Monday July 18th, 2011

The Rebirth of the Bogeyman

Shock Value by Jason Zinoman
Penguin Press, 272 pp., $25.95

Jason Zinoman’s recently published Shock Value has attracted a lot of attention. At Salon, Laura Miller wrote: “Shock Value belongs — with Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris and Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood — to a newish genre of film writing. It fuses biography, production history, movie criticism and social commentary into a unified and irresistible story.” In the case of Shock Value, the irresistible story is about horror movies — and how films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, and Halloween, and filmmakers like Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and John Carpenter introduced a new kind of fright in the 1960s and 1970s. Psychologically murky, attuned to the neurotic and political frequencies of an America in turmoil, these movies and artists created a new template for the genre.

The response to the book hasn’t surprised me for two reasons: First, it’s very good, combining Jason’s dogged reporting skills, sharp critical eye, and old-fashioned enthusiasm for the movies. (Jason is a friend of mine who has contributed to this site before. His take on Stephen King’s Danse Macabre — a “pleasingly opinionated history of horror,” and, as far as Jason and I could tell at the time, the only King book that was out of print — was one of the first pieces in the Backlist section.) Secondly, I’ve learned from my bookish friends over the years that more of them than I would have imagined are big fans of scary cinema. I recently asked Jason about his book and horror movies in general. -JW

You write, “It’s tempting to argue that bad times translate into good horror movies.” But you ultimately avoid that temptation. Why? Similarly, you quote a critic named Carlos Clarens who said, “The more rationalistic a time becomes the more it needs the escape valve of the fantastic.” Do you agree with this? And where do you think we stand on that spectrum at the moment? On the one hand, mass culture can seem irrational to the point of psychosis. On the other, I feel like there’s a Moneyball-esque faith in the wisdom of quantification (of which Nate Silver is perhaps the patron saint) that reaches almost the same point. What does all this say for current horror?

I think that the argument about bad times translating into good horror films has a bit of truth to it, but has been wildly overstated. It’s an appealing theory because the two best periods in the history of horror were during the Depression (the age of the classic Universal monster movies) and Vietnam (the golden age that my book chronicles). But it’s just as easy to build the opposite case. Did the fact that the ’40s were a weak decade for the genre mean that it was a particularly happy time? Of course not. The reason good horror movies are made is far too complicated for such a simple explanation. It has to do with studio and audience tastes, the politics of the ratings board, the evolution of special effects and that completely unquantifiable thing: artistic inspiration. My perspective is this: These movies are a great American art form, and should be treated as such. Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill were very much products of their time, but you can’t simply explain their genius through an analysis of culture, history, sexuality, etc. They have something in their work that transcends that as well. The same goes for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

You mention Hitchcock, and how the horror directors of the 1960s and 1970s had conflicted feelings about him. You also write, “The New Horror was always described by its critical defenders as a radical attempt to shock its audiences with visions more graphic and confrontational and real than had been shown in the past. This ignored just how connected the genre is to the past, how self-conscious these new directors were. [Tobe] Hooper, [Peter] Bogdanovich, [Roman] Polanski, [John] Carpenter, and [George] Romero were making movies that were as much about movies as they were about monsters.” They weren’t really making movies “about” Hitchcock, I suppose. Who were they making them about?

True, Hitch was not behind Michael Myers’ mask, in part because a man his size would not move as quickly. But seriously, on one level, many of these movies were, if not about Hitchcock, then at least engaged in a dialogue with him. Horror in this period became a director’s genre in which the plot mattered less than the story told by the cinematic language of the form. And that cinematic language manipulates the relationship between the audience and the director, which of course is what Hitchcock does so brilliantly. Look at how he gets us to root for a killer when the car holding Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho stops sinking in the swamp. Then the camera focuses on Norman Bates. At that moment, since we’ve just watched him meticulously clean up the crime scene, we feel his sadness — and then we may notice the morally problematic position we’ve been put in. So how do these new horror directors differ from Hitchcock? In the case of Bogdanovich and [William] Friedkin and Carpenter, they pointedly don’t explain their killer (or menacing figure) in a way that comforts the audience. That was, in part, a reaction against the over-explanatory final scene of Psycho. But these movies are also very self-aware. Hooper and [Brian] De Palma both seem fascinated with the point of view of the voyeur or the person watching violence as opposed to the victim or monster. And Bogdanovich’s Targets is an articulate work of criticism about the horror movie. It’s no accident that academics love analyzing horror movies. These movies are begging for it.

