Another Academy Awards nominee announcement, another year that horror movies are woefully neglected by Academy voters. As horror movie fans we should all be used to this by now – and in all brutal honesty really shouldn’t care too much – but seeing some phenomenal 2020 films get shut out of even the technical categories (looking at you Possessor, His House, and The Lodge) got me thinking about some of the greatest films the genre has ever produced that never got to take home some of Hollywood’s most prestigious hardware.
When piecing this list together I tried to be realistic. While original slasher gems like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street still stand as some of my favorite horror films, I’m also not naive enough to think they would ever in a million awards shows bring home an Oscar. So I concentrated on what I thought was the ‘high art’ end of the genre, and came away with films that I’m still baffled by their lack of inclusion.
With that said, below is a list of 15 of the greatest horror movies of all-time, broken into two categories. The first eight are films that actually garnered at least one Oscar nomination, but went home empty handed. The next seven films are those that somehow didn’t even garner a single Oscar nod. It’s one thing to be invited to the dance and go home empty handed, it’s another thing altogether to be completely ignored.
Close, But No Cigar
Nominated for: Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction – Black and White, and Best Cinematography – Black and White
I don’t think anyone in their right mind would call Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho anything but a masterpiece. It’s the type of horror film that consistently makes all the ‘best of’ lists, including those that cross multiple genres and eras. It was an extremely controversial film upon its release, and because so the initial reviews were lukewarm at best. It’s depictions of sexuality, gender nonconformity, and mental illness (and of course the infamous shower scene) most likely turned off voters, especially those still longing for the days of the archaic Motion Picture Production Code. In particular, Anthony Perkins not being nominated in the Best Actor category was a sham most likely resulting from older voters clutching their proverbial pearls over Norman Bates. Still, the film was able to garner four Oscar nods, including two in the biggest categories – Hitchcock for Best Director, and Janet Leigh for Best Supporting Actress. Alas, Psycho would somehow go home empty handed. In the case of the Oscars, Psycho‘s lost night is undoubtedly a product of its own success, as what made the film so special also probably kept it from winning.
Most Egregious Snub: As great as the performances on screen were we’ll give the nod to Hitchcock here as he absolutely should have taken home Best Director honors.
The Birds (1963)
Nominated for: Best Special Effects
Certain Academy voters must have really not liked Alfred Hitchcock, as he is tied for the most Best Director nominations without a win at five, and his last nomination would be for Psycho. While The Birds certainly isn’t Hitchcock’s strongest film, and it would be easy to see the premise of the film turning off a large swath of voters, nonetheless the fact that this film received only a single nomination is downright absurd. There are some outstanding performances on screen, but the true mastery of this film lies behind the camera and in the various editing rooms. By my count it should have been at least nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects.
Most Egregious Snub: While you could make a case for any of the awards I mentioned above, to me what made The Birds so effective was its sound. Go back and listen to this film with headphones on and you’ll swear there are actual birds attacking your house, and the cawing of crows has never sounded so ominous. Call that Best Sound or Best Sound Effects, but either way it probably should have won at least one if not both of those awards.
Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction – Black and White, Best Cinematography – Black and White, Best Costume Design – Black and White, Best Film Editing, Best Music Score, Best Song
If you’re keeping score at home that would be seven total Oscar nominations for 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, which at the time was a record for any movie falling along the horror pantheon. It’s not unprecedented in Oscar history for a film to garner so many nominations and still go home empty-handed. (The record is actually 11 nominations without a win if you’re wondering.) However, a film featuring powerhouse performances from the likes of Bette Davis (who wasn’t nominated for her role), and Agnes Moorehead (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress), and complete with a nominated song that Patti Page would make a hit after the film’s release should have gone home with something for the trophy case.
Most Egregious Snub: It’s tempting to lean into this film being the first horror movie nominated for Best Score and Best Song, but we’ll go with Moorehead’s performance failing to take home Best Supporting Actress.
Nominated for: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress
The first great adaptation of a Stephen King novel, Brian De Palma’s interpretation of Carrie still stands as a harrowing film that often times gets overlooked when discussing the greats of the genre. The entire prom sequence is one of my personal favorites and the image of a blood-soaked Sissy Spacek slowly walking through what looks like the gates of hell can only be described as horror perfection. So the fact that Academy voters decided to ignore both De Palma in the Best Director category, and his director of photography Mario Tosi for Best Cinematography is just as, if not not more so, disappointing than neither Spacek or Piper Laurie winning their respective categories. The editing of that sequence in particular should have come under consideration as De Palma’s decision to utilize a split screen while bathing everything in red lighting gives it a truly surreal edge. Needless to say this is a film whose legacy and influence on the horror genre far outweighs the number of trophies it took home during awards season.
Most Egregious Snub: I can’t quibble too much with Spacek losing out to Faye Dunaway for Network, or Laurie losing out to Beatrice Straight for the same film. However, Carrie not being nominated in either the Best Cinematography or Best Editing categories is something I’ll argue until the cows come home.
