In looking back at the history of horror cinema and its performance at the Oscars, it must first be acknowledged that a plethora of outstanding pictures in this genre were released prior to the very existence of the Academy Awards.
The legendary likes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920, Wiene), Nosferatu (1922, Murnau) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925, Julian), among others, all garnered releases prior to the first Oscar ceremony, in 1928. Decades later, of course, the Academy would embrace multiple remakes of Phantom, as well as as a picture about the making of Nosferatu.
There were not many horror films eligible for consideration at the first Oscar ceremony - the most worthy of such recognition would have been Paul Leni's haunting The Man Who Laughs, one of countless horror films released in the first half of the century by Universal Pictures. Leni's film did not garner any awards love and neither did Universal's much more successful and iconic Dracula (1931, Browning) and Frankenstein (1931, Whale) a few years later.
It was not until the following year, in 1932, that the Academy embraced a horror film. It was not Freaks (1932, Browning) or The Mummy (1932, Freund) that won this recognition but rather a non-Universal production, Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and featuring a stirring leading turn from the great Fredric March. Nominated for three Oscars - Best Lead Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography - the picture ultimately went home with one award, for its leading man. March would, 15 years later, go on to win a second Oscar in this category, for The Best Years of Our Lives.
The next seven years would prove much of a dry spell for horror at the Oscars. The much-hyped and adored The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, Whale) only mustered a single nomination, in Best Sound. Other, admittedly lesser Universal productions were ignored entirely.
In 1939 and 1940, however, horror made a notable return to the Oscars. Four pictures, including two Universal productions, one Paramount effort and one RKO film, garnered nominations.
RKO's costly The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939, Dieterle), starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara, won nominations in Best Original Score and Best Sound. The other three pictures - Paramount's Dr. Cyclops (1940, Schoedsack) and Universal's The Invisible Man Returns (1940, May) and The Invisible Woman (1940, Sutherland) - were nominated in Best Special Effects, none able to to prevail. That the latter two pictures garnered Oscar love while the first (and best) film in the series, The Invisible Man (1933, Whale), received zero nominations, might seem a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, except that Best Special Effects category did not really come to fruition until 1939.
In 1941, the Academy sadly did not embrace George Waggner's classic The Wolf Man. They did, however, curiously opt to reward that year's production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a starry vehicle for Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, directed by the incomparable Victor Fleming. Despite all of that star wattage, however, the picture is kind of a snooze, half-heartedly delivered by all involved. Nonetheless, the Academy went for it anyway, rewarding it three nominations, in Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing and Best Original Score. The Academy also this year gave a Best Original Score nom to Jean Yarbrough's silly horror-comedy King of the Zombies. (Bernard Herrman's composition for The Devil and Daniel Webster ultimately defeated the two horror flicks.)
No, there was inexplicably no love for RKO's Cat People (1942, Tourneur) the following year. In 1943, however, Universal at last got one of their "monster movies" to resonate in a significant way with the Academy. Arthur Lubin's ravishing The Phantom of the Opera, headlined by the always-outstanding Claude Rains, was not at the time a real box-office or critical smash. It did, however, receive four Oscar nominations - Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography - winning the last two prizes. Sadly for Universal, Phantom would prove the last of the studio's classic horror films to receive any Oscar recognition. (And no, no love to be found for any of Universal's Abbott and Costello horror vehicles.)
The remainder of the 1940s and all of the 1950s were not so great for horror cinema at the Oscars in general.
1945's The Picture of Dorian Gray, directed by Albert Lewin and headlined by George Sanders and Donna Reed, was not a box office success but did win nominations in Best Supporting Actress (for the exquisite Angela Lansbury), Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography, the last of which it managed to win. It would take more than a decade from here, however, for another horror film to garner multiple Oscar nominations.
Three short subjects from the horror genre, two animated and one live-action, received Oscar nominations in these in-between years - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse (1947, Hanna and Barbera), Return to Glennascaul (1951, Edwards) and The Tell-Tale Heart (1953, Parmaelee). While the Hanna-Barbera short is merely an amusing Tom & Jerry parody of that classic story, the other two productions are truly outstanding, must-sees for any fan of classic horror.
The deliriously entertaining Them! (1954, Douglas) also managed to show up at the Oscars, landing a Best Special Effects nomination. (That prize ultimately went to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.) No Oscar love, unfortunately, for 20th Century Fox's legendary The Fly (1958, Neumann) or Warner Brothers' groundbreaking House of Wax (1953, Toth), the first-ever 3-D film in color. Also egregiously overlooked - all of the gorgeously produced British Hammer Horror pictures.
The final horror film nominated in the 1950s, and the only one in the decade to win multiple nominations, is, I would argue, barely a real horror picture. (That is, unless the sight of relentlessly campy, unintentionally funny acting sends shivers down your spine.) Warner Brothers' The Bad Seed (1956, LeRoy) was certainly at least marketed as a horror flick, however, and fared exceedingly well at that year's box office. It garnered four Oscar nominations that year - for Best Cinematography, Best Lead Actress (Nancy Kelly) and two in Best Supporting Actress (Patty McCormack and the scene-stealing Eileen Heckart) - albeit, with no wins. The Bad Seed would prove just the first of several horror camp classics to win over the Academy.
Before we get to those other horror campfests, however, I'll be taking a look at the year 1960, when a certain Hitchcock classic took its stab at Oscar glory...