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Slashers and Statues: Horror at the Oscars

By Andreas

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.

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The House of Burgess Meredith

Emboldened by Jovanka Vuckovic’s favorite horror movies, Ashley and I went ahead last night and watched The Sentinel (1977). It’s a pretty weird movie, if not entirely successful, with a hodgepodge of disturbing imagery, plots that go nowhere, and all the veteran Hollywood actors the 1970s had to offer. It’s your typical gateway-to-hell movie. Alison (Cristina Raines), a model with some severe daddy issues, doesn’t want to marry her mustachioed boyfriend (Fright Night‘s Chris Sarandon) just yet, so she goes apartment-shopping in New York and finds a cheap, spacious place with no neighbors – other than a blind priest in the attic, some lesbian ballerinas, and a cat-obsessed Burgess Meredith who’s [spoiler] actually kind of Satan.

But Alison is not easily fazed. Even when the dizzy spells start, even when all hell breaks loose right above her ceiling, and even when her real estate agent proves that her neighbors don’t really exist, she goes on living there. However, when she hallucinates (?) stabbing her dead zombie father, that’s the last straw. And that’s when detectives Eli Wallach and Christopher Walken get called in. Yeah, if there’s one thing The Sentinel has, it’s big names of the past and future. Jeff Goldblum, on the road to stardom, shows up as a photographer; Psycho‘s Martin Balsam plays a Latin prof. I mean, Ava Fucking Gardner is the real estate agent!

I love how 1970s Hollywood had all these past-their-prime legends just sitting around, and could insert them into character parts. Need someone to play a slightly threatening monsignor in your slightly sleazy horror movie? Well, how about five-time Oscar nominee Arthur Kennedy? The upshot of this trend is that we get to see dozens of our favorite old actors in amusing if undignified roles. This is the basis for much of The Sentinel‘s entertainment value. The rest of it comes the creepy shit that engulfs Alison courtesy of Dick Smith’s special effects.

Much digital ink has been spilled about the climax, wherein a mob of giggling demons, led by hell’s emissary Burgess Meredith, follows Alison into the attic and tries to get her to kill herself. It’s scary, yeah, and it has some troubling ableist implications, but for me the creepiest scene comes about 45 minutes in. It’s the one that made Bravo’s “100 Scariest Movie Moments.” Alison wanders through the darkness, flashlight in hand, when something crosses her path. And hey, it’s that zombie father I mentioned earlier! The blood, the nose-hacking, and the naked female zombies make it that much worse.

So yes, The Sentinel has some scenes that made me curl up into a fetal position (while maneuvering my arms so I could still see the screen). Unfortunately, it feels like it was written by several people who weren’t on speaking terms, but each picked a different set of genre clichés to use. It’s ostensibly a psychological horror movie, but it veers off into a police procedural in its second act, then decides it actually wants to be a religious conspiracy thriller. The Wallach/Walken episode is the funniest manifestation of this disconnect, as they go from character to character, digging up extraneous but lurid back stories in generic cop fashion. (Walken only gets a few stray lines! That’s the real horror.)

But even though the parts don’t cohere into a sensible whole, The Sentinel is enjoyably ridiculous enough for me to recommend it. The all-star cast, the build-up and reveal as a septuagenarian John Carradine enters the picture, and Burgess Meredith’s sublime hamminess all paid out great dividends on the time I invested. When the movie finally gets focused, it manages to be a fairly terrifying, oddball foray into the demonic. You could say it’s the best 1970s apartment-centered horror movie that Roman Polanski didn’t direct.

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Horror is everywhere (2)

Jumping off from last week’s post about horror’s influence across genres, national boundaries, and levels of respectability, I’m going to look at a very specific subset of horror-related images. If you saw my special announcement last night, you’ll know that I have a personal interest in the connection between femininity and monstrosity. And that’s just what I’ve got for you! Culled from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? list of the 1,000 most critically acclaimed films, here are female monsters in established classics from around the globe…

Rashomon (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #18

OK, so maybe the medium from Rashomon isn’t technically a “monster,” but this is still a terrifying moment. In order to extract testimony from a dead samurai, the court interviews a medium channeling his spirit, and his voice emanates from her like Mercedes McCambridge speaking through Linda Blair. The way she writhes and contorts just compounds the creepiness. As you’ll see later in this list, 1950s jidai-geki (samurai movies) are often informed by medieval Japanese mythology; witches and ghosts frequently intrude on secular affairs. And, although it was inspired by Shakespeare’s very scary Macbeth, similar horror motifs also show up in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957).

