Alfred Hitchcock's inimitable Psycho was met to both enormous critical acclaim and audience interest upon its release in 1960. The picture, which was the second-highest grossing film of the year, just behind Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, would go to top the American Film Institute's list of "100 Years...100 Thrills," released in 2001.
Alas, the film, for all of its success, was greeted to a somewhat cool reception by the Academy. Psycho did muster four nominations - in Best Director (Hitchcock's fifth and final Oscar nomination), Best Supporting Actress (the unforgettable Janet Leigh), Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. Leigh, who won the Golden Globe, was defeated by Shirley Jones' fine turn in Elmer Gantry. It failed to win in any of the other three categories to boot.
Notably snubbed was of course Anthony Perkins, flat-out brilliant as Norman Bates. There was other notable horror work overlooked here too - Georges Franju's chilling Eyes Without a Face would've been richly deserving of recognition in Best Foreign Language Film. Also, Michael Powell's inventive and unsettling Peeping Tom, while not whole-heartedly embraced upon its initial release, was surely worthy of attention.
The following year, a real bone-chiller did surface in Best Foreign Language Film - and manage to triumph too - Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, a picture which served as the inspiration to Wes Craven's 1972 cult classic The Last House on the Left.
In 1962 and 1964, a horror sub-genre, the so-called "psycho-biddy" picture - that is, a film involving an older, once-glamorous woman who cracks and terrorizes those around her - garnered significant Oscar love. Two Bette Davis-headlined, Robert Aldrich-directed films - What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte - received a combined 12 Oscar nominations, including three acting nods (for Davis and Victor Buono in the former and the dazzling Agnes Moorehead in the latter). The films only delivered a single win, however, for Norma Koch's costume design in Baby Jane.
Between those two camp classics, in 1963, Hitchcock's The Birds - which, while a box office success, did not reach the critical acclaim of Psycho - scored an Oscar nod in Best Special Effects, where it lost to the epically overblown Cleopatra. Notably missing this year was the brilliant The Haunting, which did at least manage a Golden Globe nomination for its director, Robert Wise.
The next three years were not gangbusters for the genre at the Oscars, or in general. Roman Polanski's startling Repulsion garnered runner-up mentions in Best Director and Best Lead Actress (for Catherine Denueve) at the 1965 New York Film Critics Circle Awards - and a Best Cinematography BAFTA nod to boot - but was a no-show on Oscar nominations morning. Beyond the Polanski film, there were few, if any Oscar-calibur horror films to speak of.
At last, in 1967, horror resurfaced at the Oscars, through a Best Lead Actress nomination for Audrey Hepburn in Terence Young's Wait Until Dark. The suspenseful and claustrophobic film, which features its leading lady as a blind woman terrorized by drug-scouring criminals, is among the boldest and most interesting efforts of Hepburn's career. (She ended up losing to another Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.)
It's no surprise that, in 1968, the Academy was not ready to recognize a film like George A. Romero's terrifying Night of the Living Dead. At least they did have the courage to shower some affection on another sublime horror picture this year, Polanski's exquisite Rosemary's Baby. While the lack of nomination for Mia Farrow is truly unforgivable (and perhaps surprising - she garnered both Golden Globe and BAFTA nods), it is pretty sweet that the scene-stealing, equal-parts-hilarious-and-horrifying Ruth Gordon took home the prize for Best Supporting Actress. Polanski's screenplay was nominated too, losing to James Goldman's incomparable work on The Lion in Winter.
In 1972, horror cinema surfaced in the most unlikely of Oscar categories - Best Original Song, where Michael Jackson's "Ben," from the eponymous rat picture (1972, Carlson), garnered a nomination and ultimately lost to The Poseidon Adventure's dreadful "The Morning After." (If interested, feel free to check out my full analysis of '72 Best Original Song here.)
The following year, 1973, marked arguably the most impressive year for horror at the Oscars. While Robin Hardy's eerie The Wicker Man did not show up, nor did Nicolas Roeg's haunting Don't Look Now (which nonetheless went on to score seven BAFTA nominations, including a Best Cinematography victory), William Friedkin's blood-curdling The Exorcist proved a huge player that awards season. The second-highest grossing film of '73, the film went into Oscar night with an eye-popping 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and nods in three acting categories (for Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and Linda Blair). It set a nominations record for horror at the Oscars, which remains unbroken to this day.
