When a studio releases a film during Oscar season (the last couple of months of the year), they're making a statement - here is the most prestigious film we have, and we're placing it in contention. The Silence of the Lambs was released in February of 1991, making its Best Picture win (along with wins in the other top four categories) something of a curiosity upon reflection. These days, it's not common for films released so early in the year to become Oscar contenders, or to remain firmly planted in the minds of voters. Those were the days.
But that's not the only curious thing about Jonathan Demme's film - although many would refer to The Silence of the Lambs as a thriller, it's the only horror film to have ever won the Best Picture Oscar. The only other horror films nominated for the same honor were The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense, Jaws and Black Swan - save for The Exorcist, these films would be popularly categorized as "thrillers." There have been a few other thrillers and suspense films that have been nominated over the years, but their categorization as horror films is debatable. That people refer to The Silence of the Lambs as a thriller is hardly surprising - horror films don't typically garner such prestigious acclaim because they're viewed as low-brow. Labeling the film as a "thriller" allows us (or, more accurately, Oscar voters) to take it more seriously.
I'm not here to argue over whether Demme's film is a horror movie or a thriller - that it's an incredible, compelling and gorgeous film is hardly arguable. It's also chilling and unnerving, and gave us one of the most iconic film characters of all time. So iconic that Anthony Hopkins reprised the role of Hannibal Lecter in two more films. The character was so iconic, and the franchise so beloved, that we had to suffer through an inevitable prequel.
But The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film (or the only thing close to a horror film, depending on how you categorize it) to ever win Best Picture. The Oscars don't look kindly upon the genre, and for every 50 horror films released, we only get a scant handful of them that are actually good, but you could say that about most films in general. There have been many incredible horror films released since the inception of the Oscars: The Shining, Psycho, Alien and Rosemary's Baby, to name a few. None of them were nominated for Best Picture.
The Academy is most definitely genre-biased. Something like the excellent Edge of Tomorrow (which even I loved, and I'm the toughest customer when it comes to contemporary action films) would never be recognized by the Academy, though some would argue that Emily Blunt's performance is deserving of acclaim, or at the very least, the film should have earned a visual effects nod - visual effects and make-up are typically where the Oscars acknowledge sci-fi/action/horror.
For all the critics groups who nominated or awarded Essie Davis for her visceral and powerful leading performance in 2014's The Babadook, Davis was never going to earn an Oscar nod, and that's unfortunate. Davis gave one of the best performances of 2014, equal parts heartbreaking and terrifying - when a horror film is able to hit an emotional nerve, it's that much more effective. The Babadook is very much a female-driven version of The Shining (though I think it's closer in tone to Stephen King's book than Kubrick's film), a film that meditates on grief and displacement, and the woeful familial cycles of emotional damage. Watching Davis' character terrorize her son throughout the house elicits a strong sense of deja vu - it's like watching Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance maniacally stalk his family through the Overlook Hotel.
But like The Shining, The Babadook has also been overlooked, if not entirely ignored and dismissed outright. It's a horror film, and horror films aren't of much interest to the Academy.
The Silence of the Lambs - and the few other aforementioned horror films that received Best Picture nods - set a precedent that was never really followed through. But the Academy, as Spike Lee noted recently, is cyclical. Selma wasn't nominated for Best Director or Best Actor just one year after 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture - instead, it was only nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, which doesn't bode well for its chances. As Lee explains, we won't likely see another film about the black experience win an Oscar for another 10 years. Every time we think they're turning things around, they furiously backpedal. Last year was an incredible year at the Oscars, and one that inspired hope. One step forward, 10 steps back.
Not to compare films like 12 Years a Slave and Selma with The Silence of the Lambs - but perhaps the cycles of acceptance within the Academy are similar. I'm not sure when we'll see another powerful horror film honored with a Best Picture Oscar nod. The lines between genres are increasingly blurred, and while The Babadook is a horror film, it's also a poignant drama. The Silence of the Lambs is a horror film, but it's also a thriller. The more we stop paying attention to genre labels, the more we can simply accept that a film is good, regardless of the label attached to it. But the Academy voters, who are predominately white men with a median age of 63, are stuck in their ways. I'd like to think things might change, but when they die, they'll just be replaced by the younger white men behind them as they become older white men, too.