Sunset Blvd. (1950) – TSPDT ranking: #31

Besides being easily one of the greatest films ever made, Billy Wilder’s bitter paean to tinseltown is also a brilliant genre hybrid, mixing black comedy, film noir, and horror. All three are visible in the image above, as faded movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) sinks deeper into delusion. By the end of the film, her tics and grandiose gestures have consumed her, and she looks grotesquely vampiric as she gazes into that mirror – teeth bared, nostrils flared, and face tilted upward. Swanson’s makeup exaggerates her facial features, turning her visage into a monstrous mask, and she completes the transformation with her unhinged, incomparable performance. Earlier in the film, Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) remarks, “A dozen press agents working overtime can do terrible things to the human spirit.” Norma is the monster; Hollywood’s publicity machine (aided by Erich von Stroheim as Max, the servant/ex-lover) is Dr. Frankenstein.

(For the “Sunset Blvd. as horror” argument, it’s worth remembering that the film contains a monkey in a casket.)

Persona (1966) – TSPDT ranking: #42

Let me put it this way: in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Elisabet (Liv Ullmanm) is a fucking vampire. OK, maybe she doesn’t literally suck the blood of her nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson), but she’s still an emotional vampire. She listens to Alma pour her heart out about past affairs, insecurities, etc., and says absolutely nothing, pretty much draining her of identity. With such an ambiguous, atmospheric movie, it’s hard to put it all into concrete terms, but believe me: she’s a vampire. During this scene, she sneaks into Alma’s room while she’s sleeping and they have a very weird, sensual, late-night interlude together. It’s never clear exactly what Elisabet’s doing, but in his own artful way, Bergman is definitely borrowing from the visual language of horror movies. He may have only made one or two “real” horror movies in his career, but the genre was always lurking right under the surface of his austere, spiritual experiments.

Ugetsu Monogatari – TSPDT ranking: #47

To be blunt about it, Kenji Mizoguchi’s lyrical masterpiece is one long ghost story, complete with a twist ending (and emotional sucker punch) that anticipated The Sixth Sense by half a century. Like Rashomon and Onibaba, it takes place against a backdrop of warfare and its collateral damage in medieval Japan. Here, an ambitious potter forgets his wife and son when he’s entranced by a beautiful noblewoman, Lady Wakasa (Machiko Kyo, the wife from Rashomon). Granted, she’s a conniving, undead femme fatale with her fair share of ulterior motives, but Kyo also imbues her with a slightly tragic, pathetic quality. Also, note how the Buddhist prayers scrawled on the potter’s body would be repeated a decade later in the Citizen Kane of Japanese horror movies, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

The Wizard of Oz (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #66

This is perhaps the classic example of kindertrauma-inflicting nightmare fuel. Every little kid is told about Dorothy and Toto and the Emerald City, and how they’re going to love this fun, cute movie… and then this green-faced harridan lunges out of a cloud of smoke, and the little kids start wetting themselves. This isn’t the worst of it, either; just wait till later on, when she’s flinging balls of flame and ordering around an army of flying monkeys. Margaret Hamilton is perfectly cast as the pointy-nosed old lady everybody loves to hate. She’s just so evil – and garish, and histrionic, and anti-fun – and she wields black magic to enforce her dictatorial reign over Oz. She’s many a child’s first worst nightmare.

Vampires, ghosts, and witches are all over the place, in Hollywood classics and art film masterpieces. I’ll be back with more “Horror is everywhere” next week!

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Horror is everywhere (1)

Since so much of the critical discourse around horror tends to describe it as a “ghetto genre,” stuck in the gutter of low budgets and low culture, it’s easy to imagine it as walled off from the rest of film. But, well, that’s just not the case – and the sooner we realize it, the happier we’ll be. Because the fact is, as I say in the title of this post: horror is everywhere. It’s not just in ’50s B-movies and ’70s slashers and monster rampages and gore. It’s all over the place in mainstream Hollywood cinema. It’s in austere art films. Only a thin, imaginary line separates the worlds of Herk Harvey, Lars von Trier, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Ingmar Bergman.