At that year's Golden Globes, The Exorcist scored victories in Best Picture - Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. Surprisingly, the film received no love at all from the critics' awards and would only go on to receive a Best Soundtrack nomination at BAFTA. The film was a sure bet to win Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars - it was the sole Best Picture nominee among the five - but, beyond that, its winning prospects were greatly uncertain. Blair began the race an overwhelming favorite but was dogged by press coverage on Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge's dubbing of the Regan character. This led to chatter that Blair's performance was more an effects-driven one than a real tour-de-force in acting. Many also suspected the picture was just too bold to make a real killing with the old-school Academy.
Those suspicions were right - The Exorcist indeed took home Best Adapted Screenplay on Oscar night, and just one other victory, in Best Sound. Blair lost to Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon, Miller (as expected) lost to John Houseman in The Paper Chase and Burstyn lost to Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class. Friedkin and the film were ultimately trampled over by George Roy Hill's even more financially successful (and more Academy-friendly) The Sting.
1974 did not, sadly, find Bob Clark's influential and truly terrifying slasher flick Black Christmas steamrolling the awards season. Instead, coming off the heels of dark and draining The Exorcist, the Academy catered to lighter horror fare, throwing a few nominations to Mel Brooks' ingenious Young Frankenstein (in Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound) and Brian De Palma's delightfully inventive Phantom of the Paradise (for Paul Williams, in Best Adapted Score). No surprise, there were no wins among the three nominations - as if Brooks' script had a prayer against The Godfather Part II - but kudos to the Academy for at least giving some recognition to these fantastic films.
In 1975, while Tobe Hooper's exhilarating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was filling drive-ins across the nation but hardly winning support from the Hollywood establishment, newcomer Steven Spielberg's smash box office and critical sensation Jaws landed with a modest splash at the Oscars. The picture garnered four nominations - in Best Picture, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing and Best Sound - but was notably left out for Spielberg's direction. The Academy instead gave a surprise nomination to Frederico Fellini, whose Amarcord won Best Foreign Language Film. The Spielberg snub - coupled with no nod for screenwriting - all but ensured Jaws would not take home the top prize. It did, however, manage to take home the other three Oscars, one more than The Exorcist had mustered just a couple years back.
The following year found a Brian De Palma picture (at last!) receive major Oscar nominations. His film adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie was a decent-sized box office and critical hit - impressive for a De Palma horror flick but hardly on the level of a Jaws or Exorcist. Piper Laurie, who was previously Oscar-nominated for 1961's The Hustler, had not acted in a motion picture since the Paul Newman classic. Her presence in the 1976 awards season was not only a result of the dazzling notices for the De Palma film but also something of a "welcome back" after the 15-year hiatus. She was Oscar-nominated for the picture, as was leading lady Sissy Spacek. While Spacek likely didn't have a real prayer against front-runner Faye Dunaway (for Network), Best Supporting Actress was a real jump ball that year (and the Golden Globe winner, Katharine Ross in Voyage of the Damned, wasn't even Oscar-nominated). Beatrice Straight ultimately claimed victory for Network but it wouldn't surprise me if Laurie was a close runner-up in the final vote.
Also nominated in 1976? Richard Donner's The Omen, which scored nominations in Best Original Score and Best Original Song (both for composer Jerry Goldsmith), winning for the former. (My review of the nominated "Ave Santini" and the rest of '76 Best Original Song can be found here.)
1977 did not prove a prime year for horror at the Oscars - Dario Argento's Suspiria, which features some of the most gorgeous, eye-popping production design to have ever graced the big screen, was nowhere to be found. The following year was not much better, despite the releases of the legendary Dawn of the Dead (1978, Romero), Halloween (1978, Carpenter) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Kaufman). Of course, while snubbing those masterpieces, the Academy had the nerve to recognize Irwin Allen's horrendous bee disaster flick The Swarm in Best Costume Design.
The decade ultimately ended on a so-so note for the genre. Ridley Scott's brilliant Alien was a juggernaut at the 1979 box office and richly deserved a boatload of nominations. It only, however, mustered two - Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects, prevailing in the latter. The even more financially successful The Amityville Horror also managed an Oscar nod, for Lalo Schifrin's gangbusters original score. It lost to A Little Romance.
Coming up in Chapter III - Aliens and Hannibal Lecter, among others, take their bite at the Oscars...