On the heels of their lukewarm reception to Alien (1979, Scott), the Academy continued, for the most part, to neglect horror cinema at the start of the new decade.
Stanley Kubrick's divisive The Shining, adored by countless horror buffs and notably loathed by author Stephen King, was not the Academy's cup of tea (though it did inexplicably garner Razzie nominations in Worst Director and Worst Actress, for the amazing Shelley Duvall). Brian De Palma also struck out with his comparably divisive Dressed to Kill, also nominated for several Razzies in spite of a number of critical raves, including from the legendary Pauline Kael. Peter Medak's eerie and underrated The Changeling? Also M.I.A.
The one 1980 horror flick the Academy could bring itself to embrace was the collaboration of two Academy favorites, filmmaker Ken Russell and screenwriter Paddy Cheyefsky, the trippy and visually compelling Altered States. It garnered Oscar nods in Best Original Score and Best Sound, losing to Fame and The Empire Strikes Back, respectively.
The following year, 1981, marked the establishment of a new Oscar category - Best Makeup. Twice before, to 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and Planet of the Apes, the Academy had awarded special honorary Oscars for achievement in makeup. Never before, however, had their been a competitive race. That changed here as two makeup legends in cinema - Rick Baker and Stan Winston - faced off for their work on An American Werewolf in London and Heartbeeps, respectively. John Landis' American Werewolf is an intense, gory horror-comedy, hardly traditional Oscar-calibur fare. Heartbeeps, however, was even more unacceptable - an ambitious, yet completely dreadful romcom with Andy Kaufman (in his final film role) and Bernadette Peters as robots who fall in love. Baker, thankfully, prevailed.
In 1982, the Academy sadly did not recognize John Carpenter's breathtaking remake of The Thing or George A. Romero and Stephen King's delightfully scary Creepshow - which, at the very least, would have been worthy of Original Score and Film Editing nods, respectively. They did, however, toss a few technical nominations to Tobe Hooper's (or Steven Spielberg's, for the conspiracy theorists out there) Poltergeist, which made appearances in Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects, all of which went to Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Over at BAFTA, Poltergeist actually managed to edge out the Spielberg flick for their Visual Effects prize.
Two years later, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street was, not surprisingly, not making a killing during Oscar season. The Academy could not, however, resist that year's second-highest-grossing picture, a little horror-comedy called Ghostbusters (1984, Reitman). The film, which garnered Best Motion Picture - Comedy/Musical and Best Lead Actor - Comedy/Musical (for Bill Murray, of course) nods at the Golden Globes, showed up in Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song on Oscar nominations morning.
It was not until 1986 that a horror flick really made a significant dent at the Oscars this decade.
The first Alien picture (1979, Scott) did not much move members of the Academy. By 1986, however, voters were more receptive to this franchise. James Cameron's sequel, Aliens, was critically acclaimed and performed solidly at the box office that summer, holding the number one slot for four consecutive weeks. It was not, however, expected to be much more of an awards contender than its predecessor, though leading lady Sigourney Weaver was in the running for a Best Lead Actress nod.
On nominations morning, however, Aliens overperformed even the highest expectations by scoring seven nods, including for Weaver and the film's editing and original score (by James Horner). Still, Weaver was, unfortunately, not seen as a serious contender for the win. On Oscar night, the picture scored two victories, in Best Visual Effects and Best Sound Editing. Marlee Matlin, as generally expected, defeated Weaver for her work in Children of a Lesser God.
Also in the mix at the 1986 Oscars - David Cronenberg's horrifying retooling of The Fly won that year's prize in Best Makeup. Leading man Jeff Goldblum was a dark horse for a Best Lead Actor nom - he received notices from the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle - but ultimately did not surface on nominations morning. The uneven Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986, Gibson) scored a Best Visual Effects nod, while the delightful horror-musical-comedy Little Shop of Horrors (1986, Oz) showed up in Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song. (My review of 1986 Best Original Song can be found here.)
1987 wasn't quite as hot a year for horror at the Oscars, though George Miller's amusing The Witches of Eastwick managed to sneak in for Best Original Score and Best Sound nominations, falling to Best Picture winner The Last Emperor in both. Another horror comedy - Tim Burton's Beetlejuice - scored the win in Best Makeup the year after. Headliner Michael Keaton, who also starred in Clean and Sober that year, was named Best Lead Actor by the National Society of Film Critics.
