One of the great things about Shock Value is that it shows love to guys like Dan O’Bannon, filmmakers who never achieved the levels of notoriety reached by the likes of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, but who played very important roles in horror’s growth. And, like in O’Bannon’s case, made kick-ass movies like 1985’s underrated Return Of The Living Dead.
Yeah, and I can say that I’m particularly proud of that. When I started reporting and talking to people, I kept hearing Dan O’Bannon’s name pop up. One of the book’s subplots is that O’Bannon and John Carpenter were classmates at USC’s film school in the late ’60s. They met because O’Bannon made this seven-minute short called Blood Bath; Carpenter saw that movie, and it blew him away. He introduced himself and said, “Do you want to make a movie?” And they made this movie called Dark Star, which is about these guys up in space and there’s this unmotivated, relentless, alien monster that chases and kills them.
One of my book’s subplots is tracing things back to these conversations that O’Bannon and Carpenter had back at film school. They shared a lot of the same influences; they both loved H.P. Lovecraft, and they both loved movies like The Thing From Another World [which Carpenter remade into 1982’s genre masterpiece The Thing]. And then they had a falling out. So, in my book, I see how their conversations and Dark Star led to Halloween and Alien [which O’Bannon wrote], which were both about relentless killers and are both considered to be classic game-changers.
I think one of the things my books tries to do is show how the personal relationships that were established by these guys had a huge impact on the movies. Those movies, then, were seen and imitated by countless other directors, and ripped off over and over again to such an extent that we don’t even realize where they came from. A lot of what we think of as “What’s a scary movie?”…. If you trace it back far enough, it started in a USC dorm room back in 1969, and that’s what I tried to map out in this book.
Last month, you wrote a really interesting profile on John Carpenter, pegged to his new comeback movie, The Ward, which, in my opinion, is a rather underwhelming film. It just seems like a project he took on just to do it, instead of one in which he brought all of his talents. In your story, though, he calls himself a “broken down old horror film director,” which seems indicative about the movie itself. What are your thoughts on the directors of the classics discussed in your book still working toward relevance in today’s film industry?
I think you’re right, and even Carpenter himself referred to The Ward as an “assignment” in our interview. That tells you a little something about how invested he was in that compared to how invested he was in Halloween. The facts that he didn’t do the music and he didn’t write the script for The Ward are pretty important.
I’m a little more sympathetic, though. It’s hard to stay at that high level for such a long time for any director. It’s very hard to do that. I think these guys are really gifted and talented, and they’ve earned the right to keep putting movies out and to keep failing, in some ways. Sometimes it might take like three or four failures to get to a good movie. A guy like Carpenter, I’m willing to keep up with him and follow him, even if he makes a couple of movies that aren’t good; I hope his next movie will be good. He’s not taking resources away from anybody else. I feel the same way about Craven or anybody else.
They’ve earned the right, at this point, to get the benefit of the doubt, and I hope they still keep getting the budgets they need to make these movies. There’s an independent horror director, working today, named Larry Fessenden, and he’s very good and very smart. He talks about this dream of his, that I really like, where he wants to go to these great old directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and John Carpenter and tell them, “Look, I want you to make a movie for around the same budget they gave you when you first got started.” So it’s like, give Steven Spielberg $1 million to make a movie. I think that’s such a fantastic idea. Part of the problem is that directors want to keep getting bigger and bigger, when a lot of these directors made their best movies when they were very young and had very little resources. Out of constraints and limitations, sometimes, the best creative ideas come out.
If you look at Wes Craven and Scream 4, it’s intricate and bigger and has more plots, but I’d like to see Wes Craven do something on the scale of The Last House On The Left again. I would think that would be really exciting; it doesn’t have to be a big-budget movie to be important, and I think that’s the future of horror. I hope these guys keep making movies, but ones that are smaller and more personal.
That’s one of the things I love about Insidious: the fact that it was made for only about $1 million and is the best mainstream horror film to come out in quite some time.
Right. Yeah, it’s incredible. That’s the beauty of horror; there’s no track record that indicates how the amount of money it cost to make a movie is related to how well the movie does. It’s not like the action genre, where Transformers 3 comes out and there’s no way it’s not going to be huge. It’s not uncommon for smaller movies like Paranormal Activity or Insidious, or even Blair Witch, to come out and be runaway hits. And that gives more people a shot to break through.
It’s interesting that so many horror filmmakers today, whether big or small, have so actively been trying to mimic the feel and look of those old ’70s and ’80s horror movies—movies like The House Of The Devil, Hatchet, and Hobo With A Shotgun. But, in some cases, they’re not doing it with any subtlety at all; in interviews, that’s their main talking point, and the movies are full of often-cheesy winks and nods at these old movies. What are your thoughts on the whole resurgence that’s taking place?
I think it’s great that they’re looking towards great movies to inspire them; I just want them to learn the right lessons from them. That’s the thing. Often, directors learn the wrong lessons from these movies. They look at Halloween and they say, “What made this movie great was that there was a killer wearing a mask, somebody had sex and then they killed them.” But that misses what made Halloween really scary, and that’s the camerawork and the fact that Michael Myers was this incredibly mysterious figure who was the boogeyman. He had no psychological back-story, no psychological motivation. That’s the thing that was so radical about Michael Myers: You never find out what his story is.
In all of the sequels and rip-offs, they give him a back-story. “Oh, Laurie Strode is his sister, and he’s tracking her down.” It’s one example of how people who try to pay homage to these great movies misinterpret what’s great about them. But then there are some directors who really know how to do it. I don’t know if you’ve seen this movie High Tension….
Oh, hell yeah—it’s so great.
Yeah, isn’t it? This guy, [Alexandre] Aja, who directed and co-wrote that movie, is someone I think is just so gifted. He’s learned the right lessons from ’70s horror, and his movies…. If you look at High Tension, you have this scene of the woman trembling in a closet and it’s just like Halloween, and you have a chainsaw kill at the end….
Yeah, that chainsaw scene is amazing. It’s funny, because I’m not so crazy about the movie’s big twist, but then that chainsaw scenes happens after the twist and completely saves the movie, at least for me.
[Laughs.] Exactly! He took these tropes from ’70s horror and gave them a new spin that was, in some ways, more intense. That was an incredible chainsaw scene, and that decapitation near the beginning is just so incredibly unaccepted and fantastically shot. What I like about his movies is that he doesn’t telegraph them too much or get too clever. A lot of these new horror movies that pay homage to the older ones, they get a little too meta and they start too self-consciously paying homage by quoting them and overtly winking at them. What happens is, you don’t suspend your disbelief and you can’t get lost in the movie, which not only takes away some of the fun, but it also prevents you from getting scared.