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The Big O: Oscar Didn't Always Have a Horror Problem

Women and Hollywood By Susan Wloszczyna | Women and Hollywood October 18, 2013 at 2:00PM

There is a new Carrie in town. She has access to the Internet now and her high-school tormentors use their smart phones to broadcast her shower-scene to even greater embarrassment. But the wallflower is up to her old telekinetic tricks, pulling off a prom massacre at an even great body count than in the 1976 original.
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There is a new Carrie in town. She has access to the Internet now and her high-school tormentors use their smart phones to broadcast her shower-scene to even greater embarrassment.  But the wallflower is up to her old telekinetic tricks, pulling off a prom massacre at an even great body count than in the 1976 original.

Oscar season might already be in full swing.  But no one expects this remake of Stephen King's Cinderella-in-reverse tale to be in the running. Besides, the filmmakers would gladly settle for simply making a killing at the box office while Halloween is nigh.

Not that it would have been completely out of the question, considering its director is Kimberly Peirce, who helped Hilary Swank win her first best-actress trophy for Boys Don't Cry. The cast also features Julianne Moore, a favorite of the academy with four past nominations.

It might also surprise some who don't live and breathe Oscar lore that the original Carrie actually scared up recognition in the acting categories for a then 26-year-old Sissy Spacek, passing for a sheltered teen with eerie ease, and Piper Laurie as her deranged religious fanatic mother.      

Still, even if Carrie 2.0 with Kick-Ass's Chloe Grace Moretz, 16, in the title role somehow proved more impressive than the first,  there is a major hurtle to overcome these days: Much like sci-fi and fantasy, Academy members are somewhat spooked by horror. At best, they will give a pass to tamer supernatural or psychological thrillers such as 1999's The Sixth Sense or 2010's Black Swan, which earned an Oscar for Natalie Portman, that feature an undertone of dread.

And back in the early '60s, when so-called '"hagsploitation'" was the rage, they were willing to embrace older actresses playing crazy crones such as Bette Davis in 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Agnes Moorhead in 1964's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte in gothic melodramas.  

However, the blame shouldn't just be aimed  at timid academy voters but also at Hollywood, which views one of the genres best served by cinema - what better way to enjoy being  afraid but in the dark and among strangers – with little respect. Basically, there haven't been many horror titles produced in the past couple decades that deserve such attention.

It might be hard for most Millennials to imagine a world where scary movies are revered as art. Their generation has been subjected to such bargain-bin successes as the sadistic Saw franchise.  Or the minimalist shaky-cam aesthetic of the found-footage trend birthed by The Blair Witch Project and further popularized by the Paranormal Activity films. Most clean up at the box office during the first week of opening and quickly disappear into the cheap DVD bins.

Or they must settle for the regurgitated re-dos of such '70s cult classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror and Halloween.  At least the Scream series which began in the late '90s smartly parodied slasher movies of the '80s - and still managed to raise goose bumps. Meanwhile, the recent Twilight saga took the menace out of vampires and werewolves.

But there was a time when spooking an audience was considered a talent to be admired. And, more often than not, the female of the species was front and center when the blood began to reign - and rain.  In fact, more women have been nominated for horror roles than men - and the movies that featured them often had female-centric themes and situations that are represented, whether intentionally or not, in the first Carrie.

While horror is often accused of victimizing and objectifying women, it is also a medium that grants its heroines empowerment and control. Director Karyn Kusama and writer Diablo Cody knew this when they did 2009's Jennifer's Body, which was an undercooked cauldron of female horror tropes.

Given that sexuality and scares often go hand and hand, Psycho was the perfect vehicle to introduce the Oscars to the modern era of horror starting in 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock went from the master of suspense to the provocateur of the perverse.

It is interesting that voters chose not to reward Anthony Perkins for his career-defining role as Norman Bates, the ultimate mama's boy. Instead, they bestowed Janet Leigh with her only Oscar nomination as a thief on the run (she steals money on the job so she can marry her lover) who is introduced post-tryst in her white undies and, later, is fully if discreetly exposed during the infamous shower scene. This is quite a different view of womanhood in an era that worshiped virginal Doris Day types and Norman, for one, could not handle it.

Ruth Gordon followed in 1968's Rosemary's Baby as the nosey neighbor who is in league with the devil and tricks Mia Farrow's -the young wife - into carrying Satan's child.  The older actress won the Oscar but it was Farrow with her harrowing portrait of young wife coping with all the pressures of domestic life in Manhattan in addition to a coven of demon worshipers that established her as a serious actress. A dried-up prune of a witch preying on the young vulnerable beauty was straight out of a Disney fairy tale.

The Exorcist picked up where Rosemary's Baby left off and ranks No. 9 on Box Office Mojo's top-grossing films of all time when adjusted for inflation.  At the center of the 1973 film is a mother's worst nightmare - a sweet child suddenly possessed by evil and turned into a monster. It's the onset of puberty with devil horns. Ellen Burstyn's distraught single mother and Linda Blair as her profanity-spewing child both collected nominations for their roles.

The most influential horror film ever in terms of Oscar domination is 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, which featured a feminist-friendly heroine for the ages:  FBI trainee Clarice Starling, who overcomes the sexual taunts of vicious serial killer Hannibal Lecter as well as a long line of meddlesome men who underestimate her abilities to save the life of an equally brave kidnapped woman.  It is a career woman's worst nightmare –  she triumphs but at a price for sharing her soul with a maniac.

Going above and beyond Carrie's vengeful victim status, Foster would claim the best actress Oscar and the movie would be named best picture. Also in the winner's circle was co-star Anthony Hopkins, director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally.  Hannibal dominated sequels and prequels would follow but none had the quality or the impact of The Silence of the Lambs.

More than 20 years later, no other full-fledged horror film has competed in Oscar's main event (unless you count The Sixth Sense or Black Swan). 

Here is to hoping that young audiences who will likely propel the new Carrie to the top of the box-office chart this weekend might be inspired to check out the first Carrie at the very least. And that might lead them to seek out more classic scares as well.  An informed audience is a demanding audience. And they deserve better than recycled goods passed off as fresh Halloween treats - as do the actresses who star in such retreads.

This article is related to: Carrie (2013), Kimberly Peirce, Jodie Foster, Mia Farrow, Julianne Moore, Boys Don't Cry, Chloe Grace Moretz, Awards Season Roundup