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Horror movies: The unwelcome family member at the Oscars

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's been over 30 years since a horror movie won best picture at the Oscars. It was 1992, the film - "Silence Of The Lambs," starring Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS")

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Dr. Hannibal Lecter) A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

DETROW: Only a handful of horror movies have been nominated in various Oscar categories over the years, and an even smaller number have taken home awards. As we continue our Oscar coverage, NPR's Brianna Scott looks at the relationship horror has with the academy.

BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: The horror genre has always been somewhat of an outlier during awards season, thanks in part to its reputation.

TANANARIVE DUE: Horror in particular, I think, has had this reputation as second rate, second rate skill levels, cheap scares, lots of gratuitous blood.

SCOTT: Tananarive Due is an author and professor at UCLA. She says that the stereotypes about horror live on today. But over the last few decades...

DUE: We're seeing a change in attitude toward horror, that people are realizing, oh, maybe there's more to this than jump scares.

SCOTT: Film critic and writer Richard Newby agrees.

RICHARD NEWBY: Horror has consistently reflected where we are as a society. It's perhaps the most common way that we can kind of talk about what we're culturally afraid of.

SCOTT: So movies like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," where a group of teenagers stumble upon - OK, how do I put this lightly - an a-typical family of cannibals?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If one of them survives, what will be left? "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

SCOTT: It was released in 1974, just before the end of the Vietnam War.

NEWBY: It's very much like a reflection on Vietnam and this idea of trespassing where you don't belong.

SCOTT: Or "Night Of The Living Dead" from 1968, the movie that popularized the modern portrayal of zombies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They're coming to get you, Barbara.

SCOTT: The movie's Black protagonist broke barriers at a time when racial tensions in the U.S. were fraught post-Jim Crow.

DUE: Thematically so important about the invasion of the other if you're a racist, or having a Black lead, the empowerment that Black people had been fighting for in the 1960s.

SCOTT: There's also the 2023 Australian horror film "Talk To Me," a tale of ghostly possession that soon turns into a study in dealing with grief and trauma.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TALK TO ME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I can see and feel everything on the other side.

SCOTT: It's not up for any Oscars this year, despite critical acclaim and grossing more than 90 million at the box office worldwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TALK TO ME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Never going to stop.

ADAM LOWENSTEIN: It's actually a wise genre rather than a silly genre, a confrontational genre rather than an evasive genre.

SCOTT: Adam Lowenstein is a film and media studies professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He says that long ago, movies in general were actually looked down upon, just like horror.

LOWENSTEIN: A big idea behind the Academy Awards in its initial iteration, all the way back in 1929, was as a form of legitimacy for an art form that was usually not considered art or legitimate.

SCOTT: Now, the academy hasn't completely ignored horror.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: And the winner is Norma Koch for "What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?"

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: William Peter Blatty for "The Exorcist."

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Jordan Peele, "Get Out."

SCOTT: But there have been attempts to put those kinds of movies into categories outside the horror genre. "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" - billed as a psychological thriller. "The Exorcist" - branded as a religious drama. "Get Out" - a social thriller.

LOWENSTEIN: It's a way of erasing horror as a genre marker and saying this is actually something else. It's something more elevated. It's something worth your attention as a potential award nominee.

SCOTT: So take something like "Silence Of The Lambs." There was a big push to deem it as a thriller, which it is, no doubt. But it's hard to deny that it's not also horror and took cues from the slasher films that came before it.

PHIL NOBILE JR: I mean, he's making a skin suit in that movie.

SCOTT: Phil Nobile Junior is editor-in-chief of Fangoria magazine. He argues the horror genre doesn't need to look for Oscars.

NOBILE: Horror should be rattling you. Horror should be upsetting you. Horror should be pissing off the Oscars.

SCOTT: And awards aside, horror movies do make bang on small budgets. The 1999 found footage film "The Blair Witch Project" grossed roughly 248 million worldwide. That's over 4,000 times the movie's original budget.

DUE: If I had to have a choice between having an Oscar film or a film that made a hundred million dollars, I'll take the film that made a hundred million dollars.

SCOTT: That's Tananarive Due again. She doesn't deny the impact an Oscar can have, she just thinks its power might be exaggerated.

DUE: That Oscar isn't always as life-changing as people think it might be.

CHAD VILLELLA: I think about why I make movies and, you know, it's never about the awards.

SCOTT: Chad Villella is a producer and one of the co-founders of Radio Science Productions, known for films like "Ready Or Not."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "READY OR NOT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) If we don't find her and perform the ritual, we're all dead.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Found her.

SCOTT: ...And the recent "Scream" entries. For Villella, it's the human connection between the audience and a horror movie that matters.

VILLELLA: Let's inspire them to be able to get through a day in their life that might feel like a horror movie but in a creative way.

SCOTT: Whether or not the academy is ready to respect the power of horror, the genre continues to resonate in popular culture, and the fans keep coming back for more. Brianna Scott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.