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"And The Sinner Is..." Horror at the Oscars

Updated: Jan 24

Every single year since I can remember I’ve looked forward to when the Academy Awards roll around. Even before I knew I was a fan of cinema I watched highlights of famous actors and directors picking up awards for some of the best films ever made. It took me quite a few years to realise that the Oscars weren’t just handing out awards for excellence in a particular category but that there may actually be some “movie politics” involved too.

And so now with the growth of social media (essentially a live forum in your hand at all times) it’s gotten to the point that Award Season discourse, especially surrounding the Academy Awards, has reached a level that is almost laughably unbearable. With the recent nomination announcement still fresh, this year seems to be no different.

And would we want it any different? Discourse and debate is all part of the process isn’t it?

One genre of fans that are always very outspoken (and rightly so) come nomination announcement time is us, the horror family. The Academy historically aren't too fond of nominating horror films in the principal categories like Best Picture or Best Director or for acting. It’s a genre that often gets love in some of the technical fields like Sound Editing, Costume Design, Art Direction and Make-Up. All admirable acknowledgments that should never ever be sniffed at. These technical fields are all just as important as the “Big Five” and as film fans we should all be greatly proud and supportive when one of our own gets recognized for their quality of contribution.

But man it would be great to see a horror film win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture again wouldn’t it?

The only time that has ever happened was in 1992 when Jonathan Demme’s extraordinary adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (published four years prior) not only took home the Best Picture award but also cleaned up in the other “Big Five”; Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress. ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was only the third film in history to do that with ‘It Happened One Night’ in 1935 and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ in 1975 being the other two.

While I personally would love to see more horror representation at the Oscars I don’t really conform to this idea that the Academy always “snub” horror because they see it as something less than. The horror genre has accumulated many nominations over the years in a wide variety of categories.

Let’s take a look at all of the horror film winners at the Oscars so far.

90 years ago ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ became the first horror film to win an Academy Award when respected and versatile American actor Fredric March shared the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role with ‘The Champ’ star Wallace Beery. Directed by influential Armenian filmmaker Rouben Mamoulian the film was loosely based on the famous novella by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ with March playing a well renowned doctor who drinks a potion that turns him into an animalistic, homicidal maniac. It is widely regarded as being a fundamental film in the genre for its use of coloured filters during the transformative special effects scene, the secrets to which weren’t revealed by the director until years later. It also received nominations in the Best Adaptive Writing and Best Cinematography categories.

Two other famous gothic horror films that did win for Best Cinematography were ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ in 1944 and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ in 1946. A young Angela Lansbury also picked up a Best Actress in a Supporting Role nomination for the latter, which incidentally also co-starred her Belfast born mother Moyna Macgill.

Visual Effects and Makeup are usually two popular categories for horror film nominations during awards season but since 1929 there have only been five films in the horror genre that have won either Oscar. Ridley Scott’s seminal science fiction survival horror ‘Alien’ took the gong for Best Visual Effects and the legendary Stan Winston and his team also snatched that same prize seven years later for ‘Aliens’. The sequel picked up Best Sound Editing too but despite being nominated, Sigourney Weaver and James Horner sadly didn’t win for Best Actress and Best Original Score. Great news for horror fans though as at the very same ceremony Chris Walas (who famously created the creatures for ‘Gremlins’) and Stephen Dupuis won Best Makeup for their incredible work on making Jeff Goldblum look like a human fly hybrid in David Cronenberg’s classic ’The Fly’. Five years prior, genius makeup magician Rick Baker became the first winner of the award for his insanely impressive werewolf prosthetics and makeup in John Landis’ ‘An American Werewolf in London’. Still some of the best work that’s ever been put on screen. And lastly in 1993, in addition to Best Makeup, Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ picked up two other Oscars including Best Sound Editing and Best Costume Design. Eiko Ishioka’s profoundly gorgeous costumes are quite frankly unforgettable and some of cinema’s most iconic pieces.

