Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Horror, The Oscars, And Me

Horror and sci-fi are rarely big winners at the Academy Awards. Oh sure, Black Swan had an impressive haul, and everyone remembers how Silence of the Lambs managed to sweep all the major prizes. Still, unless you broaden your definition of horror to include family-friendly cartoons and "psychological thrillers" (Which is what Black Swan is, let's be fair here), the spooky stuff is usually like Rodney Dangerfield in the eyes of Oscar: no respect.

I realize I'm preaching to the choir here, but be patient. Horror films are as a valid a work of art as any other movie, aren't they? Why should they be constantly passed over for the most prestigious trophies, shuffled off to one side for the statues no one cares about, like sound design or make-up? Well, if we're going to be honest, it's because most horror movies just aren't very good. That's not a problem for a true fan; as I've said before, we can have a great time with a good movie or a wretched one. But the critics and Academy voters tend to see the bad horror films and forget the ones that were crafted with skill and effort. You know what they say about one bad apple spoiling the bunch? Well, it's the Saws and Twilights of the world that complicate the chances of far more deserving scary movies getting a nod. 

What about if we broaden our definition of the genre though? Well, then history looks a little more kindly. Many films with horror elements if not the horror vibe have had the little golden man bestowed upon them, again mostly for technical achievement, but hey, something is better than nothing. When you look at nominations and not just wins, things seem even rosier. Landmark sci-fi in particular has done much to boost the public's perception of our favorite movies. When Sigourney Weaver received a Best Actress nomination for portraying Ripley in Alien, the cinematic world changed. Here was a young woman who didn't scream and cover her face with her hands the entire movie, vanquished the monster, and thrilled audience members both male and female in a smart action/horror flick -and she got recognition for it. She didn't win in the end, but it was proof positive that maybe horror and sci-fi weren't always bargain bin dreck. 

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter was perhaps the watershed moment, when suddenly everyone started extolling the virtues of the scary stuff. Even so, horror films in general continue to be under-appreciated and overlooked, with the best cases hoping for something like Best Make-up or Best Screenplay (I STILL can't believe that Pan's Labyrinth lost that one to Little Miss Sunshine). Natalie Portman's Best Actress grab and Aronofsky's directing win will no doubt mean another wave of interest in horror films in general, but as has been apparent, more quick-buck nonsense will flood the market, once again convincing people that not one of these movies is really worth the trouble. *sigh*

Before you start writing angry letters to studio heads, consider: is our favorite genre being ignored really such a bad thing? Yes, some acknowledgement is nice every now and then, but if more horror and sci-fi films ponied up to the Academy's goodie bag, then we'd have plenty more like them that weren't trying to be scary or interesting or fun, just successful. Whenever a genre film makes headlines in the industry, copycats turn up like so many weeds. Mark my words, next awards season will see at least three movies with a young lead undergoing a hideous transformation and trying to make sense of the terror, a la Black Swan. It's the business pattern of most major studios. Before Chicago hit theatres in 2002, musicals were pretty much dead in Hollywood, animated films excepted. After Catherine Zeta-Jones strutted her stuff, no less than nine different movie musicals have made appearances at the Oscars, and quite a few more than that were given wide release. We don't want the market choked with subpar horror. That would just prove the critics' point. 

Plus, something happens to horror directors when they become too successful. Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson... these guys started with little more than ideas, friends, and buckets of fake blood. Now, they've got multi-million dollar blockbusters on their resumes. Every little detail in their films is carefully scrutinized and weighed by people who are not the least bit creative. This isn't to say that their movies are no longer worth watching -we all love The Lord of the Rings, don't we?- but when's the last time they took a risk, or really suffered for their art? Oscars spoil filmmakers, sometimes beyond help. When a director is unconcerned with winning awards, he can be that much more free to really get into his work, and often, the movie is the better for it.

Again, it's great for horror and sci-fi to receive due recognition when they measure up. But, it's really not something that we as fans or filmmakers should worry about. Let's just worry about making freaking sweet movies.

Besides, it's not like Hitchcock ever won an Oscar for directing, and that man did more to legitimize horror than anyone alive or dead.

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