The Big O: Oscar Didn’t Always Have a Horror Problem

The Big O: Oscar Didn't Always Have a Horror Problem

There is a new Carrie in
town. She has access to the Internet now and her high-school tormentors use
their smart phones to broadcast her shower-scene to even greater
embarrassment.  But the wallflower is up to her old telekinetic tricks,
pulling off a prom massacre at an even great body count than in the 1976
original.

Oscar season might
already be in full swing.  But no one expects this remake of Stephen King’s
Cinderella-in-reverse tale to be in the running. Besides, the filmmakers would
gladly settle for simply making a killing at the box office while Halloween is
nigh.

Not that it would have
been completely out of the question, considering its director is Kimberly
Peirce, who helped Hilary Swank win her first best-actress trophy for Boys Don’t Cry. The cast also features Julianne Moore, a favorite of the
academy with four past nominations.

It might
also surprise some who don’t live and breathe Oscar lore that the original
Carrie actually scared up recognition in the acting categories for a then 26-year-old Sissy Spacek, passing for a sheltered teen with eerie ease, and
Piper Laurie as her deranged religious fanatic
mother.      

Still, even if Carrie 2.0
with Kick-Ass‘s Chloe Grace Moretz, 16, in the title role somehow proved more
impressive than the first,  there is a major hurtle to overcome
these days: Much like sci-fi and fantasy, Academy members are somewhat spooked
by horror. At best, they will give a pass to tamer supernatural or
psychological thrillers such as 1999’s The Sixth Sense or 2010’s Black Swan,
which earned an Oscar for Natalie Portman, that feature an undertone of dread.

And back in the early ’60s,
when so-called ‘”hagsploitation'” was the rage, they were willing to
embrace older actresses playing crazy crones such as Bette Davis in 1962’s
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Agnes Moorhead in 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet
Charlotte
in gothic melodramas.  

However, the blame
shouldn’t just be aimed  at timid academy voters but also at Hollywood,
which views one of the genres best served by cinema – what better way to enjoy
being  afraid but in the dark and among strangers – with little respect.
Basically, there haven’t been many horror titles produced in the past couple
decades that deserve such attention.

It might be hard for most
Millennials to imagine a world where scary movies are revered as art. Their
generation has been subjected to such bargain-bin successes as the sadistic Saw
franchise.  Or the minimalist shaky-cam aesthetic of the found-footage
trend birthed by The Blair Witch Project and further popularized by the
Paranormal Activity films. Most clean up at the box office during the
first week of opening and quickly disappear into the cheap DVD bins.

Or they must settle for
the regurgitated re-dos of such ’70s cult classics such as The Texas
Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror
and Halloween.  At least the
Scream series which began in the late ’90s smartly parodied slasher movies of the ’80s – and still managed to raise goose bumps. Meanwhile, the
recent Twilight saga took the menace out of vampires and werewolves.

But there was a time when
spooking an audience was considered a talent to be admired. And, more often
than not, the female of the species was front and center when the blood began
to reign – and rain.  In fact, more women have been nominated for horror
roles than men – and the movies that featured them often had female-centric
themes and situations that are represented, whether intentionally or not, in
the first Carrie.

While
horror is often accused of victimizing and objectifying women, it is also a
medium that grants its heroines empowerment and control. Director Karyn Kusama
and writer Diablo Cody knew this when they did 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, which
was an undercooked cauldron of female horror tropes.

Given that sexuality and
scares often go hand and hand, Psycho was the perfect vehicle to introduce the
Oscars to the modern era of horror starting in 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock went
from the master of suspense to the provocateur of the perverse.

It is interesting that
voters chose not to reward Anthony Perkins for his career-defining role as
Norman Bates, the ultimate mama’s boy. Instead, they bestowed Janet Leigh with
her only Oscar nomination as a thief on the run (she steals money on the job so
she can marry her lover) who is introduced post-tryst in her white undies and,
later, is fully if discreetly exposed during the infamous shower scene. This is
quite a different view of womanhood in an era that worshiped virginal Doris Day
types and Norman, for one, could not handle it.

Ruth Gordon followed in
1968’s Rosemary’s Baby as the nosey neighbor who is in league with the devil
and tricks Mia Farrow’s -the young wife – into carrying Satan’s child.  The older
actress won the Oscar but it was Farrow with her harrowing portrait of young
wife coping with all the pressures of domestic life in Manhattan in addition to
a coven of demon worshipers that established her as a serious actress. A
dried-up prune of a witch preying on the young vulnerable beauty was straight
out of a Disney fairy tale.

The Exorcist picked up
where Rosemary’s Baby left off and ranks No. 9 on Box Office Mojo’s
top-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation.  At the center
of the 1973 film is a mother’s worst nightmare – a sweet child suddenly
possessed by evil and turned into a monster. It’s the onset of puberty with
devil horns. Ellen Burstyn’s distraught single mother and Linda Blair as her
profanity-spewing child both collected nominations for their roles.

The most influential horror film ever in terms of Oscar domination is
1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, which featured a feminist-friendly heroine for
the ages:  FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who overcomes the sexual taunts
of vicious serial killer Hannibal Lecter as well as a long line of meddlesome
men who underestimate her abilities to save the life of an equally brave
kidnapped woman.  It is a career woman’s worst nightmare –  she
triumphs but at a price for sharing her soul with a maniac.

Going above and beyond
Carrie’s vengeful victim status, Foster would claim the best actress Oscar and
the movie would be named best picture. Also in the winner’s circle was co-star
Anthony Hopkins, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally. 
Hannibal dominated sequels and prequels would follow but none had the quality
or the impact of The Silence of the Lambs.

More than 20 years later,
no other full-fledged horror film has competed in Oscar’s main event (unless you
count The Sixth Sense or Black Swan). 

Here is to hoping that young
audiences who will likely propel the new Carrie to the top of the box-office
chart this weekend might be inspired to check out the first Carrie at the very
least. And that might lead them to seek out more classic scares as well.  An informed audience is a demanding audience. And they deserve
better than recycled goods passed off as fresh Halloween treats – as do the
actresses who star in such retreads.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , ,


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *