Fans of scary movies finally saw one of their kind get the respect it deserves in 1991, when The Silence of the Lambs took home Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And even that film was more of a thriller than a horror flick. But other than that, scare fests haven’t received much love from Oscar voters over the years. And it’s a shame, because horror films are really easy to get wrong and profoundly difficult to get right. It’s too easy to rely on formulas and clichés. But when they’re well done, they’re really well done.
So since Oscar isn’t giving the love, we’ll do it for him. We’ll count down 14 of the most well-made horror films that deserved an Academy Award. Since we’re talking about the Oscars, we can’t include films released before 1927, which was the first year films were eligible for an Academy Award. So no Nosferatu (1922) or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Here they are, the 14 Horror Movies that Should’ve Won an Oscar…
14. It Follows
If we were pretentious, we’d say 2015’s It Follows (it debuted at Cannes in 2014, released to theaters in ’15) is an unnerving meditation on sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases and mortality, framed by virtuoso cinematography. And that may be true, but it’s also downright scary. It’s the story of a young woman who’s the victim of a sexually transmitted curse, which sics a murderous entity after her that can take any form, but only the cursed can see it. It won’t stop chasing her until it kills her, or she passes it to someone else through sex. But if it kills her, it’ll just go after the man who passed it on to her. So there’s real moral and psychological tension there: Does she sleep with someone else to get it off her back and onto theirs? Even then, it’s only temporary because if it kills her partner, it’ll move back chasing her.
Critical response to the film was almost overwhelmingly positive, recently ranking sixth on Rotten Tomatoes’ Top 100 Movies of 2015 list, based on its “Adjusted Score” formula, which is based on reviews. Despite that, It Follows won’t be picking up any hardware when Oscars are doled out on February 28 – it didn’t receive a single nomination.
Tod Browning was the director of the original, iconic Dracula in 1931, and he used his newfound clout to follow it up with a bit of a passion project called Freaks. He spent his teen years in a travelling circus and Freaks is a sort of homage to those years and the sideshow performers he met there. Whether it’s actually a horror movie is up for debate. Many argue that it’s completely impossible to wedge it into any genre. He used real sideshow performers with real deformities in a story that depicted the so-called “freaks” as the fun-loving moral center, while the “fully-abled” people were black-hearted and murderous. But Browning does turn the tables on the “freaks” a little bit, which leads to some of the most disturbing moments of the film.
There’s actually an original version of the film that no longer exists that is said to include even more disturbing moments, but it was cut to the version we know today. The film was a little much for viewers in 1932 and Browning’s career took a nosedive. So it’s no surprise that it didn’t receive any Oscar love. Grand Hotel took the big prize in Freaks’ year of eligibility, but probably the most enduring nominee it would’ve had to beat was the classic Shanghai Express.
12. The Cabin in the Woods
By no means is 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods your typical Oscar movie. It actually falls into two genres the Academy typically ignores: horror and comedy. Not to mention satire. It’s a smart slasher film, turning genre stereotypes on their heads. And it did win a number of awards for the film, the inventive screenplay and its first-time director, Drew Goddard (who has gone on to create the Daredevil series for Netfilx).
The movie centers around a strange facility that manipulates teenagers, staying in a horror-stereotype cabin in the woods, into acting out horror movie clichés. There are a slew of fascinating, funny and disturbing twists and turns in the plot that we won’t spoil for you here – you really just have to watch. In this Oscar year, there were nine nominations for Best Picture, so surely The Cabin in the Woods could have been thrown a bone, with its 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is equal to or better than six of the nominated films.
11. Let the Right One In
Let the Right One In is a Swedish film released in 2008 about an androgynous young girl who turns out to be a vampire, and her relationships both with her mortal keeper and a mortal boy. The young actors are brilliant and the cinematography paints a cold, foreboding picture of a bleak Swedish winter. It boasts some really chilling moments (literally and figuratively) and lends an intense realism to the supernatural story.
It’s not often that foreign films are nominated for Oscars, with a handful of notable exceptions, but the tragedy here is that Let the Right One In wasn’t even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. And the irony is that year’s winner for Best Picture was a sort of foreign film: Slumdog Millionaire was a British production set in India.
