[5 August 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.”
A real strength of Zinoman’s book is a wealth of original interviews he conducted with both directors and others involved in the making of the New Horror. Though he has chapters that deal with everyone from Brian De Palma to William Friedkin, he focuses particularly on George Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. In every case, Zinoman is at pains to contest the auteur theory, the idea that behind every great film is the vision of a single artist, usually the director. This idea has continued to hold sway with critics, fans, and movie makers themselves because it makes for a good story, the heroic vision of the artist overcoming the challenges of making a film. It also makes the process of making a film seem less complex and chaotic than it actually is, and the financial rewards for those few directors who rise to the status of auteurs is astounding. The reality, however, is that filmmaking is perhaps the most collaborative of all the arts.
As Zinoman points out, even though George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, it “was made in the spirit of a hippie commune of its era, shot by a group of recent college graduates who smoked pot and tossed some ideas around.” Even the crucial choice of African American actor Duane Jones to play the hero Ben was something of a chance, not a vision, as the script didn’t call for black actor in the role. Thus, the pragmatic challenges and unexpected opportunities of filmmaking changed the small horror film into a charged racial allegory. Zinoman observes that in many of the abject images that are the mark of New Horror, politics come along for the ride, making these films seemingly more coherent in their reception than in the actual production: “the image of child feeding on her father and a mob of undead carries obvious political implications”
The careers of director John Carpenter and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon anchor the book in many ways, and tell not only the story of New Horror, but also the oldest story in Hollywood: two collaborators share much in the creation but fail to share in success. In this version, Carpenter is the talented but slick opportunist who rises to fame and fortune with Halloween while O’Bannon, geeky, paranoid and brilliant creates and then loses control of Alien. They begin together with Dark Star as a film school project at USC. For almost no money, they made an atmospheric and absurdist film that would anticipate the ethos of a grittier, working class vision of the future. They collaborated extensively, with O’Bannon doing much of the script, the design, and even acting in the film while Carpenter obsessed over the shots. Their partnership, however, didn’t last:
“Soon after the movie was made, O’Bannon began telling their friends that he did so much work on the film that it was misleading for Carpenter to call himself the director. He said that he was as responsible for what was on-screen as Carpenter was. Carpenter knew the value of being seen as the auteur, and when word got to him about what O’Bannon was saying, he wasted no time clearing it up. He took O’Bannon out to a restaurant, told him that he was the director and no one else, and then said that they needed to stop working together.”
O’Bannon allows Zinoman to turn his critique of the auteur theory into tragedy. Clearly, O’Bannon was brilliant, tossing off ideas, taking risks, generating an incredible amount of energy. In film school, he was chosen as a partner by John Carpenter, the rising star. After film school, despite their falling out, doors opened, and it seemed like O’Bannon should have found major success. But collaboration has its dark side, and O’Bannon’s paranoia, egotism, rages and general inability to develop the kind of social skills necessary to thrive cost him a career and made him a minor character rather than a star of New Horror.
Zinoman clearly loves horror films, and he writes about them with real affection. One of the greatest pleasures of the book is reading his evocations of films like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, The Exorcist, and Alien. For readers new to horror, he connects the films to their earlier literary and cinematic influences, like the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and classic films like It Came From Outer Space. He also points readers in the direction of films that few but aficionados would know, like George Romero’s Martin, a small film about a young boy convinced he is a vampire. As Zinoman describes it, “Martin, sensitive, lonely, and surrounded by terrible relationships, appears harmless compared with the ugliness that besets ordinary people in the dying industrial city of Pittsburgh.”
The weakest part of the book is its last chapter, “The Fear Sickness”, in which Zinoman tries to understand not just how New Horror came to be, but the far more complex question, why do we enjoy these films? He gamely summarizes a number of theories that concentrate on a release of our own repressed fears and desires, citing Steve King’s rather Freudian account from Danse Macbre, but he finally decides that its all about returning to childhood. He writes, “These are movies that want to confuse you, in part because getting lost focuses the attention on the terror of uncertainty. That’s something we can all relate to, because we were all children. As you get older, it becomes harder to access that shock of being lost, that feeling of helplessness that is as attractive as it is upsetting.” This universal “we” of the spectator is more than a bit troubling when every horror film he talks about was directed by a man and the majority of the audience for these films are also young men.
Its even more telling that the violence in these films is usually played out on the bodies of women. To say this is just “a return to childhood” is not only naive, but deeply troubling. Is it a return in the same way for men as it is for women? Is it a return to “childhood”, or a series of far more complex returns that circulate around male fears of castration and horror at the spectacle of childbirth? The latter is a theme that Zinoman acknowledges throughout the book, but never really analyzes in any critical depth.
Major scholars have written substantial accounts to answer these questions, but you wouldn’t really know that from reading Zinoman’s book. While he tells the stories of how the men created these films, readers interested in what these films mean would do well to skip his last chapter and instead pick up work like Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film or Barbara Creed’s magisterial The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis. Creed’s enormously influential account argues convincingly that New Horror films are not about a return just to childhood helplessness, but rather an encounter with our patriarchal culture’s horror at the maternal body, the violent slashing of women acting out the very castration, both symbolic and literal, that so drives the fears of young men. Creed roots her comprehensive and subtle readings of these films in philosopher Julia Kristeva’s brilliant work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.
Indeed, after reading Zinoman’s weak conclusion, one is tempted to to say that while it might have taken men to give us films like The Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it takes women like Kristeva and Creed to tell us what they mean.
David Banash is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University. He teaches courses in contemporary literature, film, and popular culture.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/145716-shock-value/