Two questions about horror movies and their more (potentially) profound implications: You write that “Romero’s zombies [in Night of the Living Dead] became popular in Europe, where they were interpreted by some critics as a searing indictment of American warmongering and racial prejudice.” But Romero had a white truck driver in mind for the lead role, to the extent that he even had a firm plan, and the black actor, Duane Jones, just gave the best audition and ended up attracting more political interpretations. Night of the Living Dead screenwriter John Russo says, “But I didn’t think it was that political. All that stuff’s bullshit.” How much of horror in the very political era the book covers do you think was intentionally made to make a political point? Or is horror just a particularly good template on which people can project whatever they fear (or want other people to fear) the most?

There’s no question that politics informed many of these movies. These films were made by young men who came of age in the era of Watergate and the generation gap and Vietnam, so that’s a factor. But it’s just one, and in many cases, such as Night of the Living Dead, the political importance was more about what audiences perceived than what the artists intended. So as you say, horror is a great template to project fears. But these movies did not age like political films do. Halloween and Alien and Night of the Living Dead are beloved by audiences born long after Watergate. One of the implicit arguments of my book is that the reason the movies from this period are so great is that they tap into things that aren’t limited to a political moment or the social anxiety of an era. Anxiety about nuclear war or urban crime rises and falls, but the fear of the unknown, which the directors of this period understood with great clarity, does not.

You cite Eli Roth saying (in your words) that “the subtext of movies like Hostel is the anger about the Iraq War.” Even if Roth fully believes that (which I have a hard time buying), I imagine that subtext is lost on most viewers. Where do you come down on this? In today’s horror, where realistic, harrowing violence has reached the point where the genre has been famously dubbed “torture porn,” how much of what’s on screen is because of geopolitical realities and how much is because this was the natural next step to test audiences’ stomachs?

As you could guess from my previous answer, I’m skeptical of reading too much politics into movies like Saw. That said, there is as good an argument for these movies being political as the earlier ones. You could easily draw a direct line to the debates about torture to torture porn. Hostel, after all, is a 2005 movie about some arrogant, naive Americans who visit a foreign country they know too little about and then become wrapped up in a violent mess. Eli Roth is a smart guy, and I would not be shocked if he had Iraq in the back of his mind. George Romero, interestingly, told me he thinks that idea is nonsense.

In 1973, people were fainting and vomiting at screenings of The Exorcist. How exactly did we get to the point where there’s so much gore on network TV, never mind Roth’s Saw movies, etc.?

Audiences just became immune to the new shock and then wanted another one. The Exorcist was a key turning point, not because it showed more gore than before, but because so many people saw it. It was given a pass by the ratings board. I also think some of those people were fainting because the movie’s religious theme shook them up. I went into this book suspecting all those stories about vomiting and fainting was brilliant marketing. I worked hard in my reporting to prove that suspicion. Turns out: I was wrong.

You call the young Vincent Price’s brand of horror “pure fantasy — or at least it was a kind of fantasy where the line between the real and the unreal was clear.” The more that line blurs — for me — the scarier something becomes. One of the most unnerving things I ever watched — as opposed to “scariest,” like when you hop in your seat as someone jumps out — was the scene in Reservoir Dogs when the cop is tortured. I was thrilled to learn from your book that Wes Craven himself couldn’t stomach that scene! Made me feel much less wimpy. If you had to boil down your idea of what is most scary/horrifying/unnerving, after taking in hundreds of horror movies over the course of your life, what would it be?

I think that’s really the key question of the book. In some ways, every great horror movie offers an answer to that question: What is the scariest thing in the world? But there are many kinds of scares. The reason Reservoir Dogs is unnerving, and I agree with your distinction, is that it asks you to be thrilled by torture. It is far more morally problematic, in my opinion, than Hostel. Part of its impact is in its immorality — and that gets to another question about the virtue of art that is immoral or ugly or bigoted. These are not easy questions. The Merchant of Venice has a rather wide streak of prejudice toward Jews, but it’s still a great play. I’m dancing around the question, as you can see, but I would point to two things. I’m a believer in the Lovecraftian idea that the scariest thing in the world is the unknown, so movies that preserve that scare me most. But there are other kinds of scares, and there is the other main emotion inspired by today’s horror: disgust or repulsion. To me, the vague and mysterious inspire dread and fear, while the gross and gory evoke repulsion. In Alien, you have both. I love that movie.

You write, “The central message of the New Horror is that there is no message. The world does not make sense. Evil exists, and there is nothing you can do about it.” It seems you believe that this approach to evil in horror movies has been mostly lost. (Feel free to contradict that.) If so, is there a movie from the past ten years (or so) that recaptures that sense, and how exactly?

I think it’s been forgotten by many, but since horror is so big these days, there are still plenty of movies that have this message. The Strangers is a great example of a movie that retains the almost existential sense that the world is not comprehensible, that evil is just part of the landscape, and that trying to understand it is like arguing with the Grand Canyon.

