Though time machines are more common in science fiction than in horror, the most passionate of horror fans today would kill for a chance to hop in some kind of real-life DeLorean. If given the chance to pull a Marty McFly, many die-hard scare movie lovers who look upon modern-day staples as Saw and Paranormal Activity as simply commercial gateways into their beloved genre would no doubt flash back to either the late 1960s or the early ’70s, a time when horror was on the verge of a reinvention that would define scary films for decades to come.
Then-unknown filmmakers such as Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, George A. Romero, and John Carpenter were changing the game, making low-budget shockers that steered away from the camp and creatures of yesteryears and focused more upon nightmarish scenarios that were uncomfortably realistic. It’s one thing to watch movies like Carrie (1976), The Last House On The Left (1972), or Halloween (1978) today, appreciate their high quality, and pontificate about their deeper meanings from an outsider’s perspective; it’s another, however, to have experienced their cultural infiltration firsthand.
The latter familiarity is exactly what author Jason Zinoman concentrated on while writing Shock Value (released last week), a lively, informative, and altogether fascinating examination of the ’70s horror revolution through both his own analysis and a plethora of compelling anecdotes from the directors and writers themselves, as well as close friends and family members.
Zinoman, a writer/theater critic for The New York Times, treats Shock Value as one continuous narrative, recounting one of horror’s important golden ages with a fan’s verve and a reporter’s attention to detail. For the genre’s excitable supporters, Shock Value salutes horror while offering never-before-heard nuggets about their beloved flicks and sharp insight; for everyone else, it’s proof that cinema’s most ridiculed and misunderstood genre has more layers than meets the eye.
Complex caught up with Zinoman for a lengthy and vibrant chat about the book itself, how horror has grown over the last thirty years, how Roger Ebert completely missed the boat, why the originators can’t seem to make great films today, and that dreaded word that has tainted the legacy of horror’s greatest works: “remake.”
Complex: Shock Value focuses on a true golden age for horror movies, a time when filmmakers inadvertently started a cinematic revolution that went against everything that Hollywood, and popular culture, thought about the genre. As a lifelong horror lover, I often wish that I was a teenager during that time so I could have seen movies like The Last House On The Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the first time in a theater, before everyone knew their legacies. So Shock Value hits close to home.
Jason Zinoman: Yeah, I feel the exact same way, and that was what got me to write the book. I’m too young to have seen these movies when they first came out. The first movies I saw were in the ’80s, and then, once I got into them, I started to catch up. I immediately fell so in love, and then I wanted to figure out what made those movies so better, what made the frights so addictive, and how did they come to be. And that’s what led me to write the book.
Have you been a fan of horror your entire life?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always loved horror. It was very different to love horror as a kid in the ’80s than it is today. Before the Internet, you’d go to the video store and you’d see the covers; you’d see the Friday The 13th cover and your mind would wonder what it was. But it was hard to see the movies because you were so young; now, you’re just one click away from seeing pretty much everything.
In one regard, I think young people today have it worse than I did. They miss out on a lot of the mysteries in these movies; by the time they actually see the movie, the script has been leaked, and the coming attractions give away a lot of the stuff. Back then, when you were in like the third or fourth grade, the way you learned about horror movies was that somebody’s older brother would tell them the plot of Friday The 13th, and then that person would tell somebody else, and the chain would continue. I vividly remember sitting around during elementary school with a bunch of my friends, hashing over what happened in Friday The 13th; none of us had actually seen the movie, but we heard about it from someone’s older brother.
Occasionally, the movies would show up on TV, for Halloween or whatever other reason. And then I started to go see them, or rent them, movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night, or Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, or the Child’s Play movies, and I was hooked.
It seems like, at that time, in the ’80s, as well as the ’70s, there were just so many different horror movies coming out, even if they were super-low-budget exploitation flicks. It seems like there was such a freedom back then to make these crazy movies, which doesn’t seem to exist in the movie world today, at least not as much as it did then. Fans today have to look overseas to France, Spain, or whatever other country for that degree of artistic insanity.
I think you’re totally right. In a lot of ways, I think the most exciting horror right now is in France, and in Spain and Asia. There’s still good work going on here in the States, and there’s more horror nowadays than there was back then, I feel. But horror, in a way, is a victim of its own success. If you have the possibility of becoming a huge blockbuster—if you can become Paranormal Activity, then I think you end up making more conservative choices as a director.
These guys who were making these movies back in the early ’70s, like the exploitation films, they weren’t out to make high art; they wanted to make a good, cheap, shocking film that could make a few bucks. They didn’t have the sense of, “Oh, we have to worry about what the tween demographic thinks.” It was a more free-flowing time, for the most part.
And I also think they had some other advantages. A lot of the horror today…. A lot of the creative energy behind horror today goes into creating the special effects, thinking about the gore, and how to design the monsters. I like all of that stuff, but back in the ’70s, when you didn’t have all of these sophisticated effects, they spent most of their time and creative energy trying to come up with really frightening scenarios and really frightening ideas. I think that produced better movies.
For Shock Value you spoke to over one hundred people who were directly involved with these old horror movies. How long of a process was this book’s creation?
It was incredibly fun; it was hard, too. It started with a story I wrote in Vanity Fair, so when I started to report for that, it was about four years ago. What I tried to do with that story was I really over-reported it; I went out to L.A. and spent a month there, and then I went to Toronto to speak with [George] Romero and [David] Cronenberg, and people like that. I just over-reported to see if there was a lot more there, and I discovered that there really was.
The truth is, the horror directors are really generally, and surprisingly, low-key, sweet, amiable guys, who are accessible and easy to talk to; the ones who are in Hollywood and have a little more mainstream success, they’re a little more difficult to get in touch with. So having a period of four years to work on this book was invaluable. I wouldn’t have gotten to all of these people otherwise.
The biggest challenge for me, though, was…. There’s a really excellent and dedicated sect of horror press that covers every single one of these movies all the time. There are so many wonderful blogs, and, seeing the response to my book, it’s hard not to be impressed by how smart all these people are. So one of the biggest challenges was: Wes Craven has been interviewed thousands of times, so how do you get him to recreate what it was actually like in the early ’70s to make The Last House On The Left, in a way so that it’s not him repeating the same stories that he’s told over and over again?
So, my goal with this book was to root it in reporting. There are definitely criticisms in it, and I have a strong point-of-view, but I wanted to really tell a story. I wanted it to read like a narrative, with these horror directors and writers as the main characters. and I wanted it to be rooted in original reporting. I found that spending long periods of time interviewing them was very helpful. Talking to a lot of people who don’t usually get interviewed was also key, like supporting actors, family members, people who went to school with these directors, childhood friends.
I tried to really look at sources from back in that time; I didn’t want to talk to people who are higher-level fans or made movies starting in the ’90s or later. I looked at it more as, “Who knew Brian De Palma before he was famous? Who went to college with him?”; Wes Craven’s wife from back before he made The Last House On The Left. Those people I found were excellent sources; they had firsthand knowledge of what was going on, that wasn’t informed by the fact that they’ve been telling the same stories for thirty years. Often times, I got a fresher perspective talking to those people, and once I talked to those people I went back to Craven and De Palma, joggled their memories with the stories I’d heard, and then I got all-new memories from these filmmakers.