—namely, “prestige” pictures that can seem to advance film as an art form while catering to (and flattering the intelligence of) a broad audience. Serious and “ambitious” dramas, by and large, trump their less overtly dignified brethren in Oscar’s eyes.
2) Meanwhile, “horror movies” have been ghettoized by mainstream film critics and moral authorities, who deride them as anti-prestigious, cheap, morally/artistically suspect, etc. It’s a process that’s slowly being reversed, but old habits die really hard.
The end result, as a cursory glance over Oscar history will tell you, is that horror movies are almost never recognized by the Academy. To expand on that, let me hazard another proposition:
3) Because of these biases, horror masterpieces are constantly ignored by the Oscars in favor of absolutely inferior movies that look safe and award-worthy.
None of this is especially revolutionary thinking. In fact, genre bigotry like this is widely accepted as one of the Academy’s major weaknesses. But I do think there’s plenty more to be learned by closely examining that “almost never.” When does the Academy embrace horror? The short answer is “Roughly once a decade.” The long answer is “It depends on what you consider horror.” Let me explain by going chronologically…
Read a near-comprehensive history of horror at the Oscars after the jump.
In 1933, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde became the first horror movie to receive an Oscar nomination. (Three, in fact, and it tied for Best Actor with Fredric March’s performance as Jekyll/Hyde.) Already, you can witness a few of the key factors that grant horror movies entrance to Oscar glory: Jekyll and Hyde came from a big director and studio (Mamoulian and Paramount); it resembled a classy-but-titillating Pre-Code period drama in most respects; and it was anchored by some flashy, intense ACTING.
And for the rest of 1930s horror? This is where that “roughly once a decade” comes into play. Classics like Mad Love and Bride of Frankenstein came and went, but despite their riveting performances (Peter Lorre, Ernest Thesiger), gained no Oscar attention. Now, flash forward to 1941 and ponder that second point: do you consider Hitchcock’s Rebecca, with its Best Picture win and 10 other nominations, to be “horror”? It’s certainly eerie and gothic enough; it has an intangible ghost, a gloomy manor, and a psychotically obsessive villainess.
But again, those Oscar-friendly rules apply: Rebecca had prestigious creators (du Maurier, Selznick, and Hitchcock); it had ACTING in many hysterical flavors; and it didn’t look like a horror movie. No monsters, no makeup, no dusty laboratories. (Though that secret boathouse sure feels like a vampire’s crypt.) Rebecca set the trend for the rest of the 1940s-’50s. Several scary, atmospheric, and horror-tinged movies received numerous wins and nominations, but their monsters were shrouded in the guise of showy (and, yes, great) ACTING. They weren’t seen as horror.
I mean, what really separates Charles Boyer’s methodical sociopath in Gaslight from the misogynistic psychos who’ve populated horror movies for decades? Why is Ingrid Bergman’s Paula so different from any other post-traumatic final girl? And what about the “grotesquely vampiric” Norma Desmond from the Oscar-beloved Sunset Blvd.? Even Oscar-winning social message movies of the ’40s, like The Lost Weekend and The Snake Pit, had just as much in common with psychological horror of the Repulsion variety as with any staid, progressive dramas.
During this period, the only bona fide, unapologetically “horror” movies to get any significant Oscar traction were 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1 win, 2 noms) and 1956’s The Bad Seed (0 wins, 4 noms). So now we wend our way to the ’60s and a mild improvement in horror’s Oscar chances: see the case of Psycho (1960), another runaway financial success with a big-name director. Or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which boasted bigger and louder ACTING than any straight drama and hence broke out of the horror ghetto. (Baby Jane’s “hag horror” successor Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte  had similar Oscar success for the same reasons—prime donna performances by aging Hollywood royalty.)
That covers about 40 years of Oscar history, so I think I’ve established enough precedents to toss out another proposition:
4) A horror movie can score with Oscar as long as it A) has a distinguished pedigree through its director or source material, B) looks enough like another genre to pass as non-horror, and/or C) (most frequently) has one hell of a female performance its center.
I should add a corollary to B), which is that the horror movie in question can be attractive, well-behaved, and profitable. Then the Academy might give it some genre wiggle room. And now that I’ve made these claims, let’s see how well the next few Oscar-winning horror movies fit the bill. To boot: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) had two outstanding female performances (Mia Farrow and Oscar winner Ruth Gordon) and came from a foreign director renowned for his opaquely allegorical Knife in the Water.
