Nearly a decade following The Silence of the Lambs' victory in Best Picture, another horror film at last surfaced in the top category.
M. Night Shyamalan may be a polarizing filmmaker now - and deservedly so, given some of the junk he's inflicted upon the masses in recent years - but in 1999, he really did take Hollywood by storm with The Sixth Sense, an unlikely juggernaut that hit theaters that August and stayed atop the box office for five consecutive weeks. By the end of its run, it garnered nearly $300 million in domestic receipts alone, with only Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace reaping in more dough that year.
The Bruce Willis starrer, which made overnight sensations out of both Shyamalan and child actor Haley Joel Osment, was not thought to be a significant awards player that season, beyond for Osment and perhaps Shyamalan's twisty, clever screenplay and indeed, those were the two nominations it garnered at the Golden Globes. Shyamalan was recognized by both the Writers Guild and Directors Guild but the film missed at the Producers Guild Awards.
Nonetheless, come Oscar morning, The Sixth Sense exceeded even the greatest expectations of Oscar pundits, scoring six nods, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and even a jaw-dropping nod for the marvelous Toni Collette in Best Supporting Actress. The film capitalized on the lukewarm reception for Oscar bait The End of the Affair and The Hurricane and, let's face it, Being John Malkovich was probably a tad too quirky to grab a Best Picture nod.
On Oscar night, I'm afraid, the picture did not score any wins. American Beauty nearly swept the evening, with Michael Caine (for The Cider House Rules) and Angelina Jolie (for Girl, Interrupted) defeating Osment and Collette, as expected. There was, however, a smidge of good news for the genre that evening - Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow scored victory in Best Art Direction, and had been nominated in Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design. The bombastic retooling of The Mummy (1999, Sommers) also mustered a nod, in Best Sound.
The Blair Witch Project (1999, Sanchez/Myrick) was, no surprise, nowhere to be found at the Oscars.
At the start of the new millennium, in 2000, the Academy did not embrace Christian Bale's tour-de-force turn in American Psycho (2000, Harron). They did, however, on the heels of pictures like Ed Wood and Gods and Monsters, shower some love on another film about the men who made horror cinema.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000, Merhige) is not quite as satisfying or memorable a picture as the aforementioned two. It does, however, sport a bravura turn from Willem Dafoe, here portraying the elusive Max Schreck, who gave life to Graf Orlok in F.W. Murnau's legendary Nosferatu. Carrying the film on his shoulders, alongside John Malkovich as Murnau, Dafoe's eerie and amusing turn proved a hit that awards season - Dafoe was nominated just about everywhere and scored a few critics' awards wins too, most notably from the Los Angels Film Critics Association. As expected, Dafoe was defeated on Oscar night by Benicio del Toro in Traffic. The picture garnered a second nomination, in Best Makeup, which went to the truly horrific How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Also amusingly up for a nomination this year - Paul Verhoeven's raunchy Invisible Man clone Hollow Man, which picked up a nod for its memorable visual effects.
The rest of the decade to come and frankly, even beyond that, would not prove the best of times for horror at the Oscars.
There was hardly a shortage of terrific cinema. The Others (2001, Amenabar), for instance, garnered fabulous reviews and strong box office, and fared well at the precursor awards that season, but ultimately did not muster a single Oscar nod. Neither did Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, a true triumph in film editing, the following year.
The Academy did, despite underwhelming reviews, throw a few nominations to the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera musical (2004, Schumacher) but I consider it a real stretch to label that one a true horror film. Its nods came in Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Song and yes, you can read my full review on that year's Original Song line-up here. The picture, thankfully, did not go home with any prizes.
The gruesome, truly terrifying The Descent (2006, Marshall) was sadly not recognized by the Academy for its suffocating production design or superb cinematography. At least the genre was kinda-sorta represented this year, by Tim Burton's visually impressive, albeit not terribly memorable The Corpse Bride. It mustered a nod in Best Animated Feature, as did the cute Monster House (2007, Kenan) the following year. The films were no match for winners Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Happy Feet, respectively.
Speaking of 2007, this was a year that could have marked a real comeback for horror at the Oscars but, ultimately, only left a modest dent.
Stephen Sondheim's marvelous Sweeney Todd: The Demon of Barber of Fleet Street was at last receiving a film treatment, and from none other than Tim Burton, who, while hardly an Oscar favorite, at least had a pretty solid track record of delivering the goods on the big screen. With Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter headlining, the picture garnered solid critical notices but fared only modestly at the box office. After flying out of the starting gates at the beginning of the awards season, winning Best Director from the National Board of Review and Best Motion Picture - Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, the film slowly petered out, just as it did among audiences. Ultimately, it garnered three Oscar nods - in Best Lead Actor, Best Costume Design and Best Art Direction, the last of which it won. What looked like a Best Picture contender in December was suddenly a complete also-ran by February.
A significant snub that year - no Best Foreign Language Film nod for Juan Antonio Bayona's exquisite The Orphanage, which garnered ample notices from overseas film awards. Tomas Alfredson's critically acclaimed Let the Right One In was also overlooked in this category, the following year, despite plenty of precursor attention.
At last, at the start of the new decade, another horror film - the fifth to date - graced the Best Picture category.
Up until 2010, visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky had not been whole-heartedly embraced by the Academy. Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler were among the finest films of 2000 and 2008, respectively, but failed to leave a dent at the Oscars, beyond a few acting nominations.
The Academy could not, however, resist 2010's Black Swan, a truly terrifying, exquisitely staged vehicle for Natalie Portman that would mark the most incredible work of her career (to date, at least) and finally nab her an Oscar. An enormous critical and box office hit, ultimately amassing more than $100 million in domestic receipts, the picture mustered five nominations in total, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actress, Best Film Editing and Best Cinematography. With The King's Speech and The Social Network in a tight dual for overall Oscar glory, Black Swan itself was somewhat overshadowed that season in terms of wins. That did not, thankfully, keep Portman from prevailing.
One more horror item from 2010 - Joe Johnston's silly, overstuffed The Wolfman showed up in Best Makeup and managed to score the win, securing Oscar #7 for the legendary Rick Baker. Universal's original (and, unlike the remake, awesome) The Wolf Man was of course the recipient of zero Oscar nominations.
Ever since Black Swan and The Wolfman claimed Oscar victory, the genre's presence has, unfortunately, dimmed quite a bit at the awards. Only two horror films have garnered recognition, both in 2012, in the Best Animated Feature category - Tim Burton's Frankenweenie and Chris Butler and Sam Fell's ParaNorman. Pitted against the latest from Disney-Pixar, Brave, the two flicks hardly stood a real prayer.
Critically acclaimed and financially successful horror films like The Cabin in the Woods (2012, Goddard), The Conjuring (2013, Wan) and The Babadook (2014, Kent) failed to make inroads in their respective awards seasons. This year's The Witch (2016, Eggers) appears exceedingly likely to also miss out.
Regardless of this ho-hum showing in recent years, it is of course inevitable this fantastic genre will again surface in a big way at the Oscars, and not just in Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. One of these days, we will again be greeted by a critic-adored box office mammoth, in the mold of The Exorcist and Jaws, or perhaps another horror flick that rides the strength of a performance (ala Bette Davis and Natalie Portman) to a boatload of nominations. The Witch very much proved there's still plenty of juice and creativity - and genuine frights - in horror.