The Oscars Horror Takeover : Best Director
Volume Three of our Oscars Horror Takeover Series! "BEST DIRECTOR"
The Academy Awards are less than a week away, and for all the talk of change and inclusion for the Oscars, there is one issue that may never be corrected. The ongoing and inexcusable exclusion of an entire genre of cinema.
Feeling left out on Oscar night is nothing new for horror fans. Horror is rebellious. Horror is the punk rock of the cinema world. We don't need approval from the suits in order to enjoy the genre. However, where the decades of exclusion truly hurt is in the lack of recognition for the great artistry that goes into creating the films that we love. The great special effects masters, actors, directors, writers, and composers who have had their amazing contributions to the world of cinema ignored and uncelebrated is ridiculous. Enough is enough.
We can't change everything with an article, but we can speak up for the films and the performances that should have been celebrated from the beginning.
The Horror Oscar Takeover is a series of articles breaking down a history ignorance from the Academy Awards.
In this second volume, writer and filmmaker, Kristopher Phipps, offers a list of "Best Directors" who should have been recognized by the Academy.
A note on directing and the "Best Director" award.
After working and experiencing the film industry for over 20 years now, I've come to the personal conclusion that no two directors approach their craft in the same way. What makes a director a "best director" is a foggy subject and you commonly find this award goes hand in hand with the "Best Picture" award the way an "MVP" award in a sport usually goes to a player on that year's best team.
For the sake of this article, we'll set a marker for our directors as having a perceived "mastery of guidance" over all of the necessary building blocks required to make their films as effective as possible. These directors would also seem to possess a "vision" for their film, whether unique or inspired, which feels consistent and focused. The techniques which each director employs to tell their story should feel properly motivated and effective.
At the end of the day, movies have a goal. The best movies achieve that goal uniquely, but efficiently. The director must guide all departments and use their individual technique to assure that this goal is achieved.
This is a "horror" list. And I believe that many of our favorite directors such Lucio Fulci, George Romero, Stuart Gordon, etc, have all achieved the markers listed above. But, for the purpose of this article I'll look at the "Academy" in realistic terms and point out directors who truly were a surprise to not receive a nomination, however deserving the names mentioned above might be.
James Whale for Frankenstein
Although "Bride of Frankenstein" is widely considered his ultimate masterpiece, this first film in Universal's Frankenstein series is the ultimate display of Whale's talents as a director. "Bride" is the funnier film, but Whale's unique blend of gothic horror and comedy is on display here and he is still unmatched in his ability to mix humor with shock. Whale's use of camera movement was also unique at the time, especially for American cinema. He employs several intense close ups, unsettling angles, as well as the first ever 360 panning shot in a feature film. Whale's experience in production design is also on full display with a combination of now iconic, gothic sets pieces.
Whale infused the techniques of German Expressionism into American horror, and formed a unique vision which would guide him through several classics of the genre including "The Old Dark House" (1932) and "The Invisible Man" (1933). But it was this seminal film for which he should have been celebrated.
Terence Fisher for Curse of the Werewolf
Hammer Studio's first production, "The Public Life of Henry the Ninth" was the first British film to be nominated for Best Picture, but once Hammer leaned into the horror genre, their Oscar hopes were essentially over. Fisher, possibly the most prolific horror director in history, should have been the exception. Although Fisher could have been recognized for numerous horror classics such as "Curse of Frankenstein" (1957) "Horror of Dracula" (1958) or, "The Mummy" (1959), it is his "Curse of the Werewolf" (1961) that I've singled out for two reasons. One, is that by 1961, Fisher had surely earned the right to be recognized after many successful and groundbreaking horror films. And two, with the werewolf mythos still unsure of itself, Fisher delivered what may be the finest werewolf film of all time. "Curse" is a hauntingly tragic film which firmly develops a unique perspective on the origin of the werewolf. By the time he made the film, Fisher's legacy as the filmmaker who introduced gore and sexuality into modern horror cinema was well established and it's at its finest potency here. Terence Fisher's directoral vision of atmosphere, explicit gore and overt sexual themes helped to build a studio and pave the way for modern horror cinema.
Robert Wise for The Haunting
Great cinematic storytellers are just that. Regardless of the genre. Wise was a winner of the "Best Director" Oscar for two of his non-horror films, "West Side Story" (1961) and "The Sound of Music" (1965), but in typical Oscar fashion, was ignored for what was one his greatest films, and one of the best horror films of all time. "The Haunting" is masterpiece of horror's effectiveness through motivated directoral technique. Wise developed his initial game plan for the film as being less of a horror film and more of study of one person's psychotic break until speaking with author, Shirley Jackson, who assured him that it was, indeed, a supernatural story. This early prep still helped Wise in creating the most potent experience possible. The film is a masterwork of suggestion, aided by some incredible cinematography which Wise devised with Cinematographer, Davis Boulton. The camera peers from odd angles, moves violently around staircases, and distorts the image with the use of the first 30mm anamorphic lens. The claustrophobic set design, eerie sound effects, and powerful performances from Wise's hand-picked cast all come together to create a scary and intense experience.
Steven Spielberg for Jaws
Duh! Jaws carries the distinction of being one of those rare films that was nominated for "Best Picture" without a nomination for Director. Spielberg was not a known figure, as he soon would be, but that's no reason to let the "Academy" off of the cinematic fish hook. The lore of the film's production is well documented, but Spielberg's decision to take a "Hitchcockian" approach to this first major production to be filmed on the ocean, proved to be a master stroke. His perfectionism and choices regarding the source material, and its alterations, was also a crucial individual decision which without, the film may have been doomed from the start.
