Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value
True Confession: I was prejudiced against Jason Zinoman before I even read his book.
Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror came out in the summer of 2011, but my first encounter was a story that ran later that fall on NPR: Modern Horror Defined By Edgy Realism Of The 1970s.
I objected to the argument that the dividing line between old classic horror films and modern horror was the year 1968. Why not say that the modern era started with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) or Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964)?
When I finally read the book, I discovered that Zinoman has no interest in drawing lines in the sand. He acknowledges the earlier movies that paved the way, but his actual intent is to document a certain kind of horror movie, made by a specific breed of writers and directors, all released between 1968 and 1979.
The seminal works are: The Last House on the Left (directed & written by Wes Craven), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (directed & co-written by Tobe Hooper), Night of the Living Dead (directed & co-written by George Romero), Rosemary’s Baby (directed & written by Roman Polanski), Halloween (directed & co-written by John Carpenter), The Exorcist (directed by William Friedkin, written by William Peter Blatty), Carrie (directed by Brian De Palma) and Alien (directed by Ridley Scott, written in part by Dan O’Bannon).
As Zinoman profiles these classic horror films and the people who made them, I think he makes a strong case that there was something special about this period.
Some of the work was intensely personal, some crassly commercial. There were elements of documentary realism, but also Lovercraft-influenced fantasy. While some films were very explicit in how they showed violence, other films merely suggested their graphic horrors. Some were political on purpose; others by accident. (Given the turmoil of the late ’60s and early ’70s, this isn’t particularly surprising.)
All of which is to say is that there is a great deal of diversity in the movies that make up this period of New Horror. But there is commonality as well. Familiar settings were shown — suburbia instead of haunted castles. In general, the settings are more realistic, rather than fantastical, with an evil force shown disrupting our contemporary world. It wasn’t just that many of the movies were graphically violent, it was that they confronted their audiences by breaking taboos and transgressing societal norms.
Downer endings often refused to offer closure, with the monster not being definitively vanquished. Often, the story leans towards the irrational, with evil shown as an inexplicable force.
As Zinoman puts the message: “The world does not make sense. Evil exists, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
This is a discrete period, with a definite beginning and ending. Horror took off in the late Seventies and early Eighties and has been up and down since, but mostly always a strong performer as a genre. Lots of young filmmakers have used horror movies as a way to break into the business. The problem is, as Zinoman notes, that “trash” doesn’t really lead to “art.” Instead, “trash actually gives an appetite for bigger and better trash.”
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had a string of sequels, as well as a remake, but none matched the original’s impact. Sean Cunningham, who produced The Last House on the Left, later directed Friday the 13th (released in 1980). Wes Craven soon after directed A Nightmare on Elm Street. While Michael Meyers in the original Halloween was an unknowable force, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees became almost vaudevillian figures of mayhem.
For further evidence of the special nature of these movies, we can helpfully compare them to their remakes. The outliers are Night of the Living Dead in 1990 and Carrie in 2013, but there was a string of them over a short period of time: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), Friday the 13th (2009), and The Last House on the Left (2009). The cruder and wilder nature of the originals was tamed considerably for the newer versions.
Those original visionary directors seemed to all end up meeting one of three fates: not doing much of anything of value for the rest of their careers, making a formulaic string of films that repeated their greatest hits, leaving horror for mainstream filmmaking.
The unsung hero of the book is Dan O’Bannon. He acted, wrote, edited, and did special effects for Dark Star, directed by his classmate John Carpenter. He worked on film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary unsuccessful attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. He provided special effects for George Lucas’ Star Wars. He co-wrote the original draft of Alien and brought in H.R. Giger to do design work. He wrote and directed the classic The Return of the Living Dead.
O’Bannon looms as a large force in the book. He’s a pissed-off screwball, unknowingly suffering from Crohn’s disease (which killed him at the age of 63). He was frustrated at projects that never came to fruition and irritated at the success of former classmate Carpenter. He’s such a fascinating person that I’d love to see a book or documentary just on him.
Some of those Seventies horror movies got into really unpleasant material, stuff that scares you at a deep visceral level. In the scariest horror movie, the threat is always a metaphor for something else: fears of death or divorce, concern about our bodies’ vulnerabilities (see more here). Many of the horror films that followed in their wake were relatively conservative (and usually slick).
In recent years, we’ve seen some great horror that gets at these deeper fears. The Blair Witch Project (1999) was incredibly effective at showing how vulnerable one can be just wandering off the beaten path and I adored the mesmerizing It Follows (2014), all about how teenagers’ first sexual encounters can change everything (with an ambiguous ending that suggests the monster will never go away).
This year has brought us such horror movies as LIghts Out, The Witch, Green Room, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and The Conjuring 2. We’re not really seeing the raw emotions from those ’70s classics, but there’s still clearly life in the horror genre.
FOOTNOTE: Given that Zinoman rightfully notes that one element of the New Horror was endings in which evil triumphed and monsters escaped to rampage another day, I had expected him to mention that Roman Polanksi’s 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers was the first movie to show that element. The film is a sort of spoof of Hammer horror movies, with a pair of bumbling vampire hunters. In the final scene, Professor Ambrosius, Alfred and Sarah are escaping by sled, when Sarah suddenly reveals that she is a vampire. She bites Alfred and drains him of blood, while the film’s narrator explains that there soon followed a plague of vampirism spreading across the world. It’s a comedy that turns very serious in its final moments.
FOOTNOTE 2: What about the movies?
I’ve never had any interest in watching The Last House on the Left, and I likely never will. There were other “rape & revenge” movies from the ’70s (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave); probably the only one I’ve seen is Ms. 45, which works because it’s totally in sympathy with its female protagonist and is scathing towards all the men around her.
I went an incredibly long time without seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, because I assumed it would be too violent and too intense. It’s far more subtle than its title would suggest, but is definitely intense.
I first saw Night of the Living Dead in high school when it aired on broadcast television. I was at boarding school and got permission to watch it at a faculty member’s residence. I ended up watching it alone in a living room and it scared the hell out of me. In places, the filmmaking is clumsy, but Duane Jones’ performance is rock solid and balances some other weak spots in acting. The news broadcast is a brilliant touch, probably the smartest thing Romero did.
When I saw Rosemary’s Baby, I was very surprised at how funny it is. Much like Ira Levin’s other works, it’s partly a satire, digging deep into Rosemary’s nightmare, but also making fun of it.
I first saw Halloween on VHS, which is too bad, since the movie benefits greatly from being seen on a big screen. Carpenter pulls the neat trick of having someone in the foreground and Michael Meyers suddenly appears in the back, typically towards the edge of the frame.
I didn’t used to think much of The Exorcist. That first ten minutes or so with Father Merrin in Iraq seemed so haunting and effective and the rest of the movie seemed like a lot of shouting and vomiting. That said, I’ve come to appreciate its intentions as an exploration of faith.
Have I ever seen Carrie? I don’t think so. I’ve seen enough clips that I feel like I’ve seen it, but this is a De Palma movie that doesn’t work much for me. King’s original novel (his first published) is good and De Palma is effective in piling on style on top of the story, but I’m more interested in Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise. That said, the fake-out dream sequence at the end of Carrie is genius and has been imitated many times.
Alien was the first R-rated movie I ever saw. I was 16 years old and a big reader of magazines covering science fiction and horror movies, so I was prepared for greatness. As Zinoman makes clear in his book, this is a B-movie story, told with amazing production design that elevates the material.