Last Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ignored horror movies again -- or did it? The list of winners did not include any movies that mainstream audiences might identify as "horror," but Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity fits the definition of a "horror movie" better than any Academy Award winner in recent years.
Consider: Sandra Bullock is just minding her own business, happily working at her job, when she is attacked by an unseen force, hurling space junk at her. She narrowly escapes death, only to find that most of her friends have been killed, horribly, by the unseen force. Her buddy, George Clooney, hangs around for awhile, giving her encouragement, but then he too succumbs to the unseen force, leaving her alone to fend for herself. She is lost and abandoned, a long way from home in an inhospitable environment. And the unseen force again threatens to kill her. She must risk her life in order to save her life and get home.
In a very real sense of the term, Sandra Bullock is a classic "final girl," plucky and virginal -- it's her first time in space -- with a never-say-die attitude. When she becomes discouraged, she's able to talk herself out of it and fight for her life against the unseen force like nobody's business.
Sounds like a horror movie, doesn't it?
Contrary to popular belief, however, the Academy does not always ignore horror movies. Granted, the Oscar most often honors horror with well-deserved "technical" prizes in categories from makeup to visual effects to production design to costume design (An American Werewolf in London, Alien, The Fly, Dracula, Sleepy Hollow). But consider these nontechnical winners.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Won: Best Supporting Actress - Ruth Gordon
Ruth Gordon's win may have reflected the Academy's desire to honor her for a wonderful body of work, but there is no doubt that her creepy, chilling performance as one of Mia Farrow's neighbors was award worthy. Roman Polanski was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, though he did not win.
The Exorcist (1973)
Won: Best Screenplay, William Peter Blatty. Also Best Sound.
Tied with The Sting for most nominations (10) that year, horror fans had to sit back and watch the con-man flick walk away with seven little gold men. But the outstanding sound work could not be denied, and William Peter Blatty won an award for adapting his own novel in excellent fashion.
Won: Best Original Score, John Williams. Also Best Film Editing and Best Sound.
Steven Spielberg was shut out from a Best Director nomination, though the film earned a Best Picture nod. John Williams' superb score remains among the most foreboding and memorable in history.
Won: Best Actress, Kathy Bates
A true force of nature, Kathy Bates masterfully portrayed an obsessed fan whose favorite author falls helplessly into her web. She slides from folksy and friendly straight toward the extremes of terrifying madness with the greatest of apparent ease.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Won: Best Picture; Best Director, Jonathan Demme; Best Actor, Anthony Hopkins; Best Actress, Jodie Foster; Best Adapted Screenplay, Ted Tally.
Still the only horror movie to win Best Picture, this high-quality serial-killer shocker swept the major categories, yet was denied any technical victories, though it was nominated for Best Sound and Best Film Editing. And it's still just as unsettling and unnerving to watch today as it was more than 20 years ago.