We were so close, y’all. With the opening of Hereditary in June 2018 resounding like a cathedral bell, every horror fan felt assured of one thing: the genre will finally be adequately represented during awards season. Between the commercial and critical knockouts of Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Suspiria, not to mention the good faith that was given with Get Out’s representation last year, it felt like a sure bet that horror would finally come home to the Academy. If nothing else, Toni Collette or Tilda Swinton will at least come out with nominations in acting categories.
But as we’ve now seen with the recently announced Academy Award nominees, the blood red wave never came. While there is a Best Make-Up nomination for the fringe horror romance Border and a Best Sound Editing nomination for A Quiet Place, the genre was not represented in any of the major categories. Horror’s chances at awards glory, like every year, is dead on arrival.
“But what about Get Out and The Shape of Water last year?!” bellow the curmudgeonly puppets in the balcony. It’s true, horror films struck hot in early 2018 with Jordan Peele‘s win for Best Screenplay along with being nominated for the night’s top prize, which was awarded to Guillermo del Toro’s genre-bending romance. But while Shape featured a monster, it wasn’t a horror film, so its inclusion last year, while encouraging for the genre, is rendered moot for the purposes of this conversation.
There have always been pop-horror anomalies in these big awards shows, from William Friedkin’s The Exorcist to Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, which arguably were recognized less for their tales of unrelenting horror and more for the clout their directors and cast brought along with the box-office acclaim.
So while the genre has been represented at the Academy Awards, it’s never consistently in the categories that truly have an impact on the industry. Horror will always be lucrative for Hollywood, but the Oscars and Globes seem to be making an unconscious statement on the merits of the genre by shortchanging this year’s deserving nominees. Especially when contrasted with certain controversial milquetoast films that seem to be walking away with top honors.
But it’s not just these two major awards shows. It’s everybody.
Of the 20-plus critic’s circle awards that I compiled for this piece, the only major category that a horror film walked away with was Best Actress, which the Chicago Film Critics Association gave to Toni Collette for Hereditary. She was nominated by other critics groups, but many times with a qualifier, like the Alliance of Women Film Journalists‘ vague “Bravest Performance” honor when she surprisingly was not also nominated in their Best Actress category.
Hereditary director Ari Aster was honored with multiple “Best First Feature” nominations, but this qualifier sticks in my craw as well. So many directors cut their teeth with horror, owing much of their aesthetic to a genre that they quickly, and quietly, disown. With this uncoupling, so to go the awards. Luckily for us, Ari Aster’s follow-up will also be deeply rooted in the horror genre.
While Hereditary, A Quiet Place, and Suspiria did walk away with a smattering of nominations across the critical landscape, the Chicago Film Critics Association gave the most gratitude towards genre storytelling by nominating Hereditary not only for Best Actress but also Best Picture. The scores to Mandy and Suspiria were also honored, and Annihilation was given the specifically named “Best Use of Visual Effects” award.
These latter technical nominations are where we typically see the genre represented, like in visual effects. Hell, the Academy Award for Best Make-Up Effects was essentially revived in the early 1980s to give Rick Baker a designation for his work on An American Werewolf in London, because who really remembers Heartbeeps for its effects?
What I find almost more surprising, though, is how lockstep these awards are in their nominations, especially in contrast to the public conversations surrounding films that are heavily represented, like Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book. In comparison, both of these contenders left a lingering bad taste due to their omission of historically unrepresented perspectives in film, while Hereditary and A Quiet Place, films that positively stoked the imagination of the entire world, floundered.
This could all be distilled down to one question: are awards shows and critics circles — perhaps unconsciously — only interested in safe art? Glenn Close puts in a strong, if not altogether straightforward performance in The Wife, which feels rote compared to the twisted ball of anxieties that Collette seethes in Hereditary. For the critics who may find performances that bend into the grotesque irksome, it becomes easy to then discount horror for something that feels more like an “Oscar Film.”
Lady Gaga delivers a moving performance in A Star Is Born, but how are we to quantify the ease of her performance over the quiet, multilayered intensity of Tilda Swinton across her three roles in Suspiria? Even more confounding, how have critics circles completely abandoned Alex Wolff’s incredibly committed performance in Hereditary, light years ahead of the dedication to craft we’ve seen from other actors of his age and lankiness?
To take an example from the past, Charlotte Gainsbourg rightfully walked away with the Best Actress award at Cannes for her unflinchingly powerful performance in 2009’s Antichrist. But at the Oscars, she was completely disregarded in favor of Anne Hathaway‘s work in a film you most likely forgot about, Rachel Getting Married.
Perhaps horror will just forever be kneecapped until we address why easily digestible cinema is more recognized over challenging filmic expressions like Boots Riley‘s exhilarating fringe-horror Sorry To Bother You. Or maybe it’s simply best summarized by The Chewbacca Defense: it just does not make sense.
So how can horror get the recognition it deserves? I think we need to look at when horror is released. While a film that captures the cultural consciousness like February’s Black Panther will be remembered throughout the year, a horror film’s chances of the same greatly decrease the further away from the nominations it is released, as wave upon wave of “Oscar Bait” films clouds our attention at the end of the year.
But it also takes a studio believing a horror film is awards-worthy. Suspiria was released in early November, a prime spot for a film vying for awards, but coupled with Amazon’s lack of confidence in the marketability of the material, it wasn’t given the same push as they did with last year’s successful The Big Sick.
But then what can horror audiences do? The only thing that matters: support horror films. Don’t pirate them, go to the theater when you can, and continue the conversations online. If the same demand the horror community had for Mandy was given to Suspiria, it easily could have walked away with more recognition.
For a possible solution, though, we should look at the International Press Academy’s Satellite Awards. Recently, they smartly divided up their television categories into Best Drama, Best Comedy/Musical, and Best Genre series. This way all of the different stories we enjoy can be properly evaluated without pitting opposites against each other. The same could easily go for film categories. Still craving an Overall Best Picture? Pool the nominees from the three separate categories. Win-win, right?
Sans a host, this year’s Oscars are destined to be an off-kilter night. But maybe with a little ingenuity, the show’s future can help remedy the inequity between “The Oscar Film” and the cinema that continues to challenge us in otherworldly, and unconventional, ways.