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.
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.
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.
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.
Yeah, I sort of share the same weariness towards remakes that all die-hard horror fans do. I really can’t stand bland remakes; it’s disheartening to see the movies you love get hurt in some ways, but, on the other hand, we’re stuck with them. These movies make a lot of money, and they’re not going away.
Rob Zombie’s Halloween is a great example. It wasn’t my cup of tea. He did give Michael Myers’ back-story, and that’s not what I’d prefer. On the other hand, though, what I respect about Rob Zombie and that movie was that he was willing to do something new and personal and that was clearly in a world that he cares about. He was reinventing Michael Myers to make something that mattered to him. Even though it wasn’t so successful, I’d rather have movies that try something and take a risk and come up with a new idea, even if they fail, than what so many of these remakes are, which is a pale imitation of the original. They feel really cynical and crass, and they exploit the fact that there’s a familiarity with the original to get audiences to see the movie.
I agree that the first section of Rob Zombie’s Halloween is pretty risky, but what bothers me about that movie is how the last 40-or-so minutes are this rushed and uninspired remake of Carpenter’s original, completely throwing away all of the prior back-story that was at least interesting and fresh.
That’s a really good point. I think this happens a lot; I think Rob Zombie started to get worried that he was going to piss off the audience. He departed more than most do, and maybe he got nervous that he wasn’t giving people enough of the familiar. I just wish that, when people make remakes, the studio would support them in changing the original.
I don’t need to see the same Carrie again; there are so many possibilities that could be explored. Carrie was about violence in schools, gender politics, and bullying, and all of those things are still around today—they’ve just changed a lot since the mid-’70s. You could update Carrie White in a way for a post-Columbine world, and you could make it really great, contemporary, and urgent, in a way that’s different from what made the original great. That’s what I hope more directors and producers focus on.
That would be ideal, yeah. I’m right there with you. Bringing it back to Shock Value, what do you think the book’s appeal is for casual movie fans who aren’t big on horror, and who know Brian De Palma more so for Scarface than for, say, Sisters? The horror community is a given, but there’s that second audience out there.
Right, right. As you suggest, there are two audiences. I really want the die-hard horror people to like this book; they’re obsessive about the field. I don’t want them to feel like they’ve heard all of these stories before, and this point-of-view before. I care a lot about the fact that they’re into the book.
But I also want this book to cross over, and the reason is…. I don’t think you can understand mainstream culture, or even politics today, without understanding horror. Fear drives this culture in a way that’s undeniable; all you need to do is watch cable news and see how much the vocabulary of political ads today is driven by images and tropes that were established in the book. I wrote about this in the book, how Hilary Clinton had some advertisements that seemed like an homage to Halloween, and if you look at mainstream movies like Black Swan and No Country For Old Men, movies that won Academy Awards that seem to me like they’re deeply influenced by ’70s horror.
These movies that were made on a dime back in the ’70s by these outlaw directors have become not only influential in horror, and not only influential in Hollywood, but it’s even bigger than that. When people go to bed at night and they have nightmares, the kind of visual vocabulary that they see is influenced by the scariest things they know, which, in many cases, if you trace it back are these horror films. I believe that if you want to understand American culture, and you want to understand the nature of fear, and what makes people vote a certain way, and why kids love the game of Peek-A-Boo and fairy tales, which are frightening, then you need to understand the people who understood the nature of fear better than anybody else has ever done.
This sounds like I’m exaggerating, but I actually stand by it: Those people were these guys discussed in the book, filmmakers back in the late ’60s and ’70s who were working in the horror field.
All that said, how the hell did you fit that entire argument and point-of-view into a 270-page book?
[Laughs.] It’s funny, the one complaint I keep hearing about the book is that it’s too short. I wanted to make it tight, I didn’t want to pad it; I wanted it to have a clear story, a clear, crisp narrative. But, yeah, sometimes I wish I could have had a few more 100 pages. I like the idea of having this book, picking it up, and finishing it in a day or a weekend or whatever—having it be like a horror movie. Horror movies aren’t long epics; they’re tight, taut, frightening scenes, and I wanted to write a book that’s a history and has ideas in it but is also still in that spirit.
Well, hopefully we’ll get to speak again when the second volume comes out in a few years.
[Laughs.] That would be great. I had a ball talking to you.