By Jason Zinoman
Shock Value is the latest in a sub-genre of well-written books dealing with the revolution in the film industry in America that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. Mark Harris, whose Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood looked at the year 1967 as the cultural watershed , provides a blurb for the back cover (“If you think you already knew everything you need to know about the ’70s revolution in American film, think again . . .”), and the subtitle of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex – Drugs – and – Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood is consciously echoed by Zinoman: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.
Zinoman’s thesis, that the period from 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby to 1979’s Alien constituted “the greatest golden age of horror,” “the most fertile decade in the history of the genre,” is an interesting one viewed in this larger context. Were the masters of the New Horror – names like Romero, Craven, Hooper, Carpenter, O’Bannon – really leading a creative revolution, or was their work more representative of the cynical, commercial-oriented shift into trashy exploitation film-making that marked the downfall of the New Hollywood? “We were counterrevolutionary,” says one classmate of Carpenter and O’Bannon. “The revolution was the new wave and experimental film, but they are all influenced by American genre pictures. We just skipped the step and went right to the source.” There were crossover figures straddling both sides of the dual revolution, names like Polanski and Friedkin, but they were also the ones who distanced themselves the most from the horror label. Were the New Horror auteurs liberators, or the monsters who ate Hollywood? One recalls the anecdote in Biskind’s book where George Lucas found himself trapped in the mouth of Spielberg’s mechanical shark (the film Jaws being an example, if not a wholly representative one, of the New Horror). And did the New Horror’s trajectory mirror that of the New Hollywood, ending with its own version of Easy Rider‘s “We blew it” in the words of Irwin Yablans, producer of Carpenter’s Halloween (1978):
“They congratulated me [on the box office success of Halloween], but I told them: Fellas, it’s over,” Yablans said. “When the studios see how much money you can make with this kind of film, they are going to want to get in on the action and then you will be finished, and that’s what happened.”
There is, in fact, plenty of evidence for such a falling off. As Zinoman notes, most of the directors he looks at in-depth enjoyed early success that they never matched.
Talk to most of the directors of the classic horror movies from the sixties and seventies and you might detect a weary look on their faces. They appear to be tired of their early hits. They rarely topped them. In fact, most of them didn’t even come close. New Horror movies were supposed to be the start of a great career, not what fans would still be talking about four decades later.
Part of the reason for this, I think, comes down to talent. When you get right down to it, most of these guys (and they were all guys) weren’t particularly talented filmmakers. What they were was lucky to have come of age during a dawn of permissiveness and public receptiveness to their peculiar visions. As “seminal,” “groundbreaking,” and culturally significant as many of the movies discussed by Zinoman were, few of them stand alone as being great movies as opposed to merely successful.
And nothing about horror since the ’70s has seemed as fresh. Knowing and ironic parodies, as formulaic as the targets of their satire, became all the rage, along with a run-down strip mall of exhausted franchises (I honestly have no idea how many Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street movies have been made), and an endless string of bloodier remakes (Night of the Living Dead, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, etc.). Originality now seems in short supply and/or demand. I just recently had the chance to see 28 Days Later, widely touted as one of the better recent efforts, and found it to be a brainless, derivative, seemingly unscripted piece of shit only notable for some nice shots of deserted London in the first few minutes. So where’s the new stuff?
Arriving from Japan, I guess.
Zinoman’s book is very easy to read, and includes plenty of interesting and opinionated analysis. His expansion on Dan O’Bannon’s point about horror being like salt on meat – sensitizing the viewer and making them more alert – into a discussion about how horror is like the experience of being born is nicely done. The recognition of serial killers and zombies as being archetypal horror creatures of our age, and what this says about audience identification with hunters vs. victims, is also spot on (and something I’ve written about myself in the past). The emphasis placed on the New Horror being particularly attuned to exploiting fear of the unknown, however, seems to me overdone. Championing suggested over explicit violence and suspense over shock is something nearly every horror writer and filmmaker has done. And despite some clever footwork by Zinoman, I think it’s a claim that’s probably less applicable to the movies of the ’70s than it is to those of most other periods. Furthermore, I don’t buy the frequent connections made between what was happening on screen to the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft one bit. This generation of writers and directors may have grown up reading Lovecraft, but there’s really precious little evidence of that in their films.
Also, a few minor points: Romero’s debt to Matheson’s I Am Legend, EC Comics and Orson Welles (?) for Night of the Living Dead are all cited, but no mention is made of the movie he confessed to having ripped-off: The Last Man on Earth. The scene of a woman’s nipples being cut off and milk dribbling out of the holes in her breasts does not come from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Two Thousand Maniacs! but rather appears in a later film by this auteur, The Gore Gore Girls. And Saw was not a movie with a “huge budget” that “concentrated on gore and vile, ugly exploitation.” That may be a true statement about the subsequent franchise (again, I’ve lost count of how many there were), but the first film is in fact fairly representative of the kind of clever, outside-the-box, low-budget filmmaking that characterized the New Horror.
Finally, it’s hard to finish Zinoman’s paean to this revolutionary moment in film history without considering the familiar metaphor of the slippery slope. An alternative subtitle would have been The Death of Outrage. It seems incredible now to read about the intense initial reactions to The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead, movies not made that long ago that seem positively tame by today’s standards. It’s almost sad to be left with Wes Craven walking out of Reservoir Dogs (Reservoir Dogs!), and Romero shaking his head over “torture porn.” Perhaps our stomachs have just been getting stronger, our tastes blunted, requiring us to put more and more salt on our meat, but you have to wonder if this gradual desensitization is something we should be concerned about. Where will tomorrow’s shocks come from? I would like to say from movies that are better made, with better writing, more suspenseful direction, and less gore, but I’m not hopeful.
Instead, what I suspect will happen is that new lifestyles will provide new anxieties to exploit. Zombies and serial killers have had a good run, but won’t stay relevant forever. New corners of the uncanny, unknown and (very) unpleasant wait to be discovered and explored.
Review first published online September 12, 2011.