“What an excellent day for an exorcism.”
-Linda Blair, “The Exorcist” (1973)
If asked to describe a typical “Oscar” film, you’d likely hear phrases like “biopic” or “sprawling epic.” If there’s a genre that’s been grievously undervalued, and to a greater extent, disrespected within the industry space, it’s horror. It can be argued that it’s one of two genres that comes with an embedded bias, preventing wide acceptance (the other being “musicals”). Academy voters are one problem, but critics and awards analysts are another. Qualifying phrases like “highbrow” or “surprisingly smart” have to be used to give permission for analysts and voters to give “serious” consideration for annual top 10 lists and ballots.
The definition of what constitutes “horror” has been debated for decades. If you yell into the vacuum of Oscar historians asking, “What is the last horror film to be embraced by the Academy with a nomination for best picture?” you’d hear different answers. A few would say Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” utilizing racism as the fearful catalyst for scares. You’d catch some mentions of Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” applying the psychological terror of a serial killer to advance the plot. Hardcore enthusiasts will cite William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” showcasing the supernatural elements of the devil to grip the viewers. None of them are wrong. Horror is an expansive genre, and not a “one size fits all” interpretation for what is and is not chilling.
Too often entertainment journalists judge a person based on their movie tastes (I’ve been guilty of this before). God forbid you’re having a discussion on your favorite directors in history, and should Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini or Akira Kurosawa not be mentioned, boy, do the eyerolls follow. If in that same conversation you instead share John Carpenter, George A. Romero or Eli Roth as your darlings, you’re assumed to be an unemployed guy who lives in your parent’s basement.
Academy members have carried a condescending view that precludes them from embracing horror head-on. Let this serve as the permission slip for a wild trip down the bloodcurdling and spine-chilling artform. It’s okay to sign it. The Academy has made occasional dips into the genre like “Jaws” and “The Sixth Sense,” but there’s an opportunity to not just celebrate, but elevate dedicated artists (this goes for critics and guild members too).
It’s been long suggested that we are in a “golden age of horror.” If that’s true, why are we not seeing it reflected in annual award shows? Can’t blame it all on the Academy — the guilds and critics can pave the way by highlighting bold voices in the genre.
Staying in the Halloween theme, down below (in no particular order) you’ll find 13 movies (the famous unlucky number) post-1990, which failed to receive Oscar recognition in the major categories but should have been given consideration within their respective years.
Let this piece absolve you of any future guilt from fully leaning into this impeccably rich, creative space. And if you haven’t seen any of the listed, make time.
Best Actress: “The Babadook” (2014)
Essie Davis as Amelia Vanek
It’s not too often that the frightful genre both scares and moves the viewer but Kent’s film is one of the key examples of horror performers being inexplicably passed over on the awards circuit as seen with Essie Davis’ performance being ignored.
Other considerations: Best production design, cinematography, sound editing
Best Original Screenplay: “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012)
Written by Joss Whedon, Drew Goddard
The entertaining, scary and daring take on college kids in the woods is self-aware but utterly delightful. Screenwriter Drew Goddard tosses the stereotypical setting on its head. WGA awards missed the chance to cite demented mermaids, killer unicorns and Chris Hemsworth slamming into a forcefield.
Other considerations: Best film editing
Best Actress: “Hereditary” (2018)
Toni Collette as Annie Graham
Toni Collette. Toni Collette. Toni Collette. An actress, who by the way, if she hadn’t shocked the film world in 1999 when she nabbed a last-second nomination for “The Sixth Sense,” she would still be Oscar-nomination-less today, gives a masterclass on acting. Either the voters didn’t watch it, or they just didn’t care. Both would be unacceptable.
Other considerations: Best cinematography, makeup and hairstyling, sound mixing, sound editing
Best Adapted Screenplay: “It” (2017)
Written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman (based on “It” by Stephen King)
Stephen King adaptations have found love with the Academy before (“Carrie” and “The Shawshank Redemption”), but when it came to this creepy take on Pennywise the Clown, not even the SAG nominating committee can do a proper citation for best cast ensemble, the film’s greatest strengths. While we’re on the subject, its less-than-stellar sequel won’t appear on the list, but it’s always worth noting Bill Hader was fully worthy of supporting actor recognition.