The genre got off to a strong start at the Oscars with the start of a new decade.
In 1990, Kathy Bates took home the Best Lead Actress prize for her unforgettable breakthrough turn as Annie Wilkes in the film adaptation of Misery (1990, Reiner). A shame James Caan didn't garner some recognition for his comparably terrific work.
The following year, however, marked the strongest performance for a horror film at the Oscars since The Exorcist in 1973.
Initially, Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs, based on the eponymous 1988 Thomas Harris novel, was not expected to be something of an Oscar contender. For one, the piece focused on a cannibalistic serial killer - not exactly traditional Oscar bait. To boot, however, the Demme picture was released by Orion in February of 1991, nearly a full year out from the awards season. Films released in the spring are often forgotten by the following winter, let alone pictures from February.
Nonetheless, The Silence of the Lambs had real staying power in 1991. It remained in the box office top 10 through that May, eventually earning more than $130 million domestically and clocking in as the fourth-highest-grossing film of the year. At the start of the awards season, the film was also helped by the first Oscar precursor to vote - the National Board of Review, which gave the film Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Hopkins) prizes.
Despite the NBR nod, Orion opted to campaign Hopkins for the Lead Actor prize, pitting him against early front-runners Warren Beatty in Bugsy and Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides. At the 1991 Golden Globes, The Silence of the Lambs took home just one prize - Best Lead Actress for Jodie Foster - with Bugsy, Nolte and Oliver Stone (for JFK) beating Silence, Hopkins and Demme. The critics awards, however, were largely with the Demme film and the film swept the important guild awards.
By Oscar night, the awards were largely unsettled. Foster looked like a shoo-in, as did Ted Tally for his screenplay. But Demme was locked in a tough race with Stone and the picture was contending with the Beatty and Stone films and a complete wild card, Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film ever nominated in Best Picture. Hopkins and Nolte looked completely deadlocked.
Come Oscar night, however, The Silence of the Lambs made a killing, sweeping the big five - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. The Nolte film went nowhere and Bugsy and JFK were left only technical scraps. It was, of course, the first (and to date, only) horror flick to ever win the Best Picture prize.
We cannot, of course, forget The Addams Family (1991, Sonnenfeld), which mustered a nomination in Best Costume Design.
The following two years were halfway decent for the genre too, at least for the technical prizes. The zany horror-comedy Death Becomes Her (1992, Zemeckis) and ravishingly designed Dracula (1992, Coppola) garnered nods in Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design/Best Sound Editing/Best Makeup/Best Art Direction, respectively. Sans the Art Direction prize, the films took home trophies for them all. The next year, Addams Family Values (1993, Sonnenfeld) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, Selick) showed up in Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects, respectively. No wins, I'm afraid.
Horror-comedy continued to resonate with the Academy in 1994, with the release of Tim Burton's flat-out brilliant Ed Wood, arguably the greatest movie ever made about making movies. Though deserving of a whole plethora of nominations and wins, the film struggled at the box office and had seemingly lukewarm support from its studio, Touchstone Pictures. Only Martin Landau, portraying horror legend Bela Lugosi, really broke through that awards season, taking home the Best Supporting Actor prize nearly everywhere, including the Oscars. The pic also took home the Best Makeup prize.
Also nominated in 1994 - the beautifully designed, if miscast and rather hollow Interview with the Vampire (1994, Jordan). The film garnered nods in Best Art Direction, Best Original Score and Best Makeup. Kirsten Dunst, the best part of the film by far, was a contender in that year's messy Best Supporting Actress race but ultimately failed to land the Oscar nom.
After four consecutive years of horror flickers mustering multiple nominations at the Oscars, only one nod was received in 1995 - for Richard Francis Bruce's exemplary editing on Se7en (1995, Fincher).
As the genre underwent a so-called "revival" with the popular likes of Scream (1996, Craven) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, Gillespie), its presence completely dried up at the Oscars. Only in 1998 did it kinda-sorta resurface, with Bill Condon's brilliant Gods and Monsters, a look at the final, tragic days in the life of Frankenstein director James Whale. Nominated for three Oscars - Best Lead Actor (Ian McKellen, who should have prevailed), Best Supporting Actress (Lynn Redgrave) and Best Adapted Screenplay - Condon took home the film's sole prize, for his screenwriting.
Next up, the final (for now) chapter - how horror has fared from the close of the 1990s, through present day, from The Sixth Sense to Black Swan and beyond.