Why two leading Oscar contenders don't want to be called horror films

"The Shape of Water" and "Get Out" are in the running in multiple categories. They’re part of the often ignored horror film genre and Norm Wilner thinks at least one of them should own it.

Jordan Peele and his hugely popular film, Get Out, made history this week when the movie was nominated for four academy awards.

Academy presenters Tiffany Haddish and Andy Serkis called Peele's name for best picture, as well as directing and original screenplay, making him only the third person in history to earn nominations in all three categories in a directorial debut.

Peele is also just the fifth black director to earn a best director nomination in Oscar history. No black director has ever won.

Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya was also nominated for best actor for his role as Chris Washington, a young black man who plans to spend a weekend with his white girlfriend and her parents at their secluded country house.
Jordan Peele and Betty Gabriel on the set of Get Out. (

By any standard, this is an impressive haul for a horror film released in the dead of winter with a budget of just $5 million (it has since made more than $250 million worldwide).

Peele, however, has been reluctant to label Get Out as a true horror, preferring to call it a  "social thriller." According Norm Wilner, that's partially accurate.

"It's absolutely a horror film, it's just a horror film with social consciousness," he says.  

It's about how the intuitive, absorbed racial consciousness that this guy has lived with his entire life is actually an alarm bell ringing in his head.- Norm Wilner

Wilner is the senior film writer forNow Magazine and the host of the Someone Else's Movie Podcast. He says Get Out is quintessential horror, but it also works on a lot of other levels.

"A horror is a film where you're supposed to recoil and be upset and question the reality of the things that you're seeing. That's Get Out."

The film is your classic stranger in a strange land story. It's about a black man who finds himself in a white community and he's convinced that they're out to get him. And they are.

"It's about how the intuitive, absorbed racial consciousness that this guy has lived with his entire life is actually an alarm bell ringing in his head all the time. He's trying to disregard it because he doesn't believe it's a possible threat and that's what is so scary about it."

Wilner says that in Get Out, Peele deconstructs and recombines the DNA of a horror film. He uses horror film tropes that we would all understand and flips them, so we have re-examine our responses and what is drawing us in.

That kind of originality should bode well with Academy voters but the horror genre has had very little success at the Oscars. Get Out joins Suspicion, Spellbound and Gaslight, all from the 1940s. The Exorcist was nominated in 1974 and The Silence of the Lambs won in 1992.

Could Get Out actually win?

In his Now Magazine review from February, Wilner calls Get Out "frighteningly good," but when asked by Day 6 host Brent Bambury if it can win, he only commits to a maybe.

"I think the greater triumph is seeing it nominated and for Daniel Kaluuya to be recognized as best actor," he says.  
Daniel Kaluuya is nominated for an Acadmy Award for his role in Get Out. (Universal)

"Watching him play calculations constantly in his head, it's like he's doing times tables trying to figure out exactly how bad things are and not respond and give it away."

"It's a really crowded field this year and his performance is amazing."


Let's play 'Horror or Not Horror?'

Peele has been doing interviews for Get Out for more than a year and he consistently makes the case that his film defies genres. We asked Norm Wilner about a few other films. Here's his take: 

The Shape of Water:  Guillermo del Toro made it because he's been haunted by an image fromThe Creature from the Black Lagoon ever since he was a child. The Shape of Water is an unpacking of and dissection of all of the clichés of those Universal Pictures studio horror films from the '40s, '50s and '60s where the monster was the monster.
This image from 'The Creature from the Black Lagoon' inspired Guillermo del Toro's 'The Shape of Water.' (Universal)

What del Toro's movie is suggesting is that if you pay attention to the monster, you might find that he's not really a monster. Maybe he's just misunderstood. The thing I love about the movie is that it is a love story with a monster in it, but it's not a horror film.

Mother!: The trailer is horror but, Mother! Is not a horror. It's a film about anxiety, and it has horror elements, but it's playing a very different game and when you figure that game out it becomes even better.

Screengrab from The Babadook. (Umbrella Entertainment)

The Babadook: It's a horror film, but it's not a horror film that's about the thing that it's about. The best horror movies are the ones that have metaphors that work beyond the immediate threat.
So, The Babadook is about grief, it's about anxiety and it's about a mother who maybe doesn't like her child and is conflicted about that. It's also about crushing depression and a monster. It's about horror but it's not the horror that you think it is.
(Orion )

Silence of the Lambs: It's not a horror film, but it has monsters in it and it's a thriller. It's a thriller that had some spectacular imagery, but it was part of the narrative.  It was a character trying to horrify, so no, I wouldn't classify it as a horror film.


Jaws: This is one of my favourite movies. Period. So it doesn't matter what kind of movie it is, but Jaws is absolutely a horror film.  
It's a horror film by accident because the mechanical shark malfunctioned during production and they had to cut around it. You don't see it for the first hour of the film. You never get a sense of the scale of the monster. It's just an arm here and a leg there. It's just implied, which creates a greater sense of dread and terror. So Jaws is absolutely horrific but by accident.


To listen to the full conversation with Norm Wilner, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.