As a genre, horror has been – and probably always will be – held in the lowest regard. We can say that with films like Get Out and IT being such huge successes, we have entered an age in which those of us who have hoisted the flag high for many years can rejoice at the masses’ acceptance of horror; but the problem is the masses still don’t acknowledge them as horror. Get Out has been called a comedy, and IT has been called a thriller, which apparently doesn’t count as horror for some reason. Horror, to the masses, just seems like a dirty word; and obviously, if a film is good, it can’t be considered horror. It scares them. It confuses them. It makes them question things.
Horror in of itself should not be cut and dried. It is designed to scare on more than just an instinctual, basic level. True masters of the genre understand that horror is the perfect amalgam of life. In life we have comedic moments, dramatic moments, and horrifying moments, which are all necessary to make a good horror film. They have to be well rounded to play for everyone.
Sure, we have certain guilty pleasures or fun films for the die-hard horror geeks, but look at the success of IT thanks to the elements of everyday life you can relate to. Should horror films be considered an award-winning genre? Yes! There are several directors that have used the horror genre creatively and lovingly to start their careers, and they themselves have gone on to create some of the most influential films that have ever taken home Oscars. Even within these Oscar winners, directors use elements of the horror genre to enhance their films.
Steven Spielberg has a repertoire of films with elements that dance the lines of the horror genre throughout his career. The most notorious and surprisingly a huge success at the time was Jaws. However, there was a precursor to that film in the adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story “Duel”: a story about a man traveling on the back roads of America who is pursued by a semi-truck trying to kill him. This was the learning ground for Spielberg that set up Jaws, as it was his first professional film.
Many consider the style of it to be Jaws with a truck. The semi truck itself is the antagonist, and the driver is never seen, save for a taunting hand wave near the end that enhances the tension of the scene. The film bathes itself in that tension in very Hitchcockian ways, showing Spielberg’s obvious influences. The man is in a constant sweat from the pursuit, and his fear is totally palpable. While the chase scenes themselves are amazingly done, it’s a scene in a diner that is the most masterful.
After the first huge attempt at the truck taking the man’s life, his car spins off the road and into a fence across the street from a diner. With whiplash and total paranoia, he staggers into the diner, only to discover his pursuer’s truck is parked outside. Slow meticulous shots go around the diner picking up the characters within and back to the man, whose paranoia grows worse as he sweats profusely. It’s an intense shot in this thriller of a film, which many would consider elements of a horror film. Those aspects are later used in two of Spielberg’s most famous films, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
Just as the tension of the man’s fear builds in both actor and audience in Duel, so too does Spielberg utilize what he’s learned many years later in the gripping and the nerve-racking sequence of the Nazis searching for the Jews in Schindler’s List. The horrors of a fiction compare to real-world horrors that people lived through. The man in Duel, scared for his life, patiently waiting and plotting to survive, is in many ways similar to the platoon in Saving Private Ryan.
Duel was the catalyst for Spielberg to hone these filmmaking skills that he perfected in Jaws and which, in turn, he utilized in his Oscar-winning films, all four films utilizing tension and fear to elevate storytelling and grip their audience with feelings of dread.
From the monstrous success of Jaws, many studios tried to produce sea creature attack films, hoping to create another cash cow. Coming from the Roger Corman camp was Piranha by Joe Dante. This little Jaws knockoff garnered a huge cult following, and a sequel was inevitable. This led to James Cameron’s first film, Piranha 2: The Spawning.
Cameron himself had come out of Roger Corman’s production studios, building sets for films like Galaxy of Terror; he even worked on John Carpenter’s Escape From New York. There are some guilty pleasure horror films, but even those have their place in the tutelage of a filmmaker. Piranha 2 was a mess of a production with another director, also from Corman’s studio, originally starting on the film, connecting the story directly to Joe Dante’s Piranha. The film’s producer fired him, out of nowhere, bringing Cameron on to rewrite the film and direct.
Cameron’s gone on record saying that while he shot the movie, most of it was under the producer’s direction; he had no say in the edit. The budget was so shoestring that Cameron had to carve out the Piranha, himself, in his hotel room at late hours before and after filming. While a hellish experience, this film and his time building sets for Corman gave him patience and problem-solving skills most people could only learn from an independent horror film. Creature FX not working or an effect goes wrong, you usually don’t have the luxury to reshoot it; you have to work around it.