And then in 1974, the first real breakthrough: The Exorcist—that most horrific of horror movies, with demons and gore and everything—bagged 10 nominations, including one for Best Picture. Pedigreed? Hell yes. Director William Friedkin had already nabbed an Oscar of his own for The French Connection, two years earlier. Well-behaved? Impressively no, although it was in many ways safe and prestigious.* Strong female performances? Um, only Ms. 1970s herself, Ellen Burstyn, and the talented-beyond-her-years Linda Blair.
Predictably, The Exorcist was the once-a-decade exception that proved (and reinforced) the rule. Even in the 1970s, when horror cinema was blossoming in wonderful and unexpected ways, when each new year brought The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Dawn of the Dead or Halloween—these exceptionally brilliant, earth-shakingly original masterpieces—all the Academy could squeeze out was a few piddling nominations for Deliverance, Jaws, and Carrie. (The first two could easily be passed off as man vs. wilderness thrillers; the latter, like The Exorcist, had an indelible pair of mother/daughter performances.)
The ’80s were even more barren. The Elephant Man (1980) racked up a lot of nominations, but beyond its masked protagonist and bleak Lynchian milieu, it wasn’t really a horror movie. Fatal Attraction (1987) had surprising Oscar traction for a sleazy erotic horror movie, but its genre status was effaced by both the oodles of cash it raked in and its main attraction, i.e. Glenn Close as the obsessive one-night stand who won’t go away. Same story with Misery (1990), really, which won a single Oscar for Kathy Bates… as an obsessive fan who won’t let James Caan go away.
This brings us to “real breakthrough” #2, the Big One: The Silence of the Lambs, the only Oscar sweep (and Best Picture or Director win) for horror to date. Like The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs really fit every requirement and then some. It had massive box office success, it got into America’s cultural bloodstream, it came from a popular (if pulpy) series of novels, it looked like a not-quite-horror FBI drama, and it had two spine-tingling performances to root for. It had the perfect storm of Oscar-friendly qualities that’s necessary for horror to get recognized.
If you’ve been following all these intricate patterns, you can pretty much guess how the story’s going to end. The Silence of the Lambs came out 20 years ago; consequently, Oscar’s taken a shine to horror movies twice more since then. First was The Sixth Sense (1999), which had the right mix of zeitgeist-catching quirks (“I see dead people” and That Twist), superficial respectability (it’s not too “horror”), and heavy performances.
Then we had the real shocker this past year, when the Academy gave love to two horror movies at the same ceremony. Of course, both had “Get Out of Horror Free” cards: 127 Hours was inspirational and “based on a true story”; Black Swan was just a “psychological thriller.” But we knew the truth: they were both horror movies. And guess what? Both were beloved by audiences and critics; both had auteur directors with previous Oscar experience; and both were explicitly about the solipsistic performances by James Franco and Natalie Portman.
So now that I’ve led you through 80+ years of nerdy statistics and horror history, what have we learned? Most importantly, that you can set your watch to Oscar’s attitude vis-à-vis horror movies. It’s virtually inflexible. Once or twice a decade, they want only the most tasteful, actor-centric horror. No blood and guts, please.** No non-human monsters, no slashers, no oddball indie horror sensations. They don’t really want the horror genre at their precious party. They just want a cherry-picked, Oscar-friendly sample.
*I call The Exorcist “safe and prestigious” for many reasons: it’s certainly more mainstream, blockbuster horror than most of the movies being discussed, and the near-mechanical nature of its scares puts me in mind of Jaws. Also, it has vague aspirations toward a religiously informed Good vs. Evil battle royale. That said, the fact that a movie this shocking and extreme was nominated for 10 Oscars is still a sign of how daring the early ’70s really were.
**I’ve (intentionally) left off all mention of technical awards here, sticking to the “big” ones (Picture, Director, Acting, Writing). I’ll briefly add that horror—messy, lowdown horror, the kind Oscar doesn’t want to dirty its hands with—does have a better shot at Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup (aka The Rick Baker Award). The latter, for example, was awarded to both An American Werewolf in London and The Fly. However, this seemingly reasonable concession is echoed by the creation of the Best Animated Feature category: an attempt to further ghettoize and isolate an entire genre’s accomplishments, so it doesn’t intrude on any of the respectable categories.