The film is an obvious masterpiece, and Academy's decision to not nominate Spielberg for "Best Director" was puzzling.
An otherwise, confident, Spielberg is understandably disappointed in not getting the nomination as seen is this candid video of the director watching the nomination announcements:
Ridley Scott for Alien
Scott described the desired tone for this film as "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in Space" and that sounds like a plan to me... for "Alien"... not a TCM sequel. Much of the credit for the film's initial development rightly goes to the Uber-talented and under-appreciated, Dan O'Bannon, but it was Scott's amazing attention to detail in preproduction that may have truly set up "Alien" for success. Scott is a master of pre-visualization. Something that a film with this amount of art and special effects greatly benefited from. Scott also had a strong grasp of visual effects technique which many other directors would not have been able to bring to the table. Alien was a visually stunning, exciting, and incredibly frightening experience for movie goers in 1979. I actually witnessed Alien in the theater that year as a four year old kid. I don't know what my babysitter was thinking, but I do thank her for the experience, and I thank my mom for buying me the 18" Alien action figure from Kenner a few months later.
John Carpenter for The Thing
In film directing, the term "blocking" refers to the choreography of where actors are positioned on set, and how they move around that set during a scene. When it comes to "The Thing", it's the blocking above all else that blows me away. Carpenter's choreography of the actors is more impressive to me than any of the mind-boggling effects that Rob Bottin summoned up. The effect sequences were storyboarded and pre-visualized, as they should be, but Carpenter relied on his directorial instinct to block multiple scenes with many actors in small, claustrophobic settings. It's a masterwork of directing, and it a major piece to puzzle that makes this film so effective. Carpenter's idol, Howard Hawks, was also well-known for his skills in blocking large groups of actors.
The greatness of "The Thing" was not recognized by nearly anyone in 1982 so it's no surprise that the Oscars ignored it. Although, I don't know if they would have ever recognized a film like this... and that's the fucking problem.
Tobe Hooper (Yeah, that's right!) for Poltergeist
Take a good look at that picture. You see Tobe "pointing"? Yeah, he's telling Steven how it's gonna be done. All directors point. I've seen the pictures.
Look, I get it, Poltergeist feels like a Spielberg film. The same way that a Val Lewten produced film has a signature feel. But the horror sequences in "Poltergeist" have a menacing quality that has "Hooper" written all over it. Tobe proved that he could summon classic chills with Salem's Lot, a film quite different that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Spielberg knew that he had the stuff. That "stuff", along with Spielberg's guidance, helped to create THE haunted house film of the 80's. A flick that left audiences from all walks of life entertained. The Academy should have nominated somebody. And Tobe's name was on the credit so...
Wes Craven for New Nightmare
Alright look, I know I said I was gonna be "realistic", but we are getting close to the end and I needed just one rule break! This film is the text book example of how a director can truly make the difference with a film's outcome. As someone who works in the industry, I realize that the director can be the most clueless person on set, but Craven is a director who is in control and knows how to get his visions on screen. In 1994, Freddy was truly "dead".. at least in the story department, and it took Craven's vision to resurrect him in a way that restored a little respect to the franchise. Craven's unique perspective in "New Nightmare" was the precursor to "Scream" and was proof that in the right hands, anything is possible. The Academy would not have touched this in a million years but the hell with 'em! This may not be Craven's best film, but I truly believe that it is his finest moment.
Frank Darabont for The Mist
Darabont had always wanted "The Mist" to be his debut film, but after a few other successful, and more "horror-less" King adaptations, he finally got his wish and it was well worth the wait. As a director, Darabont is hands on in nearly every department, and he made a number great, motivated choices starting with creating a darker conclusion to King's tale. He decided to take a documentary approach to the film which adds tremendous impact when things get heavy. His "Romero" inspired take on the story places the emphasis on how the many characters react to one another in disaster situation. It's beautiful piece of filmmaking and I'm honestly surprised it didn't garner more recognition.
Ari Aster for Hereditary
This film got screwed over in a number of different during awards season and might be the most offensive miss by the Oscars in a long time.. and that's saying something. The film is undeniably effective and Aster's muscular direction of this family drama turned nightmare from hell was a big wake up call for horror fans looking for something that was actually good. Good meaning intense and horrifying.
Real proof that the Oscars stink.
Mike Flanagan for Doctor Sleep
I can't imagine a more pressure-filled situation than what Flanagan was walking into with "Doctor Sleep". This movie should have failed. It should have crumbled under the weight and the expectations from fans of both KIng's book and Kubrick's film adaptation. Instead, Flanagan walked in like a boss and created a film that satisfied most, and delivered a thought provoking storyline along with some tasty scares to go along with it. The film works on all angles and Flanagan made some great choices from the outset that many other directors would have missed. Remarkable stuff. It's triumphs like this that make me wonder whether now is the time for the thriller, sci-fi, and horror genres to have their own official and televised award presentation that can really honor work like this. I'll bet the ratings would be better...
This was a difficult list to make, and I'm sure I missed something, so feel free to comment and let me know who I left out, or your thoughts on the filmmakers I listed!
Kristopher Phipps is a filmmaker and writer from Austin, TX.
Connect with him on Instagram or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org