It’s been just over 20 years since Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS swept the “big 5” categories at the 1991 Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress. Only two films had done it before: ONE FEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) and IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934). Before 1991, only one other true horror film had even been nominated for best picture: box-office smash THE EXORCIST (1973). Needless to say, it didn’t end up winning.
It goes without saying that horror as a genre has been woefully underrepresented—particularly given its popularity with audiences—at the Academy Awards since their inception in 1928. The list of canonical American horror films that were never nominated for Best Picture is too long to reprint, but contains such landmarks as FRANKENSTEIN (1932), PSYCHO (1960), ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), and THE SHINING (1980). However, even as horror itself has been continuously shunned as a category in its own right, it has gradually become more popular as an element in dramas and thrillers widely lauded perhaps because they aren’t easily identified as “horror films.”
Many nominees before SILENCE included a significant aspect of horror which drove their narratives or featured in climactic scenes: REBECCA (1940), Hitchcock’s lone Best Picture winner, GASLIGHT (1944), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), DELIVERANCE (1972), JAWS (1975), TAXI DRIVER (1976), APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), and PLATOON (1986) are some of the most obvious. It’s no coincidence that there’s a cluster of such films beginning in the early 70s, arguably the best decade thus far for American horror film. With the demise of the Production Code, the rise of the New Hollywood and the country’s identity crisis over Vietnam, American culture was more receptive to horror films than ever before and possibly ever since. Horror was also starting to be recognized at this cultural moment as something more than the dredges of more respectable genres, and big names like Gregory Peck (THE OMEN ) and Julie Christie (DON’T LOOK NOW , DEMON SEED ) began to appear in horror films with surprising regularity.
Similarly, it’s no coincidence that films like PSYCHO and THE SHINING are conspicuously absent from the list of Best Picture nominees, despite their reputations as some of the greatest works in the history of American cinema. Put simply, it’s because the Academy and the awards it bestows each year are designed to be markers of what constitutes Good Film, not popular film. This isn’t news to any true horror fan; the false dichotomy of high vs. low culture has long been a subject of both popular and scholarly investigation, and many an academic tome is dedicated to the subject. Horror as such is seen definitively as the lowest of low culture, something that teenage boys obsess over and which encourages all types of perversion in its viewers (witness, most recently, the furor over THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in the wake of the Aurora shooting, and the immediate parallels drawn in the press between violence onscreen and in real life).
As theorist Linda Williams, among many others, has pointed out, horror is seen as reprehensible in part because it provokes an immediate, physical reaction in its viewers. Any genre that does this is seen as somehow less noble and less artistic than the more cerebral genres of drama, romance, period piece, thriller, etc. After all, the only genres besides horror that provoke such a physical response are melodrama (“women’s weepies”), comedy, and pornography. Naturally, these “low” films are also the most popular at the box office—consider the outrageous success of the TWILIGHT franchise, which has managed to lump horror, comedy, melodrama and at least the trappings of pornography all into a single package.
SILENCE was something of an anomaly; for one thing, its cast featured a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Anthony Hopkins. As far as High Culture goes, it doesn’t get much better than that. It was also something of a weak year for Best Picture nominees. Besides SILENCE, the field included Oliver Stone’s controversial JFK, Disney’s animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Barbra Streisand’s THE PRINCE OF TIDES, and period biopic BUGSY. SILENCE’s popularity with audiences, coupled with the built-in fan base that came with Thomas Harris’s novel, might have been enough to put it over the top even without Hopkins’ bona fides. However, the presence of such a Serious Actor in the role of the villain, and that of a plucky up-and-comer as the protagonist (Jodie Foster, fresh off her star turn in THE ACCUSED ) made SILENCE a force to be reckoned with. It placed fourth in the year’s total domestic box office takings, lagging behind only TERMINATOR 2, ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, and the aforementioned BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
So what happened? It seemed like the beginning of a new era of mainstream horror appreciation, but at least at the Oscar level this hasn’t panned out. The Library of Congress may have entered SILENCE into its National Film Registry in 2011, its 20th anniversary year, but the genre has gotten scant recognition in those intervening decades. After all the hue and cry, was SILENCE just a fluke, propelled to glory through its unlikely combination of salacious source material, good timing, and top-shelf talent?
My argument is no. Though it’s hardly been a cavalcade of awards for horror since 1991, the nominees for Best Picture since then have included many horror-tinged films which were taken seriously despite their featuring undeniable elements of the least respectable genre. Examples include PULP FICTION (1994), FARGO (1996), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007, winner), DISTRICT 9 (2009), and BLACK SWAN (2010). Even on television horror has become both more popular and more respected in the last twenty years, with shows like AMERICAN HORROR STORY and BREAKING BAD (with its progressively more violent, maniacal main character), garnering Emmys alongside such conventional fare as MAD MEN and DOWNTON ABBEY.
Though there is undeniably a long way to go before horror is as respected a genre as the marital drama or historical biopic, I believe there is still reason for hope. Even in the age of torture porn and trashy slasher pastiches, horror has permeated enough of our cultural landscape that it’s simply a matter of time before it’s claiming Oscars as regularly as the next Meryl Streep vehicle. And if anyone takes you to task on the subject of horror’s worthiness and respectability, you can always point to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and end the argument right there.
By Lita Robinson