HORROR TEN SPOT: My Favorite Horror Oscar Winners

Ah...it's that time of year again folks, the 84th Academy Awards take place this Sunday night in the city of Angels. As is the case more often than not, the horror genre is grossly underrepresented in the nomination pool this year, with only a pair of real genre efforts (APES, DRAGON TATTOO) being recognized. But let's not get it twisted. Over the last 85 years, horror films - while certainly not fecund - have had a decent track record of nabbing the golden statuette. Sure it took a dozen years after the Fredric March's performance in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) for another horror flick to be feted as top dog, but as the years have gone on, it's been harder and harder to shut out the genre completely. To this end I thought, if we can't celebrate horror at this Oscars this year, why not take a look back at some of my favorite - above and below the line - past winners in the horror realm. Enjoy!

#1. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS - Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor & Actress

In the 83 year history of the Academy, only three films have swept the Big 5. In 1992 Jonathan Demme's THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS joined Frank Capra's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST in such rarified air...culling Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay. And you know what, 20 years later I don't think a single person can or wants to quibble with those outcomes. It's a truly magnificent film. As deplorably frightening as Lecter is...a paragon of film villainy never to be outdone...in some respects he's the good guy compared to Ted Levine's Buffalo Bill. How often to you see that dynamic in a film? It's brilliant. What about the way Demme has his actors directly address the camera, gazing right into it, and our eyes by association, as way to strike an even more emotional resonance? Shite's magical. Too many ways to fete the film in a single paragraph, but suffice it to say SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is in my Top Ten favorite movies of all time. Deservedly so.

#2. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN - Best Picture, Director, Screenplay & Supporting Actor

For my money, Joel and Ethan Coen's superb adaptation of Carmac McCarthy's gritty pulp novel still remains THE BEST movie I've seen in the last ten years. No hyperbole. In terms of technical craftsmanship, the film truly falls short of few others, dating all the way back to Melies. Sure, some may not construe the flick is out-and-out horror, largely because that's too reductive a term to encapsulate such an all around dynamo...but in the end, the film culled Oscar gold for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Javier Bardem). Few could argue the ghastly presence of Bardem (and that mortifying hairdo) being as intimidating a villain this side of Hannibal Lecter, and with the jarring conclusion...an existential meditation bereft of Hollywood formula, anchored by the wisdom of Tommy Lee Jones and the gorgeous photography of Roger Deakins...a better filmic synecdoche has rarely been seen. Ever.

#3. THE EXORCIST - Best Screenplay & Sound

In what holds up nearly 40 years later as quite possibly the scariest movie of all time, Billy Friedkin's THE EXORCIST earned 10 Oscar nominations in 1974, winning for Best Adapted Screenplay (by William Peter Blatty, from his own novel) and Best Sound (by Robert Knudsen and Christopher Newman). And though it fell short in the other categories, it's no indictment on the effectiveness of the film itself, but more a byproduct of the fierce competition (losing to THE STING) and the fact Friedkin cleaned up two years later with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. No shame there. Thing is, as sordid and nasty as the material becomes in the last reel, particularly revolving around Regan, it's not really an exploitation flick. THE EXORCIST plays like a drama, not a horror film, and it's that distinction that allows the chill and thrills to hit home so hard by films end. It's treated with respect, featuring A-list actors like Ellen Burstyn and Max Von Sydow, made by a top-flight filmmaker in his prime. A true masterwork.

#4. BLACK SWAN - Best Actress

It was just last year Natalie Portman took home the gold for her schizoid portrayal of Nina Sayers in BLACK SWAN. The performance is convincing, if showy, anchoring a high-art/low-brow stint of horror-fantastique. Director Darren Aronofsky deserves equal praise, notorious for being hard on his actors as a way to draw the best performance (Mickey Rourke in THE WRESTLER, for example). But make no mistake, this is Natalie's show, and in a way, the ultimate culmination of a lifelong career in movies. Think about her physical nature in the film, or the exhausting rigors she went through prior to filming. She dropped twenty pounds for the role, and reduced herself to a perpetual child-state that real-life ballerinas sadly cling to, even going so far as to speak in the cowering utterances of a 9 year old. And though her history in dance as a child came to pay off in the long run, not for nothing, I'm just as grateful for her decision to beat-off onscreen!

#5. MISERY - Best Actress

Much like Ruth Gordon in ROSEMARY'S BABY, the terror derived from Kathy Bates' character in MISERY lies in the false sense of security her nice-gal persona splays early in the film. She doesn't start out evil, instead, it's the slow peel of her magnanimous facade and her descent into madness that makes us so uneasy. Of course, we witness this transformation through the eyes of Jimmy Caan's character, and the bedridden hell of inescapability only heightens the panic. Extra props goes to Bates for being the first female to win Best Actress for a horror/thriller film, despite the honor being trumped the following year (more on that ahead). Oddly, as much as King hated THE SHINING adaptation, he loved Bates' performance so much that he wrote the novel DOLORES CLAIBORNE with her in mind, she of course went on to star in the film version. He also changed a character from male to female so that Bates could have a more sizeable role in "The Stand."