Nominated for: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score
Co-written by Steven Spielberg and directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper, Poltergeist was a film that had amazing buzz before it even hit theaters. Speilberg’s name alone helps to push this film onto non-genre specific lists of the greatest films of all-time, and it’s hard to argue its merit. With that said this will also be the only time in this article that I actually disagree with a film receiving a nomination. My least favorite part of Poltergeist is the score as I thought it was used to ill-effect, often times softening the blow of and thereby detracting from the horrors that had just appeared on screen. If I were a voter that’s one category I would not have checked the box for Poltergeist. Its other two nominations though are well-earned. Few horror films at that time had effects as realistic looking. (Which I know in our current CGI world seems almost ridiculous to say, but compare it to its contemporaries, and even films that followed it, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Most Egregious Snub: The Best Visual Effects category in 1982 was a good one for sci-fi/horror films as Poltergeist was up against E.T. and Blade Runner. I would have been less upset if Blade Runner had taken home the award as I still feel that E.T. won simply based on everyone’s love of kids riding their bikes across the night sky.
Cape Fear (1991)
Nominated for: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress
As much as I love the 1962 original, for my money the Martin Scorsese directed remake is the version of this film I’ve come back to over and over again. Maybe because it’s a darker, much more violent film, or maybe it’s because Robert DeNiro absolutely kills it (pun intended) in the lead role, but whatever the reason 1991’s Cape Fear has stuck with me ever since I first saw it as an impressionable teenager upon its release. Through his depiction of the inherently evil Max Cady, DeNiro was able to create one of the horror genre’s most memorable villains, and the suspense that hangs over this movie like a funeral pall is palpable from its first scene.
Most Egregious Snub: I will never be mad that DeNiro lost out to Anthony Hopkins for his role as Hannibal Lector in The Silence of The Lambs, and while I love Juliette Lewis as an actor in general I’d argue this wasn’t her best performance. No, instead I’ll select a category that Cape Fear wasn’t nominated in – Best Original Score. Bernard Hermann’s original score is so memorable that I still have pieces of it etched into my brain. There are scenes in this movie that would simply not be as iconic as they are without the powerful music behind them, and that is truly the mark of a great score.
Nominated for: Best Film Editing
I can remember seeing this film in theaters and not really being prepared for the journey I was about to take. To this day it remains one of my favorite films of the 1990s. While I still argue that Brad Pitt’s performance is the weakest link in this film there is no arguing about everyone and everything else about it. I can also remember this being the first time I was legitimately upset when the Oscar nominations were announced only to see Seven shut out of every major category. Certainly this film was more deserving of a Best Picture nod than Babe or yet another Jane Austen adaptation. (Although for the record I’ve watched Babe a million times with my kids and absolutely love it.) Certainly David Fincher could have grabbed a Best Director nod over Mike Figgis for the amazingly overrated Leaving Las Vegas.
Most Egregious Snub: This is one time where I’ll argue tooth and nail that a film should have been nominated but not necessarily have won. It’s really, really hard to argue against The Usual Suspects winning for Best Original Screenplay. However, Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay for Seven was fantastic and you could easily argue better than every other screenplay nominated that year.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Even I was pleasantly surprised when the Oscar nominations were announced in early 2000 and The Sixth Sense showed up in four of the big six categories. Needless to say I was equally as disappointed when this brilliant film went home with zero awards. Unfortunately in three of the six categories it was nominated for it lost out to the runaway freight train that was American Beauty, virtually every critic’s darling film of 1999. There are few horror films that have become the iconic cultural phenomenon that The Sixth Sense was, and continues to be even after almost every knows the big twist ending. The fact that Academy voters couldn’t see that at the time is not shocking, but certainly discouraging.
Most Egregious Snub: I absolutely loved Toni Collette in this film, but if we are being completely honest I would have given the Best Supporting Actress award to Chloe Sevigny for Boys Don’t Cry. (It was won by Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted.) No, instead I’ll state something that I wouldn’t say just to be brash – The Sixth Sense was the best film of 1999 and should have taken home Best Picture.
The Devils (1971)
This film may be the least well-known on this list, or perhaps just the least viewed as its reputation has preceded it since its release in 1971. Starring Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave this film is loosely based on 17th century French priest Urbain Grandier and the accusations of witchcraft and possession that followed him. It’s a film that’s not for the faint of heart today, and certainly wasn’t fifty years ago. It’s a film whose violence, sexual content, and overall disregard for religion earned it an “X” rating upon its initial release. There have been very few films in Oscar history that were able to withstand that type of rating and still be deemed artistically credible enough to be nominated in any category. But The Devils absolutely is one of those films, or at least it should have been. Redgrave’s performance alone as a disfigured, sexually repressed nun is simply superb, and the cinematography throughout the film is top notch. Would a more heavily edited version of this film have garnered more attention? Possibly, but the end result certainly wouldn’t have been as memorable.
