12 Horror Movies That Should Have Won Best Picture

The Oscars don't like horror. Every once in a while, a horror film peeks its head into the rarefied air of the Academy Awards with a costume or technical nod. One even won Best Picture. But, despite Get Out and The Shape of Water getting their due, it's a genre largely cast out of the process for seeming too middle- or low-brow. As if fear and its construction aren't worthwhile artistic pursuits. As if dramas can't also be schlocky or cheap.

It's in that spirit that I wanted to conduct this little thought experiment considering the scary movies that deserved the highest prize in filmdom.

This isn't frivolous – which may be too fair to the Oscars because it still uses their biased paradigm into consideration for what horror films could have won when whether they should have won is the main concern. My goal is to argue realistically not only that a horror film was excellent, but that it was better than what won Best Picture that year.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

What won that year: Nothing

It's not The Phantom of the Opera's fault that it didn't win Best Picture because Louis B. Mayer wouldn't invent them for four more years.

We don't know how it might have fared in the Oscars, but it probably wouldn't have won. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was the runaway winner at the box office that year, WWI drama The Big Parade was another huge success, and theaters also saw legendary comedies The Gold Rush (Chaplin) and The Freshman (Lloyd), but Lon Chaney's historic turn as the demon living in the Paris Opera House would have been at home at the top of the heap. It's a stirring drama of obsession that was shot beautifully (including Chaney's disgusting make-up).

Frankenstein (1931)

What won that year: Grand Hotel

I love Grand Hotel with its bustling stories slamming into each other in the lobby and Greta Garbo being misanthropically excellent.

Yet James Whale's adaptation of Mary Shelley's eternal novel was really one for the ages, able to evoke fear and compassion largely through Boris Karloff's sunken-eyed perfection as Frankenstein's monster. Whale understood horror (and musicals!) on a visceral level, using the literary heft of the story to craft a sincere, horrifying wonder.

Bonus points to the marketing team for correctly labeling "Frankenstein" as "The Man Who Made a Monster" on their posters.

Psycho (1960)

What won that year: The Apartment

Look, it's another tough one. The Apartment is amazing. Billy Wilder was a genius. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine conjured laughs and tears with singular moments. Alfred Hitchcock, however, changed cinema history and gave us a film to obsess over for half a century. That's why there's a documentary dissecting every frame of the shower scene in Psycho but not one chronicling how MacLaine said, "Shut up, and deal."

The violins, the quick cuts, the twist. This film was a shocker. A low-budget passion project for Hitchcock, it (alongside Peeping Tom) changed the horror game into something crude and delicious while maintaining the depth of prestige filmmaking. It has dug its finger into our collective consciousness as a society, which makes the hindsight argument for it winning Best Picture in a world where Oscar gave horror its due.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

What won that year: Oliver!

For the record, Oliver! beat Funny GirlThe Lion in Winter and the version of Romeo and Juliet we all watched in high school even though it had super brief nudity. But, come on. Oliver!? [Exclamation mark not mine.] The Night of the Living Dead is a face-slapping blend of intensity and social commentary which managed somehow to be insanely profitable/popular and earn cult status at the same time.

Not only is it a testament to resourceful, sharp filmmaking and a lasting cerebral fright, it was also bold for casting a black man as the hero in an era where that was all too rare. Had it won (or, hell, even been nominated), monocles would have popped into champagne glasses, but this grim slice of anxiety is absolutely award-worthy.

The Exorcist (1973)

What won that year: The Sting

Hey! This one was actually nominated for Best Picture! It lost to The Sting, which is a Redfordian delight, but The Exorcist could have just as easily ended up on the podium. It's easy to see why.

Careful and gutting, William Friedkin effectively tore us apart one bit of flesh and one scene at a time. It's a story about losing and regaining your faith. It's a story about pushing on in spite of despair. It's a story about a scared mother. And a vulnerable girl. And a very hard set of stairs. Could have won. Should have won. Captain Howdy agrees.

