Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror
US: Jul 2011
Hollywood horror was born out of the Gothic. Universal Studios breakthrough features Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) not only looked to the fantastic novels of the 19th century, they embodied the key Gothic trope in both their plots and sets: terror comes from the past. Frankenstein may be the fist cyborg and modern science the real monster, but the up-to-date laboratory is housed in what looks suspiciously like a medieval dungeon. Dracula may move to a bustling London, but we meet him in the midst of a crumbling castle complete with spiderwebs and howling wolves.
By the end of the ‘60s, the Gothic vision of cinematic horror with its vampires, werewolves, and mummies didn’t scare anyone, especially in a world defined by the menace of nuclear Armageddon and an escalating war in Vietnam. In his new book, Jason Zinoman argues that the fantastic, Gothic monsters of the first half of the 20th century were replaced by a New Horror. He writes, “What New Horror movies share is a sense that the most frightening thing in the world is the unknown in the everyday, the inability to understand the monster right in front of your face.”
The year 1968 is the annus mirabilis of New Horror, seeing the end of the restrictive Hollywood production code that kept filmmakers on a short leash when they tired to depict sex, violence, or inspire terror in their audiences. With its end, suddenly there appear both big-budget horror from major studios like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and ultra low-budget outsider productions like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Zinoman puts together a complete picture of the New Horror, a style that dominated the genre from 1968 until the mid-‘80s. Rejecting the Gothic, these films focus on the everyday, often set on city streets and suburban homes. The killers are thinly motivated, if at all, and the violence is savage. There’s no need to go and find such horror—it finds its victims in their own lives.
Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets, makes clear the difference between what Zinoman names Old Horror and New Horror. Indeed, as Zinoman himself characterizes it, Targets is really an essay on the difference between the two.
Bogandovich is not usually thought of as a horror director. Best known for the stunning success of The Last picture Show (1971), he got his start in actual movie making working for Roger Corman on the biker film The Wild Angels (1966). Corman gave Bogdanovich the chance to write and direct his own feature length film, provided that it star Boris Karloff, who had in fact played Frankenstein in 1931. Zinoman writes, “Karloff represented the cobwebs of a spooky castle, cheap advertising, the lurching monster—in other words, the Old Horror.”
In collaboration with his often unacknowledged wife, production designer Polly Platt, and a good deal of advice from Samuel Fuller, Bogdanovich created a film in which Karloff essentially plays himself, an aging horror star conscious that he has become largely irrelevant. This story is juxtaposed to that of a young sniper who kills his own family and then begins a campaign of terror, shooting random people on the freeway and at a drive-in theater. This is the New Horror, “a blond, blue-eyed sniper who kills for no reason. His murders are random and passionless. He buys bullets like other people buy socks. And when he guns down his victims, he doesn’t even smile.”
Zinoman is right that Targets is the New Horror, but his analysis avoids the ending of the film, a brilliant scene at a drive-in, in which Karloff himself confronts the young sniper, looming up before him and striking him with his cane, all brilliantly doubled by his cinematic self lurching forward on the the drive-in screen in the decidedly Old Horror aesthetic of Corman’s The Terror. With that ending, Bogdanovich seems to be suggesting that while we may have to live in a world of New Horror, we secretly long for the simpler, more clearly moral world of the Gothic. Zinoman is so fervent in his admiration for the New Horror, he sometimes forgets the profound nostalgia Old Horror evoked, even in the late ‘60s.
Most of the films and the directors that Zinoman writes about have been well covered in other books, and almost every director he writes about is the subject of at least one monograph. These books have made the very same distinctions about Hollywood and radical changes the end of the studio system brought about in the late ‘60s. In the case of Bogdanovich, the making of Targets and the distinction between the Gothic and a New Horror is brilliantly told in great detail by Andrew Yule in Picture Shows: The Life and Times of Peter Bogdanovich. Moreover, the non-genre account of the new Hollywood that emerged in these years is Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, and it tells a very similar story about the shifts in aesthetics and business that took place in these years.
What Zinoman does do, however, is put all of the makers of New Horror into context, showing them in relationship to changes in Hollywood and the culture and, in essence, providing a very readable and engaging synthesis. Particularly good is his map of the network of influences, mutual inspirations, and impact. As he puts it:
“While most of the directors did not socialize with one another—this was before horror conventions and film festivals became popular—they kept close track of what the others were doing, borrowing good ideas and generally working in a kind of long-distance collaboration. As a result, a direct link can be drawn from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist, from The last House on the Left to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and from Night of the living Dead to every horror movie since.”