'127 Hours' and 'Black Swan' are horror movies.
No, really. They are. Don't let the Oscar buzz and critical accolades for James Franco's performance fool you into thinking Danny Boyle's film about a mountain climber literally caught between a rock and a hard place is an "uplifting drama." No. It's a horror movie. Don't let its heavy presence on the festival circuit and the buzz around Natalie Portman's lead performance fool you into thinking Darren Aronofsky's story of a ballerina on the verge of madness is a "psychological thriller." Wrong. It's a horror movie.
Does this sound slightly defensive right off the bat? You bet it does. Horror has always been the red headed stepchild of the movie genres, existing in its own little corner while all of the other "legitimate" genres hog the critical spotlight. When a drama is good, it wins a handful of awards. When a horror movie is good, it's treated like a shocking surprise.
Why do '127 Hours' and 'Black Swan' look poised to rake up the Oscar nominations when quality horror films like 'Let Me In' are given a pat on the head for not being terrible and then shuffled off into oblivion? It's obvious that the Academy (and most critics) have a strong bias against horror films, but why? And really, what makes these two critical darlings all that different than a traditional entry in this much-maligned genre?
What Makes a Horror Film
The view of what a horror film is (and what it can be) is often ridiculously limited. Many filmmakers working within the genre seem to only be comfortable working with familiar tropes, lest they actually do the unthinkable and make something that -- GASP! -- no one has actually seen before. On the other end of the spectrum, critics tend to only acknowledge a film as horror if it features a hulking maniac machete-ing big breasted women in the head and/or a giant monster running amok in a town/city/museum/spaceship. If it's anything more than that, then, well, it's certainly not horror!
With such a narrow view of what the genre offers, it's little wonder that horror movies never seem to get the respect that they deserve. And that's why '127 Hours' is such a unique beast. A truly great horror film sets out to scare, unnerve and upset its audience and there may not be a scarier, more unnerving, more upsetting mainstream film to find wide release in 2010. The marketing for the film emphasizes its real life origins, its inspiring message and how it's from the director of the uplifting Oscar sweeper 'Slumdog Millionaire.' The marketing does not tell you about the gruesome depictions of starvation and dehydration, the surreal nightmares and the climactic sequence where the hero chooses to save his own life by cutting off his own arm with a dull pocket knife.
Oh man, that arm cutting. An intense sequence more gruesome than anything in all seven of the 'Saw' films and more viscerally upsetting than any of the various dismemberments and disembowelings depicted in the two 'Hostel' films. The studio counting on people of all ages and tastes seeing this film certainly doesn't want you to hear this (and we here at Cinematical hate the phrase), but '127 Hours' is a close cousin to the "torture porn" horror films that people have been railing against for the past decade. The story of a human being who endures great suffering and must spill his own blood in order to preserve the life that he's never truly appreciated until now? That's not just the plot of '127 Hours.' That's the plot of 'Saw.' Have you ever heard better evidence that the term "torture porn" should be retired from our language, effective immediately?
Of course, '127 Hours' is a great film and the 'Saw' films are not, but to call one a horror film and the other a drama is just silly. Danny Boyle just succeeds where the various directors of that long running franchise failed: he manages to build a truly effective, intense experience based entirely on the suffering of a human being. '127 Hours' doesn't exist outside of the horror genre because it happens to be exceptional -- it's just the cream of the crop.
'Black Swan' doesn't require quite as much explanation or justification for its genre. In fact, it requires none. This is a sleazy, trashy, wacky, insane head trip of a movie, wearing its B-horror origins on its sleeve like a badge of honor. It's not Darren Aronofsky doing a ballet movie -- it's Darren Aronofsky doing a riff on Argento, taking the audience into a dark, creepy, uncomfortable (and often beautiful and even hilarious) place filled with nightmarish imagery and bizarre, unsettling body horror. In fact, 'Black Swan' is such a horror film, and so obviously a horror film, that its critical reception is baffling. If Aronofsky wasn't behind the camera and Natalie Portman wasn't acting her ass off in front of it, 'Black Swan' would not be talked about this late into Awards season (even if it was, for all intents and purposes, the same movie). On the flip side, these two bring an incredible level of prestige to this bizarro movie, meaning that bunch of people have been tricked into liking one of the most batsh*t crazy horror films of the past decade.
Of course, they'll keep calling 'Black Swan' a "psychological thriller" and they'll keep calling '127 Hours' a drama because there's obviously no way a horror movie can be one of the best movies of the year.
The Oscars and Horror Movies: A Briefly-Researched Short History
Looking for Oscar-winning (or even nominated) horror movies feels like a futile search for the first forty years or so of the Academy's existence. What's a classic today was a "B" picture at the time of its release, meaning that everything from famous Universal classics like 'Frankenstein' to important, innovative films like 'Night of the Hunter' got nothin.'
On a side note, if you want to thoroughly depress yourself, research past winners at the Academy Awards. The sheer number of important, great films that received no attention will stagger you.
The first major showing for the horror genre at the Oscars came in 1960, with the release of Alfred Hitchock's 'Psycho,' which scored four nominations (including best director), but failed to get a best picture nod, despite being easily the most important film made that year.
It took awhile longer, but a horror film finally won a trophy in 1968, when Ruth Gordon won best supporting actress for her work in Roman Polanski's classic 'Rosemary's Baby.' The film also received a nod for its screenplay.