In order to demonstrate this point, I’ve gone through the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? aggregated list of the 1,000 highest-ranked films of all time, and picked out ones that show the influence of the horror genre. Because horror isn’t just a hidden, perverse bastard genre. It’s an impulse whose tentacles reach into all eras and regions. Horror touches all artists whether they like it or not. So here are some critically acclaimed films that deserve to be located within the tradition of horror.

Citizen Kane (1941) – TSPDT ranking: #1

Who do you think dwells in that far-off, menacing mansion? Maybe Dr. Frankenstein? Mr. Sardonicus? No, that’s Xanadu, the final home of the title character in Citizen Kane. In the film’s opening sequence, Welles invokes haunted house iconography, moving us closer and closer to Xanadu through a series of eerie dissolves; Bernard Herrmann’s creepy score accentuates the feeling. Welles was no stranger to scaring people (remember, he’d punk’d the nation with The War of the Worlds just 3 years earlier), and he knew how to make Kane seem distant and foreboding: introduce him with a dash of Gothic horror. Kane’s rigid, Karloffian outburst after Susan leaves him later in the film just drives the point home.

Vertigo (1958) – TSPDT ranking: #2

Like Welles, Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to horror. He flirted with the genre throughout his career, producing movies that were terrifying and mysterious, but still better categorized as “suspense” or “thrillers.” Still, he made one of the earliest serial killer movies (The Lodger), and helped establish the slasher and killer animal subgenres with Psycho and The Birds. In Vertigo, often considered his masterpiece, he even dabbled with the supernatural through a red herring reincarnation story. Sure, Madeleine/Judy turns out to be a total fake, but the film still contains moments of potent psychological horror – like the wonderful dream sequence pictured above, which is easily one of my favorite cinematic nightmares.

The Rules of the Game (1939) – TSPDT ranking: #3

I’m not trying to suggest that Renoir’s playful, lusty tragicomedy is secretly a horror movie. But I just really love Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, and I love Renoir’s very theatrical take on it. This macabre little dance routine is performed by members of the nobility for the benefit of their friends, and also for us, the audience. In a movie where trivialities and misguided passions lead to serious consequences, it only makes sense that skeletons and ghosts should be reduced to characters in a brief entertainment.

The Third Man (1949) – TSPDT ranking: #30

Postwar Vienna is a scary place. At least, that’s the lesson learned by hack writer Holly Martins after he pays the city a visit. In addition to dealing with international politics, canted angles, and the maybe dead, maybe evil Harry Lime, Martins and his not-quite-girlfriend Anna have to evade this creepy little Austrian kid who’s accusing them of murder. Throughout the film (which is one of my favorites ever), director Carol Reed pours on the expressionism, to the point that you’re not sure whether Holly and Anna are coming or going. The war-damaged state of the city’s streets and buildings doesn’t help. Combine this disorientation with a demon child right out an Austrian version of The Omen, and you’ve reached the point where noir meets horror.

The Conversation (1974) – TSPDT ranking: #166

Most of Francis Ford Coppola’s least-recognized masterpiece sits in “lonely paranoid thriller” territory, very much in line with the ’70s work of others like Scorsese, Pakula, and Polanski. But toward the end, as Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert Harry Caul realizes the complexity of the conspiratorial web he’s trapped in, the movie has some hallucinatory moments of real horror. Caul glances around an empty hotel room where he suspects a murder has been committed, then innocuously flushes the toilet… and out pours blood in a Shining-style deluge. We’ve also got Robert Duvall’s bloody handprint smeared on a window.

Initially, The Conversation‘s iciness and formal refinement may seem light-years away from the off-the-cuff gruesomeness of something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But really, to paraphrase Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, they’re “sisters under the mink.” Or, to put it in more prosaic terms, they’re “surprisingly similar after you disregard artificial notions of high and low culture.” Whether you love or hate horror movies, it’s time to set aside these false distinctions, break through the self-imposed barriers, and realize that all of cinema is interconnected. And to hammer that point home, I’ll have more “Horror is everywhere” for you each week throughout October.

Pleasant nightmares, all!

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