Other considerations: Best film editing and sound editing
Best Director: “Under the Skin” (2014)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Oscar history has shown us instances of the lone director (Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher”) and it’s usually a welcome surprise on nomination morning. Jonathan Glazer’s engrossing albeit obscure character study is masterfully constructed and gives jaw-dropping sound work and an invigorating Scarlett Johansson performance.
Other considerations: Best actress (Scarlett Johansson), sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects, original score
Best Original Screenplay: “Shaun of the Dead” (2004)
Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg
Horror and comedy are two genres that have their own homes, with their own families. On occasion, they get together for a weekend fling that results in an illegitimate child that doesn’t look traditional but grows up to be a productive member of society. That’s “Shaun of the Dead” in a nutshell. The Globes also could have taken a big bite out of it but looked elsewhere.
Other considerations: Best film editing, makeup and hairstyling
Best Picture: “Us” (2019)
Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele (producers)
Jordan Peele’s debut “Get Out” was so beloved that when the criminally ignored “Us” came two years later, the early release date had the film fighting for a nomination for Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o in dual roles (which came up short). The movie is elevated by its luxurious camera work and the ingenious music, all while holding firmly onto its creepy and mysterious narrative unraveling. And let’s not forget the lavish cast that made the world say, “Can Winston Duke be my Dad?”
Other considerations: Best director, actress (Lupita Nyong’o), original screenplay, production design, cinematography, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, sound mixing, original score (Michael Abels)
Best Adapted Screenplay: “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” (1994)
Written by Wes Craven (based on characters by Wes Craven)
The seventh film in the Freddy Krueger franchise at the Oscars? You’re damn straight. First of all, it’s one of the rare instances of a one-scene punch delivered by director Wes Craven, in a masterful performance. The intelligence and composition that Craven explores as a writer is one of the most inventive of the ’90s for the horror genre.
Other considerations: Best actress (Heather Langenkamp) and Best supporting actor (Wes Craven)
Best Actor: “It Comes at Night” (2017)
Joel Edgerton as Paul
The monster inside that is left unseen. Not many filmmakers can pull this off but Trey Edward Schults does while giving Joel Edgerton his best acting role yet. Shults also introduces the world to Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who is one of the future bright spots of cinema.
Other considerations: Best director, supporting actor (Christopher Abbott and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), original screenplay, cinematography, makeup and hairstyling, sound mixing and sound editing
Best Original Screenplay: “It Follows” (2015)
Written by David Robert Mitchell
This movie gets the most credit for really making critics sit up in their chairs and realize we’re in a special time for the horror genre. The slow burn of the invisible monster builds within its smart script and terrifying sound design.
Other considerations: Best sound mixing, sound editing and original score
Best Actor: “American Psycho” (2000)
Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman
The internet and message boards have said enough on this cult classic but it’s worth pointing out its style and magnanimous turn from Christian Bale, both of which still resonate. It’s also one of the entries on the list that generates debate on whether or not it’s a horror picture or not. Debate away.
Other considerations: Best director and adapted screenplay
Best Original Screenplay: “Scream” (1996)
Written by Kevin Williamson
Another entry from director Wes Craven that blends jumps, humor and an effective salute to the movies (something the Oscars love). Kevin Williamson’s screenplay encompasses it all and gives Matthew Lillard the role of his life, stealing frame after frame as the drooly Stu who will “be right back.” The tube TV on the face didn’t allow that, unfortunately.
Other considerations: Best supporting actor (Matthew Lillard)
Best Picture: “The Others” (2001)
Fernando Bovaira, José Luis Cuerda, Sunmin Park (producers)
Eerie and disturbing, Alejandro Amenábar’s ghost story got swallowed up after being compared to “The Sixth Sense” with its finale, but it is impeccably crafted with sets and costumes to die for (no pun intended). The Academy also doesn’t allow an actor to be nominated in the same category for two separate performances, despite the rule not existing for director (i.e. Steven Soderbergh in 2000). Nicole Kidman makes the case to amend it when she was rightfully nominated for “Moulin Rouge!,” but had to leave this performance on the sidelines. An all-around player.
Other considerations: Best director, actress (Nicole Kidman), supporting actress (Fionnula Flanagan), original screenplay, production design, cinematography, costume design, film editing, makeup and hairstyling, sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects, original score