“Guillermo Del Toro once told me that Terry Gilliam had sat him down at Cannes when [Del Toro] presented ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ and said, ‘You’ll never get close to awards with this type of movie,’ ” recalls “It Chapter 2" producer Barbara Muschietti. “That’s changed.”
Muschietti is on to something — for one thing, in 2007, “Pan’s” went on to earn Del Toro his first Oscar nomination (for original screenplay). And last year, his “Shape of Water” swam away as best picture and saw Del Toro win the directing Oscar. But just what did Gilliam really mean when he warned against “this type of movie”?
Short answer? Horror. Cue screams from studio executives and marketing experts alike.
“A lot of people don’t think horror is a legitimate storytelling method,” says John Palisano, author and president of Horror Writers Assn. “They’re associating it with slasher films, and not seeing it for the conduit of great storytelling it can be.”
Yet horror — or dark fantasy, or dark thrillers; the phrasing changes often to make it more palatable to audiences and awards voters — has been undergoing a fresh wave of acceptance. This year, such films as “The Lighthouse,” “Joker,” “Midsommar,” “It Chapter Two” and “Us” are all in the awards season mix, discussed as potential nominees for their direction, story, costumes and acting — all of which provides a new spice to the oh-so-serious dramatic year-end prestige fare that’s usually on offer.
Still, many people recoil from the idea of horror movies.
“At some point in everyone’s life they see a horror movie that isn’t for them,” says “Us” director Jordan Peele, whose 2017 “Get Out” shattered both box-office and awards expectations last year, earning a best picture nomination and an original screenplay win for Peele at the Oscars. “That experience can make some people declare that they ‘don’t like horror.’ What they don’t get to find out is that there is a spectrum of horror … and that there is probably a horror movie for them.”
“Lighthouse” director Robert Eggers is ambivalent about how to classify his film. Focusing on two clashing lighthouse keepers stranded at their rocky outpost, the film “uses many horror genre tropes,” he says, “but I personally don’t see it as a horror movie. We need genre definitions to be able to talk about things, but people interpret things differently. It’s certainly a genre movie. Not a drama. Not run of the mill.”
However classified by the filmmakers themselves, well-made, thoughtful and well-acted horror films are not unheard of during award season: “Psycho” (1960) earned four Oscar nominations, “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) won one, “The Exorcist” (1973) won two, and “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991) won five, including best picture. But more dark films are making waves each year, distinguished in part from their schlockier cousins, thanks to better budgets and an undercurrent of metaphor or social commentary.
“Horror is speaking to all generations in a way it never has before,” says Palisano. “In the 1950s, it gave people a way to deal with atomic fears; in the ’60s, horror addressed societal change; again in the ’70s, with consumerism, and the ’80s, with AIDS. Now, the entire country is unified in a threat we’ve never had to face before: the threat from within. And it speaks to both sides [of the political divide].”
“Genre films tend to be overlooked when it comes to awards,” says director Ari Aster, whose “Midsommar” is a trippy take on a vacation to a rural Swedish cult’s midsummer festival that goes very wrong. “But films that tend to be more politically minded, or serve explicitly allegorical purposes are often the exception, and we’ve seen a lot of those exceptions lately. The horror genre is an exciting filter through which to pass more personal material.”
Muschietti agrees. “‘Get Out’ was a fantastic tool to deliver a message in a way that in a drama in another format would have been overlooked,” she says. “It hit the nail on the head.”
About 10 years ago, says Eggers, a shift happened. Filmmakers discovered that “you could get a personal story film financed if you wrapped it in a genre package,” he says, and then cites such quality scary films as 2014’s “It Follows” or 2010’s “Black Swan,” both of which did solid box office (and in the case of “Swan,” earned star Natalie Portman an Oscar).
In addition, multiple generations of genre fans have grown up absorbing the extensive oeuvre of Stephen King, the master of modern horror. It isn’t possible to pin the surge in dark, well-made stories on one author — but the fact that adaptations of his work now draw Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated acting talent shouldn’t be underestimated.
“Having Jessica Chastain and Bill Hader headlining a film like ‘It’ makes all the difference in the world,” says Palisano. “That brings an entirely different class of viewer, who’ll want to see what they’ll do with material like this. And when people see it’s not just all blood and guts and screwdrivers to the thumbs, they’ll see it’s more like a dark fairy tale.”
That, in turn, can encourage filmmakers and studios alike to give horror the respect, and financing, it can deserve.
“More and more audiences are now comfortable with some of the cinematic vocabulary that filmmakers are bringing to wide releases,” says Eggers. “That’s really a change in the climate.”
Whether acceptance translates into statuettes, though, is still a great dark unknown. “I’m not sure what that means for awards,” he continues. “But it certainly means there are a lot of high-quality genre films being made.”