You wrote this book as a voracious fan of horror movies, but I know you felt it was important that the book also be deeply reported — not just informed and passionate riffing in the Chuck Klosterman vein. Tell me a little about the reporting of it. Which of these icons did you enjoy talking to most? Was there someone you couldn’t get to who you really wish had been a voice in the book?

I strongly believe that the main crisis in arts journalism today is one of reporting. With the Internet, we have more critics than ever, and newspapers are not cutting back on reviews of movies, as far as I can tell. But reporting takes time and costs money, and without it we simply don’t understand the art around us every day as well. Critics need reporters to inform their work, and there seems to be very few places left committed to long-form cultural journalism with any ambition. So I love Klosterman, and I could not do what he does as well as he does it. But as someone who has reviewed culture as well as reported on it for almost fifteen years, the work I’m more proud of is the reporting. I spent four years trying to talk to as many people as possible for this book and truth is, the directors of horror movies are preposterously likable guys, all of them. But one thing I found is that some of my best sources were those around them; in particular, the women in their lives. I’m not the first person to talk to Wes Craven, Brian De Palma and Dan O’Bannon, but I doubt many others have leaned as heavily on sources like Craven and De Palma’s first wives and O’Bannon’s only one. They were there at the time, have not told the same stories scores of times in the press, and offered valuable perspective.

As for the ones who got away, there are two big ones: Polanski and Steven Spielberg. I would absolutely love to talk horror with Spielberg, since he is a much more important figure in the genre than he is given credit for and it’s clear from even watching his non-horror movies that he is incredibly smart about the subjects of suspense and fear. I tracked him down for many years, like Ahab and the whale, and there were moments I thought I might have gotten close, but, alas, it might have always been a fantasy.

You write, “The appeal of horror always overlapped with that of religion. German theologian Rudolf Otto’s 1917 study The Idea of the Holy defines the unknowable essence of faith as fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Horror inspires devotion in part by putting people in the position of feeling in awe, shocked by their own helplessness. Religion helps you cope with this feeling. Horror exploits it.” You call A Serious Man — the semi-autobiographical Coen brothers’ movie about a mild-mannered man in Minnesota who may be stand-in for the Bible’s Job — “the scariest take on religion since The Exorcist.” I’m a huge Coen brothers fan, and I liked A Serious Man, but isn’t that overstating its scare factor a bit? Or a lot?

Ha! You have a point. Maybe Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ deserves that honor. But I do think A Serious Man is scary for a couple of reasons. At times, it seems morally problematic, since the portrait of Jews is so ugly in such a stereotypical way. Of course, the fact the Coens are Jewish and are making a more personal movie factor into it, but it’s no accident that some people have called it an anti-semitic movie. I do not, but the fact that it flirts with caricatures adds a certain uneasy frisson. But I also think the movie’s portrait of the rabbi from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy is terrifying. So is the prospect of performing at a bar mitzvah. And more generally, the overall philosophical point of view of the movie seems in keeping with the spirit of the horror movies I write about. The world is vast, mysterious, and meaningless, and if you look for comfort in authority figures or moral codes, you will be disappointed. And hey, what’s that storm coming? Cue credits.

You recently named your five favorite horror movies for Entertainment Weekly, which were mostly mainstream (but worthy) choices, like Carrie. In keeping with the slightly more obscure interests of this site, I was wondering if you would name and very briefly describe five of your favorite horror movies that the average person (meaning: not Horror Nerds) might not have seen, or even heard of.

The Hitcher and Near Dark: Eric Red, the most underrated horror artist of the 1980s, wrote both of these. The first, a murderous hitchhiker flick starring Rutger Hauer, features one of the most terrifying first ten minutes of any movie ever. The next is Kathryn Bigelow’s debut, and still one of the greatest vampires movies of all time.

Silent Night, Deadly Night: Santa kills. A splendidly shot 1980s exploitation movie that is way better than it has any right to be.

Dead of Night: Bob Clark’s brilliant zombie movie is about a Vietnam vet who returns home not quite right. Great script, wonderful make-up by Tom Savini and a spectacular performance by John Marley (the guy who woke up with the horse in his bed in The Godfather) as the overbearing father.

Hard Candy: Forget Juno. As a seemingly nice girl who an older man picks up on the Internet, Ellen Page delivers the performance of her career.

Mentioned in this review:

Shock Value
Pictures at a Revolution
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Night of the Living Dead
The Exorcist
Reservoir Dogs
The Strangers
A Serious Man
The Hitcher
Near Dark
Silent Night, Deadly Night
Hard Candy