#6. ROSEMARY'S BABY - Best Supporting Actress

It's hard to believe such a dastardly harridan would end up being the same lady who portrayed a free-spirit in HAROLD AND MAUDE a few years later, but even so, Ruth Gordon's Supporting Actress win for ROSEMARY'S BABY was quite deserving. Think about, she's giving a performance within a performance, as most of the film is built around the devious trickery of the title character. So sweet, so unassuming when we first meet the little old lady...which makes the final revelation all the more disturbing. We trusted her, like Rosemary did, and that comfort is sullied to all hell when we find out she was one of the ring leaders of this Satanic witch coven. Gordon is convincing in both extremes, which is no easy feat given her limited screen time. Is it her best career performance? Probably not. Even so, I think the honor is far more than just a lifetime achievement award.

#7. JAWS - Best Editing, Score & Sound

I can't think of a more co-dependent triple-jab than the Oscar winning Sound, Score and Editing of Spielberg's landmark suspense film JAWS. The synergy of John Williams' searing strings cut to the sharp tempo of Verna Fields' pacing is nothing short of remarkable. Think about all the tension and anxiety derived from those cues alone. Extra credit to Fields, who capped a 15 year career in the editing room with her win before dying six years later. Although the film lost to CUCKOO'S NEST for best picture (no shame there), it's not only recognized as the progenitor of the modern day blockbuster, it's also held up well over 35 years later as one of the best films ever made. Spielberg is to credit, surely, but so is the vivacity of its sound and movement. Williams has since done nearly every Spielberg film, including LINCOLN, currently in post-production. I have a feeling Steven would've been just as loyal if Fields remained in the biz.


Not only is it the definitive werewolf film in my book, but because the Academy was virtually forced to create a new category for achievement in makeup to recognize the stunning work of Rick Baker...AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON must be mentioned. I mean, how many movies can you say hold up in the makeup department 30 years after its initial release? Hardly any. Not the case here, or any of Baker's work for that matter, as he proved the first was no fluke, amassing an astounding 7 Oscars in total since 1981. Oddly enough, Baker may have just as soon gotten the inaugural award in 1981 for THE HOWLING instead. You see, because it took 8 years for John Landis to get production going on AMERICAN WEREWOLF, Baker had impatiently decided to use what he had plan on this film for Joe Dante's lycanthropic competitor. When Landis called Baker and reprimanded his ass, Baker went back to LONDON, leaving his 20 year old apprentice Rob Bottin to man THE HOWLING ship. Apparently Landis has still never forgiven Baker.

#9. ALIEN - Best Visual Effects

Although James Cameron picked up the baton and took the mythology to cartoonish extremes, the Oscar winning Visual Effects in the original ALIEN are still a frightening force to be reckoned with. H.R. Giger and his squad, always ahead of the curve, created a benchmark that's held up over three decades. The standout sequence? We all know it's the chest-bursting scene with John Hurt. Thing is, and I love this story, Ridley Scott deliberately kept his cast in the dark as to what exactly was going to happen in the scene. The setup was explained to them in part, but they had no visual clues as to what was to come leaping out of Hurt's chest. The shot was filmed in one take, with four cameras, and was so alarming that the reactions shots of the crew were the real life reactions of the actors (Veronica Cartwright screaming as she's painted in blood, etc.). I've recently read that Ridley wanted a much darker ending where the Alien bites off Ripley's head in the escape shuttle, sits in her chair and begins speaking in her voice a message back to Earth. Can you imagine what those FX would look like?!?

#10. THE OMEN - Best Original Score

Few other film scores have driven terror into my bones the way Jerry Goldsmith's Academy Award winning work on THE OMEN has. The shite's downright mortifying! Not only does it vastly differ from most film scores - including over 200 of Goldsmith's own credits - consider the lyrical translation of what sounds like an indigenous Latin chant: "Sanguis bibimus, corpus edimus, tolle corpus Satani" which translates to "drink the blood, eat the flesh, raise the body of Satan." That shite is raw! So raw in fact that it marks the one and only Oscar win of Goldsmith's storied career. Director Richard Donner knew how important it was to hire Jerry, going so far as to ask studio-head Alan Ladd Jr. to shell out more dough to hire him during post-production. Ladd forked over an extra $25K and the rest was history. Like Hitchcock to Herman, Donner has often credited the success of THE OMEN to the score, claiming it would not have been as scary without it. I couldn't agree more!

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