Then came 'The Exorcist,' which received an incredible ten nominations in 1973, including best picture, best director, best actress, best supporting actor, best supporting actress, best adapted screenplay, best cinematography and so on. It only won two awards (screenplay and sound), but it remains the only time a supernatural horror film was a major player at the Academy Awards.
Special note must be paid to the 1981 awards, where 'An American Werewolf in London' took home the first Best Make-up award. For years to come, this category, along with best visual effects, would become the only award a genre film would have a shot at winning.
Kathy Bates' best actress win for 1990's 'Misery' was the rare case of the Academy awarding a horror performance, so it's surprising that Anthony Hopkins' iconic work in the following year's 'The Silence of the Lambs' was recognized. The film would also win best picture, director, actress, and screenplay, making it the first and to date, last, horror film to take home the major prize.
But of course, some claim that 'The Silence of the Lambs' isn't a horror film -- they claim that it's a "psychological thriller." Whoever invented the phrase "psychological thriller" needs a good slap on the head. Calling your horror movie a psychological thriller is like calling your comic books graphic novels. Stop being so embarrassed by the things you like.
Tackling the Double Standard
So we've established that two of this year's leading Oscar contenders are horror films. We've established that the Oscars and horror movies have a troubled history. Now here's the big question: Why are these horror films looking like potential winners when so many others have fallen by the wayside?
The answer is easy regarding '127 Hours.' It's based on a true story. It features a tour de force performance by an up and coming actor that the industry has just been waiting to pat on the back. It's based on a true story. It's directed by an Oscar winning filmmaker who just bout everyone loves to one degree or another. It's also based on a true story. Oh, and it's based on a true story.
The fact that the events of '127 Hours' actually happened lend it a dramatic "oomph" that a fictional story could potentially lack. After all, everyone likes an inspiring story, but everyone loves an inspiring true story. Would '127 Hours' be an Oscar front runner if it was completely fictional? No, probably not. It's part of the weird double standard that the Academy and so many critics seem to have with the horror genre: because it actually happened, it's good drama, but if it's a fictional story than it's just gross.
Horror is a part of the real world. People die. People suffer. Some folks are forced to chop their own arms off to escape from mountain climbing mishaps. Removing the horror label from true stories of horrific events feels disingenuous. Horror is not just about vampires and ghosts and ghouls, it's about confronting the darkest aspects of life, whether it be the boulder sitting on your hand or the regret for all of the heartache you've caused. Because it's an emotionally complicated (and true) story, '127 Hours' manages to overcome the horror stigma.
'Black Swan' on the other hand, remains something of an enigma in this whole awards season business. Unlike '127 Hours,' it has no basis in fact, has little to say about the human condition and exists to be weird and gross and just kind of amazing. It almost feels like Aronofsky is taking a break after the emotionally exhausting 'The Wrestler' and is just going off on a lark, making the most entertaining film he possibly can.
So why are people, even the non-horror fans and eclectic film geeks, calling it one of the best of the year?
The easy answer is "because it's a great freakin' film," but there's more to it than that. Truthfully, it probably has something to do with Natalie Portman, who gives such a performance so brave that the shackles that have tied her to the 'Star Wars' prequels have finally been shattered. For years, people have been rooting for Portman to finally break out and now, here she is, finally emerging as the leading lady that everyone always wanted her to be. Her performance, along with Aronofsky's slick direction, lend an incalculable amount of class to 'Black Swan,' masking the fact that it's really a sick little horror flick.
But what about other horror films directed with class and starring wonderful actors giving stunning performances? Why haven't they gotten the credit they deserve? Let's double back to this year's 'Let Me In,' a gorgeously shot, beautifully acted little movie about love and friendship. Although probably not in the same artistic league as '127 Hours' and 'Black Swan,' it's a fine film that most critics appreciated, even going so far as to snag a Best Picture nomination at the 2010 Gotham Awards.
Why won't you see 'Let Me In' at the Oscars this year? It's easy: because it has vampires in it.
Remember when 'Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' won Best Picture and everyone thought that a new door was opened for genre filmmaking at the Oscars? Not quite. That was just a case of "See? We just gave a fantasy film an Oscar. Don't say we don't support your geeky movies!" It wasn't until six years later that genre films made another major awards showing, with 'Avatar' and 'District 9' snagging nominations last year.
But what does this have to do with 'Black Swan,' '127 Hours' and overlooked horror movies like 'Let Me In'? It's simple really: horror films that can hide behind another genre (like, oh, "psychological thriller") can pass themselves off as prestige pictures whereas horror films that feature blatant horror content like vampires, no matter how elegant or classy the content is, will be dead in the water. It's a simple case of the Academy's anti-genre flag flying high, almost like they're embarrassed to like anything fantastical. It could be the best made film of the year, but if your movie happens to feature a swamp monster or the like, good luck finding anyone to take you seriously.
If there's one good thing that's come from the ever-expanding movie geek culture of the Internet, it's the acceptance that it's okay to like geeky things. It's okay to like pulpy things. It's okay to like anything, really, as lone as it's a good movie. Whether a film is good or not is not defined by its genre -- it's defined by, believe it or not, whether or not it's a good movie. True movie fans know that all genres are created equal and that horror sits on the same level as Pretentious Historical Drama Featuring French Characters With British Accents. Year by year, it feels like the Oscars matter less and less and it's become blatantly obvious that while Academy voters may work in the film industry, they rarely seem to true movie fans.