Interview: "Shock Value" Author Jason Zinoman Talks The Lasting Impact Of '70s Horror Movies

Interview: "Shock Value" Author Jason Zinoman Talks The Lasting Impact Of '70s Horror Movies

The book’s subject is one that’s been covered a few times in the past—not so much in written form, but there’s this really interesting documentary from 2000 called The American Nightmare.
Yeah, I’ve seen that one.

The American Nightmare spends all of its time with talking heads focusing on the political and social subtexts of these old horror movies, but it seems like just a bunch of smart people researching what happened in the ’70s and then drawing this philosophical conclusions about the movies.
Yeah, I like that documentary—it’s good, and I think a lot of the points it makes are right. But, my take is this: The people who defend and champion these movies over the past few decades have tended to overemphasize the political relevance, and overemphasize the intent of the filmmakers. The beliefs are that these filmmakers intended to make movies about Vietnam and about civil rights, but it was actually much more complicated than that.

 
The question is, why did these particular movies tap into this timeless pleasure in a way that no movies have, in my opinion, before or after?
 

And I think it also doesn’t necessarily reflect how the audiences sees these movies, and why they like these movies. I tried to get at the questions that I think are more important. The reason why Night Of The Living Dead is important, I think, isn’t because it says something about civil rights; that’s one of the things. The main reason is that being terrified and being scared is a deep, primal thing; it’s a deep pleasure. It’s not something that is limited to, “Oh, you have some political point that was relevant to the late ’60s”; the pleasure of being scared is timeless. The question is, why did these particular movies tap into this timeless pleasure in a way that no movies have, in my opinion, before or after?

That’s what I was trying to look at. I do think these movies are smart and have some political things to say, but that was not my main focus. The other thing that I found interesting was that what they intended, I think, is really important, and I wanted to figure that out, but it’s not the whole story. In a lot of ways, what they ended up making was not what they intended, and what they ended up making, sometimes, was better than what they intended. And I actually find that to be really inspiring.

Sometimes, through compromise and accidents, and through commercial instincts, you can create a work of art. That’s sort of the broader narrative of this period: These eccentric filmmakers, motivated by just wanting to make a movie and get a few bucks, created lasting works of art, and I think it’s an incredible journey.

One interesting example of this issue is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; some historians, particularly the ones in The American Nightmare, sum up that movie’s primary relevance as it being a comment on the gas shortage scare that went down during that time period in the ’70s, and the movie’s horror kicks off with that scene in which the kids roll into a dry gas station. But then, when you hear the film’s director, Tobe Hooper, tell it, the idea came while he was standing in a long line in Sears, saw a chainsaw for sale nearby, and imagined what it’d be like to cut his way to the front of the line. There’s no political subtext in that whatsoever, and it seems much more interesting to a horror fan such as myself.
I agree, and the truth is that…. It’s true about the gasoline shortage, but it’s also true of these directors that, when they gave interviews at that time, when horror was much more disreputable than it is today, they would sometimes emphasize the political importance more than what they were actually thinking about when they made the movies, because that would help the movie get taken more seriously.

With Texas Chainsaw, I spent a lot of time with Tobe Hooper, and I spent a lot of time with Kim Henkel, who co-wrote it. They didn’t start that movie thinking that they wanted to make a movie about the gas shortage; they started that movie because they’d made another movie that didn’t sell well, and they thought, “Oh, horror sells, so let’s do a horror movie.” And they had this idea of doing a movie that’d be like Hansel & Gretel, like an old fairy tale, and then Kim Henkel had this idea of doing something about these disenfranchised Texas redneck cannibals who lost their jobs at the slaughterhouse, and they felt like their way of life was becoming obsolete.

That’s a simple idea, but it’s also a brilliant one, because you have this incredibly scary and terrifying idea of this family of cannibals living in middle of nowhere, where city people can come and be terrorized by them. But they also planted this idea that they were motivated; these guys had lost their jobs and were just trying to survive, and they felt threatened. The great thing about Texas Chainsaw is, the first couple of times you watch it, you’re just terrified, because it’s this brilliantly scary movie; then when you watch it a few more times, you start to realize that the family of killers is actually more complicated than you think, and they have some very interesting relationships. Like, in that last scene, you start to see that they’re a dysfunctional family that’s not so unlike dysfunctional families I know, except they kill people and eat them. [Laughs.]

The younger killers are trying to get the approval of their father, and the father is all broken down. Leatherface, who’s the most violent one of them all, is actually, in some ways, the one who’s most bullied by his brothers—he has to do the dirty work of killing to get their dinner. So, the one you think is the scariest and least sympathetic is actually, of that clan, probably the most sympathetic.

These movies are rich and interesting enough without having to say they’re about gas prices in the ’70s. Even if you take aside the fact that the main point is to scare, right? At least in the case of Texas Chainsaw, they’re about things like family and strained relationships. That’s why people still watch them, and that’s why people are still going to be watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre decades from now.

Definitely, and that leads me to my next point, too. You’ve had years to sit with these movies and watch them multiple times and come to these really interesting conclusions; whereas, at the time, as the book covers, critics ripped these movies apart upon their initial viewing, when the movies first premiered. Shock Value cites such now-ridiculously scathing reviews such as Roger Ebert’s bashing of Night Of The Living Dead. Why do you think critics tore these movies apart at first: they genuinely hated the movies, or they were just so repulsed by the new, fearless horror wave?
That’s actually a really good question. You’re right, it’s amazing to go back and look at the mainstream critic reviews of movies that are now widely viewed as classics. I think that Roger Ebert regrets his initial take on Night Of The Living Dead. [Laughs.] Basically, all he wrote about was what kids’ reactions to the film would be, and how it was bad for children.

I think it was two things. One, I think there was a general sense that there was something morally wrong and the movies could corrupt kids, if they saw all of the graphic violence on screen. But I actually think, just as much, if not more, than the moral point was an aesthetic one. Horror before this period we’re talking about, was not doing so well. There weren’t that many good horror movies coming out of Hollywood, and there weren’t even that many good horror films being made, period. So, as a result, it was thought to be just this trashy genre that didn’t produce any good movies, and even the ones that were OK were thought to be kind of for kids, or harmless escapism, or just dopey double feature stuff. Critics didn’t take it seriously.

If you read those reviews, there’s more of a strict distinction between high and low culture that I don’t think we have today. But what you see, going into the mid- to late-’70s is that critics started waking up to it. The critics who weren’t reviewing horror movies started to review them, and the huge success of movies like The Exorcist radically changed the game—they had to start taking it seriously.

The other unsung heroes in my book are the alternative horror press in the ’60s and ’70s. There were these really wonderful and smart takes on these movies that were written when the movies came out, and had a very small readership. But the people who made the movies kept an eye on them, and the fans kept an eye on them. You read the reviews in press outlets like Fangoria and Famous Monsters, and they got these movies, understood why they’re great, and writing these long, smart appreciations for them. They’re combatting Ebert’s points; in a lot of ways, that was the early version of what we have today with blogs and the Internet. They gave a voice to something that wasn’t being heard in the mainstream press.

Tags: jason-zinoman, horror, john-carpenter, wes-craven, exploitation-movies, halloween
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