Jordan Peele's 'Us' has all the makings of a best picture contender — except that it's a horror movie

Key Points
  • Jordan Peele's "Us" is tracking towards a $50 million opening weekend.
  • Despite critical acclaim, if the film is nominated for best picture at the Academy Awards next year, it probably won't win.
  • The Academy has a history of overlooking films that dip into the horror genre.
A still from the trailer of Us.
Source: Universal Pictures

This year's Oscars were handed out just weeks ago, but if you're looking for an early contender for next year's best picture, "Us" looks like it has all the makings.

It attacks hot-button social issues. It stars an Oscar-winning actress. Its writer-director already has a few nominations under his belt, as well as an Academy Award for best original screenplay.

But it's a horror movie, and that will probably be enough to keep it out of the conversation for the top prize.

In the more than 90-year history of the Academy Awards, films delegated into the horror genre have struggled to prove to Academy voters that they are deserving of the nomination for the top award of the ceremony and, if they do find their name on the short list, rarely take that prize home.

Horror films have long been awarded prizes for their technical achievements in sound, make-up and production design and even for the performances of its actors. But only six have been nominated for the biggest honor of the ceremony, best picture. "Silence of the Lambs" is the only horror flick to ever hoist that golden trophy — and that was all the way back in 1992.

"In general, this has never been a form that the Academy has honored," said Rick Worland, professor at Southern Methodist University and author of "The Horror Film: An Introduction." "Horror and science fiction were stigmatized as these low budget films that played in drive-ins and that kids went to and people didn't really care or pay much attention."

While some films — "Sixth Sense," "Black Swan" and "Get Out," among them — have managed to crack into the best picture category, the stigma surrounding the prestige of a horror film has remained. And some horror movie experts would argue that some of horror films nominated for best picture aren't even "true horror" films, but rather thrillers with horror elements.

"Both 'Silence of the Lambs' and 'Get Out' did hedge their bets by distancing themselves from the horror label and choosing things like psychological thriller or social thriller as ways to describe how this not just a horror film," said Adam Lowenstein, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and author of "Shocking Representation."

At their most basic, horror films are made to elicit feelings of fear or dread in moviegoers. Some utilize ghosts or monsters, others a hatchet-wielding serial killer, but the intent is always the same — to stir up shock and suspense. Directors often use sound (creaky floorboards and high-pitched musical scores), slow, drawn out shots followed by quick cuts and dark, shadowy lighting to create these moments of terror.

With "Us," Peele is not shying away from the horror movie moniker. The writer, director and producer has said repeatedly that "Us" is a horror film.

Peele has gained clout with the Academy since "Get Out" was nominated for three awards in 2018. Peele earned himself an Oscar for best original screenplay that year. He was also a producer on Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman," which earned a best picture nomination this year, but lost to "Green Book."

"Jordan Peele is a one-man revolution in relation to the horror genre," Lowenstein said. "And I'm thrilled that he's taking on the mantle with such enthusiasm and with 'Us,' an unapologetic tie to the horror genre."

The Academy Award nominations for the 92nd annual ceremony won't be announced until 2020, but that doesn't mean critics aren't already speculating about "Us'" chance at scoring several nominations. Peele's "Get Out" hit theaters in February and was still nominated despite not being released during the typical Oscar bait release window of November and December.

"Us" is already tracking towards a $50 million opening weekend, a strong start for a horror film that doesn't have the benefit of a major franchise fueling ticket sales.

"It speaks to the impact of Jordan Peele," Shawn Robbins, senior analyst at BoxOffice, said, noting that this is only Peele's second directorial credit.

A history of horror

Horror films have been a part of cinema since the early days of its history, although it has evolved significantly since the days of "Le Manoir du Diable" in 1896, considered the first horror film, and turn of the century films like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in the 1920s and '30s.

Even in the '50s, the heyday of Hitchcock's thrillers, horror hadn't fully developed into what we considered a "true horror" film today. Hitchcock's "Psycho," which petrified audiences in 1960, had none of the gore and violence so closely tethered to the identity of modern-day horror flicks, but it laid the groundwork for future films. "Psycho," known for its iconic shower sequence in which the main female character in the film is brutally murdered, is comprised of 52 individual cuts, none of which actually show any violence.

However, by the end of 1960s, the genre began to change. Psychological thrillers like "Rosemary's Baby" were still prominent, but violent and gory films like "Night of the Living Dead" entered the culture. Over the next decade, slasher films became increasingly popular. These films ditched some of the traditional Gothic elements seen in previous films in favor or blood, guts and visual terror.

"The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," "Jaws," "Carrie," "The Exorcist" and "Halloween" were all released in theaters in the '70s and are considered some of the most iconic horror flicks ever created.

"The Exorcist," released in 1973, was the first horror film nominated for best picture. "Jaws" would become the second after its release in 1975.

The '80s were filled with iconic films like "Friday the 13th" and "Nightmare on Elm Street" as well as a slew of slasher sequels, but many of these relied heavily on formulaic plot lines and didn't break any new ground for the genre.

However, as the popularity of horror grew, so did the stigma. As horror movie fans turned out in droves for each flick and Hollywood reaped the financial benefit of cheap budgets and strong ticket sales, there became a tidal wave of horror films that spent less time on storytelling and more time on cheap scares and over-the-top gore.

It wasn't until the '90s that another horror film was nominated for best picture. "Silence of the Lambs" took home the prize during the 1992 awards ceremony. Nearly a decade later, "Sixth Sense" was on the short list for the award, but lost to "American Beauty."

2011's "Black Swan" and 2017's "Get Out" were the only other horror films to get a best picture nomination at the Oscars, both lost.

Five of the six horror films nominated for best picture "are all movies with high production values and significant sheen in terms of investment and performers and directors and studio support," Lowenstein said.

He noted that "Get Out" was a bit of an outlier because of its low budget — just $4.5 million. However, a strong box office haul of $255 million and critical acclaim, including a Rotten Tomato score of 98 percent, endeared it to the Academy.

"The horror pill gets easier to swallow when there is a high production value and a sense that the film holds up the traditions of classic Hollywood film," Lowenstein said. "The next transformation that I hope we get to see is a horror film that is unapologetically a horror film getting those major nominations and wins."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, is the distributor of "Us."