DO WE REALLY WANT HORROR WINNING OSCARS?

MIKE VANDERBILT SURE DOESN’T.

The Academy Awards were born of cynicism and union-busting, but over the past 93 years have become an arbitrary indicator of quality in filmmaking, despite routinely getting it wrong in the moment. Time has taught us that shotgun blast to the industry Pulp Fiction continues to be more influential than Forrest Gump; in a double whammy, John Wayne was given what amounted to a lifetime achievement award for sleepwalking through True Grit when the award should have gone to Dustin Hoffman for his gangbusters turn as Ratso in Midnight Cowboy; and the Oscar went to both the forgettable Gladiator and the hamfisted Crash for Best Picture in the 2000s. The Academy has come across as out of touch for most of its existence, but never as much as it has in the past twenty years. Thankfully, there have been movements recently that bring to light concerns about the absence of nominations for women and people of color. And another vocal movement that has risen up on social media has been that of both genre fanatics and journalists suggesting that the Academy does not give proper attention to the horror genre and the many creative people who give audiences the willies every year. 

Honestly, they don’t. Horror—and most genre cinema—has largely been ignored by Academy voters since the institution of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927, with a few exceptions, usually in the technical categories.

The hard truth is, not only do I not care if the Academy gives credence to horror movies, in fact, I actively want them to stay away from horror and keep their faux prestigious stink off of a genre that I have adored over thirty years.

In typical Hollywood fashion, the origin of the Academy Awards begins with a beach house, a beach house that Louis B. Mayer—then West Coast chief at MGM—wanted constructed, and he wanted it constructed quickly. The producer brought on Cedric Gibbons, the head of design at MGM, who, according to Vanity Fair in 2014, “drew up some plans and the production manager, Joe Cohn, worked out a schedule for building it—in six weeks.” The plan was to utilize labor from the studio, but the studios were about to sign an agreement with what became known as the International Alliance Of Theatrical Stage Employers. Meyer, on Cohn’s suggestion, opted to utilize a few laborers from the studio—who were being paid higher union rates—while putting the rest of the work on cheaper hires. The house was completed by the spring of that year.

Mayer saw the writing on the wall when studio construction unions began forming in Hollywood at the end of the ‘20s. The mogul became fearful that it wouldn’t be long before directors, actors, writers, and other creative types would begin to unionize in Tinseltown. To jump in front of this, Mayer and his cronies formed the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with the intent that the organization could mediate labor disputes without unions. Members of the Hollywood elite including Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford signed up, and in a move to cater to movie star egos, the first Academy Awards ceremony took place in 1929 seeking to legitimize the organization and showcase (re: kiss the ass of) Hollywood’s talent. “I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them,” Mayer cynically explained. “If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.” 

Despite their duplicitous origins, it’s disingenuous to say that the Oscars don’t have a positive end to balance the negative means. It’s important that the Academy recognizes women and people of color as it opens doors previously locked and brings the almighty dollar to projects that might otherwise sit on a shelf and never come to fruition. However, the horror genre and its fans are not a maligned group. Horror films are a weird beast: they are at once populist moneymakers, yet also appeal to the fringes of the culture. The squarest of the square love to be scared at the movies, clutching onto their dates’ arms as the freaks and weirdos — the punks and the metal heads — in the audience (who proudly proclaim themselves anti-establishment) take in the grue and gore with wide-eyed glee. A horror movie can be gross, scary, funny, thought-provoking, and even touching. There’s a little something for everybody, and horror appeals to all types: young people, old people — just about everyone loves horror movies, even if they only watch them around Halloween. Throughout the ‘80s, Paramount treated the Friday The 13th series as an embarrassment, never truly taking ownership of the franchise, regarding it as low rent entertainment for the masses. Yet the studio still cranked Jason movies out at a yearly clip simply because they made lots of cold hard cash. 

The Academy did not immediately begin to distribute awards to horror pictures, but soon enough, they did begin to recognize the genre. While Fredric March did take home a Best Actor award for his performance in 1932’s Dr. Jekyll And Mr.Hyde, horror filmmakers perpetually found their films nominated in the technical categories (sound, art design), but rarely in one of the big seven. 1943’s Phantom Of The Opera won awards for both art direction and cinematography; the ‘70s saw The Exorcist and The Omen earning nominations as well as awards for sound mixing and score, respectively; and 1981’s An American Werewolf In London made film history when Rick Baker won the first-ever Academy Award for best makeup. Notably, Ruth Gordon took home the Best Supporting Actress statue for Rosemary’s Baby in 1969, and it was a watershed moment for the genre when The Silence Of The Lambs swept the 1992 Oscars, taking home five big awards, including the coveted Best Picture.