Only one other horror film has ever won for costume design. 1962’s ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?’. It’s fondly remembered for Bette Davis’ incomparable performance as the “hagsploitative” Baby Jane Hudson. However she lost out to Anne Bancroft at the 35th Annual Academy Awards for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Another nominee that same year was Lee Remick, who 14 years later starred alongside Gregory Peck in Richard Donner’s 1976 satanic “family drama” ‘The Omen’. (Coincidentally Peck won an Oscar for his role as Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ the same year Remick received her nomination alongside Bette Davis. Ok I’ll move on) Although Remick wasn’t nominated for her role in Donner’s iconic film, illustrious composer Jerry Goldsmith took home the only Oscar of his career for his original score. Goldsmith had been nominated eight times prior to his work on ‘The Omen’ and eight times after. He should’ve got a nod for his score on ‘Alien’ but the Academy decided to nominate him for his ‘Star Trek: Motion Picture’ score instead, which is fair enough.

Johnny Depp has never won an Oscar but remarkably two of his many Tim Burton collaborations (‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’) have both won in the same category, Best Art Direction. Well, not entirely remarkable considering Tim Burton, the Master of the Macabre and the God of Modern Gothic (both made up nicknames) was sitting behind the camera and much of his style of filmmaking has been built entirely on his set pieces and colour pallets. Colleen Atwood, another regular Burton collaborator, was also nominated for both films in Best Costume Design.

As mentioned near the top of this article, the lead acting categories are largely overlooked in the horror genre. It’s one of the few categories that horror fans really get angry about and with good reason. Some notable exclusions include Toni Collette in ‘Hereditary’ (2018), Garance Marillier in ‘Raw’ (2016), John Goodman in ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ (2016), Gary Oldman in ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992), Florence Pugh in ‘Midsommar’ (2019), Anthony Perkins in ‘Psycho’ (1960), Michael Rooker in ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ (1986) and Mia Farrow in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968). Although thankfully the Academy did recognize Ruth Gordon for her Supporting Role in Polanksi’s film. There are so many more that I haven’t mentioned that are worthy of the recognition. However in 1991 Kathy Bates deservedly became a winner for her performance as psychotic superfan Annie Wilkes in Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Misery’. Twenty years after Bates lifted the gold gong Natalie Portman did the same for her hypnotic stint in Darren Aronofsky’s mesmerising ‘Black Swan’, which regrettably lost out in Directing, Motion Picture, Cinematography and Film Editing.

The horror film that has garnered the most nominations in Oscar history is, not surprisingly, ‘The Exorcist’ with a total of ten nominations. Released in 1973 ‘The Exorcist’ was immediately billed as “the scariest film ever made” (yeah it definitely is) and the myths surrounding the film’s production and aftermath are almost as infamous as the film itself. It won the Oscars for both Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay and was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture. It likely should have won more on the night considering William Friedkin, Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and cinematographer Owen Roizman were all up for consideration. The makeup category never existed back in 1974 but the eventual recipient of the inaugural award in 1982, Rick Baker, worked as a lab assistant on the film to the great Dick Smith. A vitally important experience that he identified as being a turning point in his career. Everything onscreen was applied by Smith except for Max von Sydow's hand makeup during the scenes in Iraq, which was Baker's lone credit. I'm certain Dick Smith would've won if the Academy had recognised the category back then. William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay for 'The Exorcist' which was adapted from his own novel, with Friedkin helping in the process. It’s always extra special to see horror do well in the writing fields too. In 2018 ‘Get Out’ received four separate nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Directing, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role and Best Original Screenplay, which is the one that it ended up winning. It was a memorable night for horror and a historic night for Jordan Peele.

Let’s hope that horror has many more nights of celebration at the Oscars but please remember that while it’s always gratifying to see our favourites get the recognition they so richly deserve on the biggest stage of them all, it’s only a silly little awards show.

- Gavin Logan

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