Diversity was a big issue surrounding this year’s Oscars. This year’s awards season was exciting on one hand because it veered further into lower-budget, lower-grossing indie fare than ever before, but on the other hand, it was more white and masculine than it has been in years, proving that the Academy especially is starting to think forward in certain respects but devolve into old, bad habits in many others.
I’m not here to talk about race and gender diversity though, as much as I agree that it matters. For the purpose of this post, I instead want to bring up another kind of diversity that is, and always has been, lacking: genre. It comes as no surprise that horror movies are almost always absent at the Oscars, and when they are present, they’re mostly relegated to technical, and visual awards. Horror and to some degree science-fiction, fantasy, and comic book movies as well, are genres that are simply not taken as seriously in the upper echelons of the film industry. When awards season rolls around, the connotation that these genres are lower culture rears its ugly, ignorant head. The notion that these genres are inherently the scum of cinema is a simplified notion, but it is a notion that every mainstream, revered guild, academy, union, and association seems to abide by. It seems to be an unspoken code—these movies are just entertainment, after all, how could they ever qualify as art? And entertainment is simply not enough, I suppose.
I feel like I was born to dispel these culturally-embedded, firmly held beliefs about horror. One notch above pornography but one notch below comedy (a genre which is occasionally honored by Oscar but only if the style of humor is high brow enough), horror has only been recognized during awards season on a few rare occasions. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) was nominated for Screenplay and Supporting Actress (for which Ruth Gordon won.) The Exorcist (1975) was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture, but it lost; out of its 9 nominations, it only won for Sound and Screenplay. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) is the only horror film I could think of that won the top prize, among its other wins (it became the third film in history to sweep the “Big Five.”) And lastly, Jaws (1975) the only other horror film I could think of that won for something other than Makeup or Visual Effects—it won for Editing, Score and Sound.
If I were to try and analogize here, horror’s minuscule place at the awards season table feels a lot like more like it’s sitting uncomfortably at the kids’ table— it’s an honor to be in the presence of the adults, sure, but you horror folks only get to talk about makeup and visual effects. It’s almost as if those things were deemed child’s play– leave the grown-ups to their biopics and war dramas. Don’t get me wrong—to be nominated and ultimately honored for things like makeup and visual effects is great—the impeccable work that these professionals do to scare the pants off moviegoers and transport them to another world has ultimately paid off in some sense, their talents affirmed by the all-knowing Oscar voters. But that’s just it— they’re not all-knowing, are they? They’re pigeon-holing the entire genre to the one or two categories where it seems most appropriate to give it a nod, a mere pat on the back for playing with masks and fake blood and dummies all day. Awards season simply doesn’t have much, if any, room for horror in categories like Acting, Directing, or Screenplay. The voters only, or at least mostly, see horror as a genre solely comprised of great makeup and stellar visual effects, while all other elements are often assumed to be less worthy.
Take this year’s Oscars for a moment: I was rooting for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to win for its spectacular visual effects. Also nominated were fellow blockbusters X-Men: Days of Future Past, Guardians of the Galaxy (also nominated for Hair and Makeup), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier— all comic book adaptations that actually went over really well with critics. But, they are still comic book movies, and Interstellar took home the prize. I saw all of these films, and while Nolan is a master at what he does with visuals, I don’t really think that this was his most masterful wave of the VFX wand, at least not when compared to the movie magic that transformed Andy Serkis into the complex ape character of Caesar. But Nolan, as edgy and sci-fi as he tends to be, is more of an Oscar favorite.
I digress in such a way because I think there are just as many unfair politics surrounding all these genres– horror, science-fiction, comic book, and fantasy— to varying extents, as there are surrounding pretty much everything else during awards season. The Lord of the Rings trilogy only got recognized when (and because) the trilogy was ending, some say– it won all the awards it was nominated for, becoming the first fantasy film to nab Best Picture. Alien (1979) won surrealist goth artist H.R. Giger a well-deserved Oscar for Visual Effects but the only other nomination the film received was for art direction/set decoration and it lost, and I think it deserved so much more than just those.
It must have something to do with the fact that these genres in particular, like lower brow comedy (not things like The Grand Budapest Hotel or Little Miss Sunshine (2006) which are the kinds of comedies that warm our hearts more than they do tickle our funny bone with crudeness and gags) have a specific set of goals that differ from those goals that Oscar voters are concerned with. The Academy wants triumph and tragedy; it does not want to be scared, grossed out or traumatized. The bodily fluid of choice to display pathos (and win awards) is tears, not blood. The heroes they want to see are complicated underdogs battling adversity in the form of prejudice or war or disease. They have no need for final girls with their phallic weaponry battling serial killers and the supernatural. Voters can’t—or don’t want to—get past the fear and discomfort they may experience, or maybe their tastes are so refined that they do not even allow themselves to experience such things. Either way, the innovation and precision that may successfully induce such experiences go unrewarded.
And this is truly a shame. Perhaps some of the aforementioned films would never have made it to the final showdown in categories besides those designated for special/visual effects. But there are those that are deserving, that didn’t get nominated for anything at all, and what do you know—they’re all horror films. For Birdman to not be nominated for editing is a travesty, but it is just as disappointing that Oculus wasn’t—the only difference being, no one would have expected the latter to be nominated. But it could (and should) have been. Oculus had some of the most twisted, courageous and effective editing I’ve ever seen. And what about The Babadook. Like Boyhood, The Babadook had nearly a perfect critical score across the board. It is an impeccably well-crafted piece of cinema, generic labels aside. Essie Davis was harrowing and fascinating as tormented mother Amelia, turning in a more complex performance than some that are more readily nominated. And Jennifer Kent would have been a nice addition in the Directing category, especially but not solely because she’s a female filmmaker dabbling in a male-centric genre within an equally male-dominated industry. It could have maybe even edged its way into the Screenplay race. But this is not the world we live in.
The world we live in is one in which the horror community is forced to be insular, sustaining itself and rewarding its members, making it a pretty exclusive club itself, and so we’re left to question how much those rewards really weigh. I once wrote a piece that supported this idea— that maybe horror doesn’t really belong in the Oscars after all, that horror can do just fine celebrating itself (but if only there were an awards show like the Oscars to honor the genre separately but adequately). I’m starting to veer away from this opinion though and vouch for horror as a genre worthy of widespread recognition, weighing its achievements as we would any other film of a certain quality, judging them against one another, all part of the same medium.
Because, if this were actually the world we lived in, then horror as a genre would be elevated—the bar would be raised and the output would be more innovative, more often. The reason we get so many insipid remakes is because there is no platform for truly spectacular, well-made horror to be applauded as such by industry professionals who, right now, seem like fearful, snooty Gods rather than supportive peers. It’s one thing for critics to bestow praise upon a horror film—it’s a great thing, in fact—but it is a whole other thing to be praised by that other sect of critics, the ones who actually “matter” (although, why they matter as much as they do is a whole other conversation to be had) and whose votes amount to a statuette and true industry respect rather than just a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. For me, it’s often enough to know the “horror fans” loved something, or to hear that the “fans of the comic” approved of an adaptation. But sometimes, I do just wish that we stripped the labels off of everything and saw these films for what they really are, what they might be beneath that label— entertaining but also artistic, affecting and effective cinematic works that should all hold some cultural value, but which are never assigned the values they actually deserve. These genres are not what they used to be; too bad the Oscars, more or less, still are.
Featured Image: The Babadook, Causeway Films