Jaws (1975)

What won that year: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

What's the best scene in Jaws? The opening night thrashing? The explosive finale? The oft-analysed beach sequence? Nope. It's the scene where Brody's son mimics him at the dinner table. It's the heart of the film. The stakes. But the thought exercise also shows just how many masterful scenes are in the movie that made everyone afraid of swimming (and, sorry, has probably done generations worth of damage to sharks). That's probably why Jaws was also nominated for Best Picture in what must have been a brief tryst between the Oscars and horror.

Okay. But One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is also a stunner. It's intimate and multi-layered and character forward. Jaws is in the same league. If it had won instead, we'd still be talking about great both are.

Alien (1979)

What won that year: Kramer vs. Kramer

The 1970s, right? An era when innovation and genre love produced a stream of powerful horror movies. Ridley Scott's claustrophobic nightmare pushed boundaries where no one could hear us scream. The ensemble is a crazy talented amalgamation of different personalities, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. Derek Vanlint's camera design made the scummy walls close in on us. Xenomorph XX121 still causes nightmares as the extraterrestrial slasher.

Beyond fear, it's a story of human frailty and hubris. A classic Greek tragedy with its ended twisted into triumph by Ripley's grit alone. It wasn't even nominated, but it's an all-timer.

The Shining (1980)

What won that year: Ordinary People

Here's a super fun fact: Stanley Kubrick was nominated 13 times for Oscars and only won once (for 2001's visual effects). A perennial loser at the ceremony, they even overlooked his journey into Stephen King's spooky hotel even though it was the best film of the year.

Ordinary People is an excellent drama about a family falling apart that was made in a laboratory for Oscar voters, but Kubrick's work (not play) on the disintegration of Jack Torrance's mind was visionary, challenging, and pristine. And it's an excellent drama about a family falling apart!

The Thing (1982)

What won that year: Gandhi

A finely tuned deconstruction of the paranoid human mind in the waning age of the Cold War or a soft focus biography? Richard Attenborough and Ben Kingsley had exactly what the Oscars ordered that year, even though John Carpenter had tapped into the American psyche with a flamethrower.

The snowbound hand-wringing was an Agatha Christie mystery with flesh monsters, brimming with strong performances, painful depth, and sheer terror.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

What won that year: The Silence of the Lambs

What was the secret sauce behind this horror film finally cracking the genre glass ceiling and dominating the Oscars? There had been detective movies and action films and thrillers, but nothing like this. Not really.

Jonathan Demme was a newcomer to the Academy Awards (he was never even nominated again). Despite his experience, it was also the first nomination (and only win) for Anthony Hopkins. My theory, then, is that Jodie Foster made all the difference. She'd been nominated years before for Taxi Driver and won only a few years before Silence with The Accused. Her talent was unmistakable, and Silence was just this side of drama enough for the Oscar voters to swallow the horror elements like perfectly cooked fava beans.

The rare moment when the Best Picture really was the best movie of the year.

The Babadook (2014)

What won that year: Birdman

We're making a big leap from Silence of the Lambs to Babdook because there was a simultaneous dearth in masterwork horror just as their was an uptick in legitimately excellent Oscar winners during the 1990s and 2000s. Here in the midst of a new horror golden age, it's easy to make an argument for The Babadook as a true contender for Oscar glory because of its complex, harrowing vivisection of Essie Davis's maternal character.

Jennifer Kent's movie works because the magical realism is too real for comfort. It's couched in a mythical figure, but the frustration, anger, and unease he embodies is instantly familiar to all parents (and probably everyone with a family). Its tension is unbearable – a fantastically impressive achievement in emotional manipulation alongside the birth of a new horror icon.

Get Out (2017)

What won that yearThe Shape of Water

It's a sign of the times. A horror film getting nominated the same year a horror fantasy film wins it all. I could have included Guillermo del Toro's sexy fish movie like Silence of the Lambs, but I'd rather use the space to cheerlead for the completely uncontroversial view that Get Out could have just as easily and just as deservedly taken the top prize.

Like The ThingNight of the Living Dead, and others, Get Out presented air tight filmmaking built upon a unique voice that had something to tell us about its era. Our era. That the Academy nominated it at all is a sign of hope that they're warming up to the kinds of movies that make our blood run cold.

It's also further proof that the tools of world-class filmmaking can be used in the service of scaring us to death. That fear and prestige don't have to live in separate movie theaters.