From ‘Feud’ to ‘Get Out,’ there has never been a better time for the oft-snubbed genre
One of the most surreal moments in Ryan Murphy’s Feud is when Joan Crawford and Bette Davis vie for Oscar nominations for their performances in the campy horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Especially the moment when Davis clinches her Best Actress nomination. The Academy Awards aren’t big fans of horror. At least not anymore. But after the success of 1960’s Psycho, horror films became highly profitable. And within the horror genre, a subgenre of “hagsploitation” films became incredibly popular and profitable. The term is a degrading one, used for films that starred aging actresses in pulpy, horror scenarios, such as Crawford in Strait-Jacket, Olivia De Havilland in Lady in a Cage, and Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters in What’s the Matter With Helen? But, degrading as these films were, they starred revered and respected Hollywood actresses. They also often garnered awards attention. But as the need for the films dried up, so did serious Academy interest in horror.
After all, once Halloween was a surprise hit in 1978, slasher films with unknown actresses became de rigueur in Hollywood. Horror films were more about blood and gore than they were vehicles for older actresses with meaty roles and multiple monologues. Which isn’t to knock slasher films, because I love them. But when even the best of the slasher genre —
1996’s Scream, for example — can’t get any Oscar attention, that’s just a good old-fashioned genre snub.
There are exceptions, of course. There’s prestige horror, like Jonathan Demme directing The Silence of the Lambs (it won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Best Actor and Best Actress for Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster). Or Darren Aronofsky directing Black Swan (which was nominated in several categories but only garnered a Best Actress win for Natalie Portman).
Even a well-made piece of horror like The Conjuring tends to get ignored. Lord knows even actress Nicole Kidman, who is getting much-deserved attention for her performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies and is amazing in every one of her roles, couldn’t get nominations for frequent horror turns like 2001’s The Others, 2007’s The Invasion, or 2013’s Stoker. This is why fans of actresses like Kidman, Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, or Laura Dern are excited to see television embrace their favorite performers when cinema won’t. Horror is quite en vogue on television, in large part thanks to Murphy’s other series, American Horror Story, and AMC’s The Walking Dead, so Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon can garner awards buzz for their roles as Crawford and Davis in Feud, whereas if they acted in the films that the actresses themselves got attention for in the ’60s, they’d never get anywhere close to a golden statuette. With creators like Murphy reviving the horror genre and bringing it Emmy prestige, it’s becoming harder for voters to ignore that the genre can provide great roles for actresses and also be worthy of accolades.
Not that Murphy can take all of the credit here. Horror is the best it’s ever been, in large part thanks to production companies like Blumhouse and creators like Jordan Peele. Revitalizing the genre for a race-based take on body horror in this year’s Get Out has produced not only a smart script, critical accolades, and stellar performances, it has also become the first film from a black director with his own screenplay to surpass $100 million at the box office. Get Out is such a powerful film that it’s still dominating conversations two months after its release. The Academy Awards could ignore it, but with larger pushes for diversity in the nominations — and the fact that it’s just a really fucking good movie — it’ll be very hard to do that. What’s more, Get Out provided a chilling role for the twice Academy Award–nominated Catherine Keener. If she secures a nomination alongside Peele, who’s to say more actresses won’t be clamoring for their own chance to play against type in a horror film? Back in the day, films like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? were seen as flukes. In 2017, audiences have made it loud and clear that they crave horror. They just want it to be good.