Should Have Been Nominated For Three Awards: Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Up to this point we haven’t even touched on the world of “foreign films”. Horror is certainly not just an American or even British phenomenon. Countries such as Japan, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and of course Italy, just to name a few, have put forth a wide array of films deserving of many honors. Not the least of which is Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria. It took a long time for this film to gain the critical acclaim it carries today. Initial reviews ranged from lukewarm to harsh, whereas now its widely, and rightfully, considered a cutting edge example of horror cinema. I could go on for days about the travesty that is the Academy Awards virtually ignoring the complete filmography of Dario Argento, but their most outrageous dismissal was of this film. One viewing, even if you are seeing it for the first time over forty years after its release, and you’ll see what a powerful piece of modern cinema it is.
Should Have Been Nominated For Six Awards: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects
The Shining (1980)
Out of all the films in the world that have never received a single Academy Award nomination, this one remains the most baffling to me. I’m well aware that the film received poor reviews upon its initial release, and that many including Stephen King himself felt that it did not properly represent King’s novel. (For the record I love both equally and simply view them as two different stories with the same name and characters.) However, as time has passed The Shining has become one of the most iconic horror movies of all-time, and outside of The Exorcist stands as possibly the greatest film the genre has ever produced. Perhaps its slower-than-usual pacing for a horror movie of the time did it in, or perhaps after the success of other King adaptations critics and fans were expecting something more grindhouse and less art house? However you want to spin it there is no reason in the world that this film was the only one of Stanley Kubrick’s final nine to not garner a single Oscar nomination.
Should Have Been Nominated For Eight Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Shelley Duvall), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing
The Thing (1982)
Remember at the beginning of this exercise when I mentioned various slasher films that would never, ever get nominated for an Oscar. You could have arguably included this film as well. The Thing is a reboot of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, yet visually the two films couldn’t be further apart. John Carpenter was no stranger to making films that could repulse as well as captivate, and while it may be horror heresy in some circles to say this, I think The Thing is his best work. The overwhelming atmosphere of the whole movie can be literally breathtaking at times, but it’s in the effects and visuals where this movie stands head and shoulders above the competition. While Academy voters usually don’t take kindly to the type of horrific effects used to perfection in this film, the visceral nature of them should not have detracted on the red carpet from the work that went into creating such amazing sights.
Should Have Been Nominated for Four Awards: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects
The Reflecting Skin (1990)
Outside of The Devils, this may be the one other film on this list that I could reasonably expect most readers to not have seen. It would not be an understatement for me to say that I think The Reflecting Skin is one of the most underrated films of the 1990s, and possibly of the last thirty years altogether. This British-Canadian production is a lush, gorgeous film whose cinematography completely belies the sinister darkness within the story and characters. One part period drama, one part suspense thriller, and one part horror noir, The Reflecting Skin is one of the more unique entries on this list. Writer/director Philip Ridley paints a stark coming-of-age story that digs deep at some of our most basic/animalistic fears. It’s a brilliant film and one that I hope gets its due as the history of horror films continues to be written.
Should Have Been Nominated for Three Awards: Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography
The Others (2001)
Word on the street is that 2021 will see a remake of 2001’s The Others. Let me be the first in line to say that out of all the horror films that have been released over the last twenty years this is one that absolutely does NOT need a reboot. I recently re-watched this film with my two teenagers, who were seeing it for the first time, and I fell in love with it all over again. This Spanish production was one of several films over the course of the 2000s to showcase the beauty and artistic merit of Spanish horror films. Despite being shot in English with an English-speaking cast the film cleaned up at the Goyas, Spain’s national film awards. It also won prizes at the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. However, the Academy voters ignored it, and I’m still baffled as to why. It had everything that Academy voters usually love – lush cinematography, exceptional writing, a story with a heartbreaking twist that no one saw coming, and it was both critically and commercially successful. When I take a quick peek at the 2002 Academy Awards nominees the only two films that jump off the page for me are Mulholland Drive and In the Bedroom. (Both films that went home empty handed and should not have.) Outside of Nicole Kidman hurting her own chances by being nominated for another film that year – Moulin Rouge! – it still makes no sense to me how this film was ignored by the voters.
Should Have Been Nominated for Five Awards: Best Director (Alejandro Amenabar), Best Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design
The most recent release on our list is easily one of the best horror films of the last decade. I was told before seeing it that it was “this generation’s The Exorcist”, and while I’ll never, ever compare it to the greatest horror movie ever made, it’s hard to argue just how powerful this film still remains even after multiple viewings. What makes Hereditary being shut out at the 2019 Academy Awards is just how mediocre the vast majority of nominees were across almost every category. While I thought The Favourite was deserving of every accolade bestowed upon it, the 2019 awards for me were full of movies that were good, not great. I can only think that the visceral nature of Hereditary turned off too many voters, and if true that would be beyond disappointing. Toni Collette alone should have been nominated as she gives one of the best performances of her exceptional career.
Should Have Been Nominated for Seven Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Ari Aster), Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects
Thanks for reading. What horror films do you think should have been nominated for or won an Academy Award? Let us know in the comment section below.