I must confess, I was prejudiced against Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value before I read it.
Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror came out last summer, but my first encounter was a story on NPR: Modern Horror Defined By Edgy Realism Of The 1970s.
I seriously objected to the argument that the dividing line between old classic horror films and modern horror was the year 1968. One could just as easily say that the modern era started with Psycho (1960) or Blood Feast (1963). But I recently read the book and that’s not Zinoman’s argument at all. In fact, that’s not the structure of his book.
What Zinoman documents is 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 does make a strong case that there was something special about this period.
Some of the work was intensely personal, some was 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.
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. Downer endings were common, with the monster not being vanquished. Often, evil is 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. 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.
Some of those Seventies horror movies got into really unpleasant material, stuff that scares you at a deep visceral level. In comparison, most of today’s horror films are relatively conservative (and usually slick).
These 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 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 Carpenter.
He’s such a fascinating person that I’d love to see a book or documentary just on him.
I found Shock Value to be a very useful addition to my knowledge of the horror genre. If you’ve specifically interested in modern horror, I recommend it. (It’s also a good reminder that I need to get my own copy of Joe Bob Briggs’ Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History, a terrific book that covers some of the same territory.)
FOOTNOTE: I have one teensy weensy quibble with Shock Value. 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 really 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 reveals that there soon followed a plague of vampirism spreading across Europe. It’s a comedy that turns very serious in its final moments.