Blumhouse Productions made their name with low-budget horror franchises that garnered mixed critical responses and wildly enthusiastic box office receipts. After the surprise success of musical drama Whiplash, and helping to revitalize M. Night Shyamalan’s career, Blumhouse embraced ambition. Now, with Get Out, the studio has helped birth something truly special. The directorial debut of Key and Peele star Jordan Peele opened to near universal critical adoration, and so far has grossed $78 million, with a production budget of just $4 million. Peele has expressed interest in exploring social themes and anxieties further through the horror genre, and after the success of Get Out, he’s practically guaranteed a blank check to make whatever he wants.
While it’s often assumed that horror films receiving such glowing reviews are a rarity, the past few years have seen a resurgence in indie horror and thrillers that have explored the genre in new and exciting ways. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook won Best Film at the AACTA Awards (the Australian equivalent of the Oscars); Robert Eggers’ The Witch explored Puritan fears and the witch-hunts as a truly unnerving historical horror and won Best First Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards for its efforts; 10 Cloverfield Lane surprised audiences with its claustrophobic thrills and gave John Goodman his best role in years; and now, with films like Raw (which had people vomiting at the Toronto Film Festival last year) and Alien: Covenant on our radars for 2017, horrors and thrillers are establishing themselves further as critical and commercial dark horses.
While the above films did find awards success on smaller, indie levels, the big prizes still elude the genre. Like their hesitance to embrace the currently dominant superhero market, horrors and thrillers are something of a blind spot for the Oscars, especially in this century. The “Oscar bait” term can be dismissive and hard to fully define, but it’s not hard to see the strange omission of more thrill-based genres from their roster. Science-fiction occasionally makes an appearance amidst the nominees – Arrival being the most recent example – but speculative fiction still struggles to get noticed.
That wasn’t always the case: Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic thrillers often found their way to the Best Picture shortlist, with Rebecca, Rear Window and Psycho gaining him Oscar nominations (he famously never won); The Exorcist made the category; Peter Weir’s crime thriller Witness won two out of its eight Oscar nominations; The scorned woman revenge thriller to end them all, Fatal Attraction, was a Best Picture nominee too. Yet the last horror film to win Best Picture was The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, and since The Sixth Sense, the genres in their purest form have struggled to find a place as the Academy’s best. Thriller and horror influenced works have found better success, like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, but as they are more easily defined as dramas, they’re spared from the snobbery. Even Black Swan, which has more in common with Dario Argento than Darren Aronofsky’s previous work, had to be dressed up in respectability to get nominated.
Horror in particular has a historical reputation as a populist genre that’s great for making money, if not necessarily a way into the critics or Academy’s hearts. From the 1920s onwards, horror was an audience favorite, with Universal Studios leading the trend thanks to their now iconic Monsters series. Other studios followed suit, like RKO, and the genre became a good way for them to make hefty profits to finance more serious fare. Even when the Hays Production Code came into effect and film-makers were heavily restricted in what they could depict on-screen, audiences were hungry for frights. Hitchcock’s films found more critical merit yet even they couldn’t escape the accusations of exploitation and cheap scares that would come to dominate the genre, especially as the “slasher film” became big business in the 70s and 80s, following the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Slasher horrors, where blood was copious and the deaths elaborate, gained major cult followings, which remain to this day, and include favourites such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and the satirical homage to the genre, Scream. On top of that, these films all became major sequel spinners, making them an easy way to churn out a Halloween season story every year. Ultimately, the success of the slashers may have been what helped kill their power as critical players – the over-saturation of the market coupled with an increasingly exploitative focus on sex and violence left audiences bored and critics dismissive. The Video Nasties scandal – in which certain films were banned under the Obscene Publications Act and made subject to seizure by the British Police – added further stigma to the genre.
Horror has become less of a major studio concern as blockbusters and expanded franchises become the norm. Mid and even low-budget films struggle to get noticed amidst the hunger for billion dollar universes, and R rated ones pose too big a risk. Because horror tends to be cheap to produce and sequels can be churned out quickly, independent studios have filled the gap. The aforementioned Blumhouse have built themselves on the foundations of horror while new indie darlings A24 have found room on their slate for chills and thrills like The Witch and Green Room amidst the Oscar winners. These studios are less concerned with the prestige of their horrors: They may get such attention but it’s not a priority when other films on their schedule can do the job. The intersections between horror and prestige have gotten closer over the years thanks to such films, but the gap remains and the industrial biases are harder to overcome.
The Academy’s voter base remains primarily old, white and male, with a sturdy focus on actor-led dramas. On top of that, the Academy loves to be safe, to the point of being utterly toothless. Sometimes it’s not so bad – The Last Emperor is overblown but it’s understandable as to why it won Best Picture over Fatal Attraction – but other times their eagerness to avoid anything potentially “controversial” leads to ridiculous decisions, like Brokeback Mountain losing to Crash. Speculative fiction has found its place amidst the winners – how else would Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King sweep like it did? – but horror doesn’t benefit from that. The genre still feels too controversial to reward as the best of the medium.
That’s a real shame because it ignores the power the horror and thriller genres have to subvert, challenge and examine our culture and its ideals. The Stepford Wives took a satirical swipe at gender essentialism and those who fear the rebellion of it; The Exorcist is one of the greatest dramatizations of faith and its power; American Psycho is the quintessential yuppie story, dismantling the hollowness of consumerism and trickle-down economics; even Martyrs, one of the most difficult films in the world to watch, is exceptional in its visceral take-down of the religious economy of martyrdom and the women who inevitably suffer under its regime.
Some of the greatest film-makers of our time have used the horror genre and its tools to make some of their best films – from Stanley Kubrick to David Fincher to Lynne Ramsay. It’s given us some of the most iconic performances in film, from Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter to Sissy Spacek’s Carrie. Now, with the success of Get Out, the genre’s potential seems greater than ever. The Oscars are certainly no indicator of merit, but they remain the pinnacle of achievement in film, and a means to record how the industry views certain people and their stories. As long as certain genres remain excluded from those efforts, the industry and its full storytelling potential will never be fully understood. With the Academy’s voter base diversifying and bringing the average age down a few years, as well as the renewed focus on the work of independent producers and distributors, perhaps horrors and thrillers can shock us all and find a way to Oscar success.