2018 Film Essays

Could Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out’ Break Horror’s Dry Spell at the Oscars?

Holding steady at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and with $250 million in its back pocket, it was only a matter of time until awards consideration came for Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out. Nominations from the Golden Globes and the Critics’ Choice were promising starts, but a nomination from the Academy for Best Picture wasn’t a guarantee. Then the Oscar nominations were announced and Get Out managed not only to snag a Best Picture nod, but three more for Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Actor (Daniel Kaluuya). This is not just an exciting development for Get Out, but an opportunity for a horror film to make a splash at the Academy Awards. Even rarer, Get Out has a legitimate chance at the big prize.

Unabashed horror film wins for make-up (The Fly), score (The Omen) and other technical categories aren’t uncommon, but the big nominations for acting, directing, etc. are more difficult for genre pictures to win. As of late, it appears that the key to winning an Academy Award for horror films is to not be considered a horror film. The last time a horror film went home with several Oscars was when The Silence of the Lambs became a member of the prestigious Big Five Club. Jonathan Demme’s film thoroughly took over the evening, winning the five major categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Of course, it bears mentioning whether or not Academy voters considered The Silence of the Lambs a horror film when they voted for it. Hannibal Lecter is one of the most frightening characters in film history, but is that enough to qualify the film as horror? It should be. The Silence of the Lambs’ biggest selling point — besides the performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins — is the body horror that takes place. Dr. Lecter eats people. Buffalo Bill makes suits out of his victims’ skin. These are not the hallmarks of a slow-burn thriller, but of a genre that routinely depicts the monstrous acts that humans are capable of. That The Silence of the Lambs is a great film doesn’t mean it should have to apologize for also being a horror film.

And if one doesn’t consider The Silence of the Lambs a horror film, then you have to go all the way back to Rebecca‘s win for Best Picture in 1941. Alfred Hitchcock’s film was another member of the Big Five Club, getting a nod in all five major categories, but even that film could be classified as suspense-thriller. More recent titles like Black Swan and The Sixth Sense were in the race for Best Picture, but Natalie Portman’s win for Best Actress was Black Swan‘s only victory, and The Sixth Sense went home with nothing despite garnering six nominations. Even those pictures distanced themselves from genre labels, and Darren Aronofsky suggested that his film was a hallucinogenic metaphor for obsession and artistry more than a scare fest. Why this sudden change when a horror film suddenly finds itself up for awards?

While critics evaluated Get Out multiple times over 2017, the film went from being a Blumhouse-approved horror picture to the more prestigious title of a “social thriller” as it gathered more acclaim and critics’ awards. But skittish Academy voters are unlikely to deal with the violence that makes up most horror films, especially considering the limited number of Best Picture slots, even with 2009’s expansion.

A recent New York Times piece touched on the shame that comes with being associated with the horror genre. “William Friedkin has also rejected that label for The Exorcist.” And so did Brian De Palma after his film Carrie started making waves. So, Get Out’s new designation as “social thriller” at Peele’s behest isn’t necessarily a surprise. It appears that the horror label is still used as an indicator of poor quality, despite the renaissance of indie-styled horror films that have come out (The Babadook, The Witch, It Comes at Night, etc.). What’s more frustrating is that said critique also implies that horror films don’t deal with social issues, which is not the case. Night of the Living Dead is famous for its stark ending, which doubled as an indictment of racial inequalities in the United States. The Purge series addresses how the judicial system favors rich, white men. They Live is staunchly anti-consumerism. Simply put, there’s never been a shortage of the allegorical in the horror genre. By constantly running from a label, great horror films make it that much harder to be accepted come awards season.

Art is a product of its time; is it Get Out‘s fault that the time mostly resembles a horror production? Films aren’t made to always coddle audiences, especially great films. Peele’s fiery satire is decidedly not supposed to make audiences feel good. Made in a post-racial era, or at least that’s what we were promised after President Obama’s administration, Get Out rooted out the subliminal manifestations of racism that still exist today, with The Sunken Place acting as an elegant metaphor for when black thoughts, feelings and works are marginalized. Get Out is just as capable of drawing laughs, but it is still, nonetheless, horrifying, which is maybe the most powerful emotion that cinema has to offer.

Horror taps into the sociopolitical undercurrents and anxieties that plague many viewers. For all of the harrowing depictions of humanity in crisis offered in the daily news — be they economic, political or cultural — horror films act as a salve. Given that comedies, romances and period pieces act similarly, it’s odd that the Academy Awards hasn’t been more exclusive in regard to their genres. Perhaps it’s only the blood and gore, but when Gladiator, Dances with Wolves and Braveheart all go home with Oscars, it is disingenuous to suggest that the violence is why the horror genre is left standing in the cold. Such a stance is largely spiteful and only harmful to the Academy; labeling a genre as beneath them only means they miss out on truly revealing works.

If Get Out is to be a contender for Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards, will it have to downgrade its status as horror? It might. Yet, if Get Out does manage to pull off a showing resembling The Silence of the LambsOscar parade, we might be treated to another long, hotly-contested debate of “what is a thriller-suspense-horror?” It’s a conversation that Jordan Peele would certainly be glad to have, even if that talk focuses on the figurative wrapping of the gift, rather than what Get Out actually presents. And isn’t that what the Academy decries so often about horror: the empty spectacle?

Follow Colin Biggs on Twitter @wordsbycbiggs.