These skills propelled Cameron into making some of the best low budget horror/sci-fi films of the eighties. A slasher style sci-fi film, The Terminator utilized pure character moments to complement the FX work of Stan Winston. Onward, he extremely impressed the executives at Fox and delivered an epic in Aliens, a movie which looks far more expensive and bigger than it actually is. These films not only helped him become an excellent problem solver but made him appreciate a budget.
Titanic is one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of all time and completely took over the Oscars the year it was released. Cameron threw everything at the construction of that film that he had learned in his Corman days. While he is notoriously harsh on actors, it’s his time in the low budget fare that taught him how important those acting moments are to sell the ridiculous; he used this in spades to sell a beautiful love story for the ages.
Cameron meticulously sculpted Titanic with his crew in every way imaginable, including giving backstories and character moments to all of his extras in the film. Countless times we’ve seen low budget filmmakers do wonders with nothing all the while thinking what could they accomplish with a budget. Cameron was one of those filmmakers that got that chance.
Bad Taste is probably one of the most ridiculous love letters to splatter and gore, as the entire premise of the film is exactly its namesake. Coming from the twisted mind of Peter Jackson is a movie about aliens coming to New Zealand to collect people and use them as meat for their intergalactic restaurant chain, Crumb’s Crunchy Delights. Combatting the aliens are a bunch of crazed characters known only as “The Boys,” armed with rockets and machine guns.
Like Cameron, Jackson’s use of ingenuity on no budget is what’s amazing about his earlier works in horror. Bad Taste took several years to make on the weekends, with Jackson putting his friends in roles as well as playing several parts himself. They performed some of the most dangerous stunts and developed their own homemade camera rigging to produce this hilarious schlockfest. That’s the other thing that’s so great about it: the humor. As Peter Jackson has said to his mother, “There’s a laugh with every drop of blood.”
Jackson went on to use the same juxtapositions found in a lot of Sam Raimi works where the gross-out was balanced with laughs. There are plenty of people who can’t watch his gross-out films for their extremes, but they are played perfectly for laughs if you can stomach them. It’s the insane creativity that makes his earlier works so endearing and fun. He carried these ideas on, toning them down quite a bit as his career became more mainstream, but it’s his work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy that perfectly balanced his styles.
The books themselves are large and without quite so much humor as the films; but Jackson brought in his sense of mischief, especially into the culture and creation of the Hobbits, that made The Lord of the Rings movies more palatable for a wide audience. His creature shop, Weta, went full swing into production on all types of creatures in the film, giving us new and strange creations. Jackson went from designing giant pork-bellied aliens to blood-lusting Orcs.
As he toned down his grotesque sense of humor, Jackson and his wife, Philippa Boyens, honed their skills in dialogue to deliver us not only fun characters but some of the most memorable lines in a fantasy film. The man that gave us “The bastards have landed” also gave us “There’s still good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
The Lord of the Rings was a cinematic experience that transcended fantasy and became iconic. For a fantasy film to sweep the Oscars like The Lord of the Rings did is a feat on its own, but for the man who gave us Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive (Braindead) to win an Oscar is fucking insane and a massive victory for the dreamers of the ridiculous.
There are still many directors and masters of the genre that never got such mainstream success, or the chance to break out of the constraints of horror, and it’s a shame. The three directors described above all revere the genre and to some extent owe their livelihoods to it. It’s a genre that is oftentimes the hardest to play in. When directors and writers try to go from the mainstream into horror in order to grab a quick buck or when their careers are spiraling, people can tell their hearts are not in it.
The balancing act of life in all its guises and struggles is the heart of horror; it speaks volumes of our societal problems and screams with the voices of millions in a generation. These crafters of the genre, although several have decided not to return to it, understood its importance. Guillermo del Toro thanked “the monsters” for his Golden Globe win. It’s time for the world to acknowledges the subtle genius behind horror. The funniest thing is that these directors, by winning the Oscars, have, in a way, tricked the Academy into acknowledging the high art of horror. Within each of these and other films that have won, there lies horror’s influence and proof of its importance.