But big wins for Rosemary’s Baby and Lambs bring to light that awards in the big seven always go to a certain kind of horror movie, the kind of horror with a prestigious sheen, the kind of horror that a studio executive can explain away: “but this is not really a horror movie.” Even filmmakers who are respected by genre critics and movie goers alike tend to backpedal their reputation. Ari Aster, director of Midsommar and Hereditary told Collider in 2018 that he doesn’t necessarily consider himself a horror filmmaker which brings to mind the hot button concept of “elevated horror.” It really is a dumb term but accurately describes a specific kind of horror movie, one that on the surface resembles an art house drama despite the supernatural and horririfc elements at play. 

Take a long hard look at most critics’ best of the year lists for 2019; they’re generally filled with prestigious dramas and Oscar-bait (The Irishman, Marriage Story, and 1917 come to mind in 2019), with maybe a bone throw to either Midsommar or Us. For the most part, horror is absent from year-end lists. Why? There were plenty of horror films playing in multiplexes in 2019: Crawl, Child’s Play, Ready Or Not, and Pet Sematary all received positive reviews upon their release, yet rarely showed up on best of the year lists — and certainly were never given serious Oscar consideration. That bears the question if legions of horror fans want the Academy to start paying attention to horror, is it only a certain type of horror that should be nominated for awards? Do trashier, nastier, more exploitative films like Joe Begos’s Bliss—which features impressive photography and performances—not deserve attention from the Academy? And then, if in ten years horror does begin to earn respect from the Academy, will that respect only be for a certain style of horror film? Will this simply inspire countless tepid horror-dramas like The Lodge, which, with its obtrusive cinematography and blatant exploitation of trauma as a trope, almost acts as a self-parody hitting all the marks that add up to the prestigious horror of the moment, rushed into production in an attempt to collect that Oscar gold. 

IN HOLLYWOOD, THERE’S NOTHING THAT FEELS MORE “ESTABLISHMENT” THAN TAKING HOME AN OSCAR.

When Martin Scorsese stated last year that superhero movies weren’t cinema, countless members of the cults of Marvel and DC rushed to the defense of their beloved comic book movies, their goal to convince one of the most renowned filmmakers of the 20th century that he doesn’t know a thing about movies.

But why?

I’m certainly not attempting to “ok boomer” one of my favorite filmmakers, and while I am curious if he’s ever seen A Nightmare On Elm Street, his opinion on it ultimately means squat to me. What happened to the old saying “don’t trust anyone over thirty”? Or Groucho’s famous quote, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member”? (Note: Marx only received an honorary Oscar in 1974.) I have never needed any mainstream validation—or god help me, respectability—for my love of horror movies, and I certainly don’t need it now, from the Academy or critics. The best horror offered something transgressive to the viewer, and despite its popular appeal, there has always been something punk rock and anti-establishment in the genre. And in Hollywood, there’s nothing that feels more “establishment” than taking home an Oscar. I’ve never trusted anyone over thirty…in fact, I never trusted anyone under thirty either. I grew up reading Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times and Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune, and they were notorious in their distaste for “dead teenager movies” (Ebert was surprisingly prudish for someone who worked with Russ Meyer.). While the duo did agree on the merits of Halloween and Critters among others, I enjoyed their writing and certainly took their opinions with a grain of salt. Some people just don’t get it.

And the Academy has not been getting it for over 90 years. Yeah, the show can be fun to watch: throw a party, consume mass quantities, and make some bets (for the true degenerate gambler, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s all about the action). But never forget that the Oscars have cynical roots, and while the ceremony poses as awarding cinematic achievement for the artform, it’s ultimately to slap “Oscar Winner” on the Blu-Ray packaging as if it’s an arbiter of quality for the film. At the same time, the public seems to care less and less about what the Academy (and even critics) think of film, so perhaps the Oscars need horror more than horror needs the Oscars. Most rock fans have considered the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame a joke since it’s induction, yet movie lovers still hang onto the Academy Awards. And isn’t horror the most rock ‘n’ roll genre of film? Uncivilized, edgy, no time for accolades. Like the Rock Hall, the Oscars have no bearing on my enjoyment of a film, particularly those that fit squarely inside a genre that I’ve been exploring since I was eight years old. It is rare that the Oscars have any bearing on what will stand the test of time. The moment the Oscars begin to pay more credence to the horror genre is when Oscar-bait horror becomes a Thing. That’s a path to horror getting civilized, and, frankly, I don’t want horror getting civilized.

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