10. The Blair Witch Project
The story behind The Blair Witch Project is one of the great success stories in film history. Originally made for a mere $22,500, it was a darling at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and was bolstered by an innovative internet campaign, and went on to bring in nearly $250 million at the box office. It was mostly loved by critics, with an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And it was innovative not just for its use of the internet for marketing purposes, but also in its hand-held cinematography and the notion of fictional “found footage” that inspired films like the Paranormal Activity series.
A large part of what made The Blair Witch Project profoundly effective is that you never actually see anything. You never see the ghostly Blair Witch herself, nor any other bad guy. You get hints of it – whatever it is – in the form of strange sounds, strange artifacts, strange happenings (inexplicably getting lost in the woods) and people mysteriously disappearing. It’s profoundly creepy and boasts a chilling final scene. On the award front, it did win Best Film at the Independent Spirit Awards. And if Academy voters were more open to horror movies, it could have been nominated in a year Gladiator won and the likes of Chocolat and Erin Brockovich were nominated.
9. The Descent
This is one super intense film, and for that reason alone it’s Oscar-worthy. It succeeds so well at what it sets out to do, which is to keep you on the edge of your seat, feeling just as claustrophobic and frightened as the characters feel as they’re trapped in a cave with mysterious, murderous creatures. On top of the life-or-death drama within the cave, there’s also some stirring interpersonal drama going on between the six women trapped in there.
Originally released in the UK in 2005, and in American theaters a year later, The Descent was embraced by most critics. Horror film website Bloody Disgusting called it, “One of the scariest films of this or any decade.” But, alas, no Oscar love. Although we have to wonder if the film’s producers perked up when Oscar nominees were announced and they heard, “The De-,” only to learn that it was that year’s eventual winner, The Departed.
James Cameron’s 1986 sequel to Alien is hard to classify. Is it science fiction? Horror? Action? It’s actually all three, but this one definitely had an emphasis on the horror side, what with its relentless intensity and occasional gore. Time magazine actually called it “summer’s scariest movie.” And Aliens is widely believed to be one of the best examples of a sequel surpassing the original.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is traumatized by her battle with the alien in the first movie and wants no part of them, unless it’s to destroy them. She thinks she’s going to get her chance, but human corruption gets in the way and ultimately threatens Ripley and her cohorts. Tension is built and sustained masterfully by Cameron, while the alien special effects are grotesquely perfect (and hold up quite well 30 years later). And on top of that we get Hollywood’s first major female action hero.
Aliens was nominated for seven Oscars and rightfully won for Sound Editing and Visual Effects. But none for Best Director or Best Picture. Yet its average rating on Rotten Tomatoes is an amazing 9/10, far and away better than any of that year’s nominees, including the winner, Platoon.
7. Psycho (1960)
These days, the original Psycho is held up as an example of cinematic genius created by legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. At first, many critics weren’t so sure about what could be considered one of the earliest slasher flicks, featuring an unhinged man who dresses as his dead mother to kill young women. But it was so well acted and artfully made, with absolutely legendary shots, including the infamous shower scene with the black blood (it was shot in black and white) swirling around the tub and down the drain.
Critics reconsidered the film after it scored big at the box office, and it went on to earn four Oscar nominations, including one for Hitchcock’s directing – but not for Best Picture. However, it’s certainly the most legendary film of 1960. It’s certainly more memorable – just plain better, even – than nominees like The Alamo, Elmer Gantry, Sons and Lovers and The Sundowners. Interestingly, it was a film from another genre often unrecognized by the Academy that won: The Apartment, which could be classified as a comedy with dramatic elements.
6. The Omen (1976)
The Omen was a great horror movie. But even if it was the greatest horror movie of all time, it was going to be in tough to win the big prize at the 49th Academy Awards. There were some all-time greats in theaters in 1976, with nominations going to Taxi Driver, Network, All the Presidents Men and Bound for Glory, and Rocky eventually taking the Oscar. But the spooky, tension filled soundtrack did win Best Original Score.
It is, of course, the story of a couple who has unknowingly adopted an infant who is the Antichrist. Some people try to warn the couple (most of whom die in the process) and others try to protect the evil boy. But the stakes are raised because the child’s adopted father is a powerful man, the U.S Ambassador to Great Britain. The father is impeccably played by legendary actor Gregory Peck, and the film was nominated for a number of acting and writing awards. It even won a prestigious British cinematography award.
5. Frankenstein (1931)
This is the earliest film on this list, released in 1931, so we’re talking about the early days of the Oscars. And it was a great year for films – there are nine films from 1931 in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. And one of those films is Dracula. So it’s even a tight race for best horror film of 1931, but we’re giving the edge to the mad scientist and his groaning, bolt-necked creation. After all, if you go by Rotten Tomatoes, Frankenstein beats Dracula at 100% fresh to 91%. Cimarron, that year’s Best Picture winner, comes in at a lame 51%.
While Drac deals with a supernatural foe, the main theme in Frankenstein is all too real – and potentially horrifying. It’s the notion of technology giving man the ability to play God, to create life. It’s a cautionary tale. The monster (immortally played by Boris Karloff) created by Dr. Frankenstein is a confused, naïve killing machine. That wasn’t the doctor’s intention, of course, but it was the horrifying result of one man’s unchecked hubris.
4. Pan’s Labyrinth
It was close but no grotesquely unsettling cigar for Pan’s Labyrinth at the 79th Academy Awards. It found itself with six nominations and three wins, for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Makeup. The closest it got to Best Picture was a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (it’s in Spanish). But it was a tough year, even in the latter category, because Germany’s The Lives of Others is a highly regarded spy flick.
What’s so great about Pan’s Labyrinth? Writer/director Guillermo Del Toro’s 2006 film works on so many levels. It’s a sort of fairy tale, but it’s also set in the real world, in fascist, post-Civil War Spain (1944). It’s about escape from oppression. It’s about a girl trying to keep her family safe. It’s about a princess trying to return home. But it’s also filled with horrifying images and scenarios, including the now-iconic child-eating monster Pale Man, whose eyes are on its menacingly clawed hands.
3. Rosemary’s Baby
Okay, it’s a little hard to rag on the Academy for not honoring Rosemary’s Baby with Best Picture, with the impressive slew of films released in 1968. Oddly, though, arguably the best of them weren’t even nominated, with both this film and 2001: A Space Odyssey left out. And the Best Picture winner was another genre movie, the musical Oliver!. But our little creepfest did get recognized with two nominations: writer/director Roman Polanski for Best Adapted Screenplay and Ruth Gordon won the little gold man for Best Supporting Actress.
But Rosemary’s Baby most certainly is a creepfest, just a slow burn of one poor pregnant woman, played by a perfectly paranoid Mia Farrow, growing more and more certain that her husband has colluded with a secretive group of Satan worshippers to sacrifice their unborn child. It’s that slow burn that makes it great, that constant question within Rosemary and the audience: could all this possibly be true?
2. The Shining
Some of the scariest movies on this list are scary because of their slow descent into madness and scares, and Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, is no exception. Released in 1980, it’s about a writer who becomes caretaker of a secluded and vacant hotel, which also happens to be locked out from the rest of the world by snow. Oh, and it’s haunted. As the writer, Jack Nicholson’s performance is spellbinding as his psyche is slowly taken over by the spirits of the hotel, causing him to prey on his own family. We’ve all seen him burst through the bathroom door with an axe, announcing, “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
It’s a truly impeccable horror movie. Britain’s Channel 4 named it the scariest movie of all time, and it’s been revered on many other all-time great rankings. Amazingly, it wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award – in fact it was nominated twice in the inaugural Razzie Awards, for Worst Actress (Shelly Duvall) and Worst Director (Kubrick). Best Picture went to the drama Ordinary People, against classics like Raging Bull, The Elephant Man and Coal Miner’s Daughter. So it was a tough year, but even among that group, The Shining really deserved some recognition.
1. The Exorcist
This absolute fright-fest came close to winning Best Picture – it’s a rare case of a scary movie actually getting the respect it deserves with a nomination – but lost out to The Sting. That must have stung. Not quite as bad as the sting you’d feel if your daughter messed around with a Ouija board and wound up being possessed by a demon who could only be removed from her body through an exorcism. Now that must’ve stung. And it’s also the plot of The Exorcist, one of the scariest movies ever made.
At the time, nobody had ever seen a Hollywood movie like this, with the level of extreme darkness and grotesque special effects it… possessed. In fact, it earned mixed reviews. Many enjoyed the absolute terror, while others felt it was just too disturbing to be enjoyable. Even Roger Ebert gave it 4 out of 4 stars but also wondered why people would want to endure “such a raw and painful experience.” Ultimately, it was nominated for a total of 10 Academy Awards and won two (Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay).
Did we miss any horror movies that really deserved this kind of recognition? Let us know in the comments!