Shock of the New Horror
Shock Value: how a few eccentric outsiders gave us nightmares, conquered Hollywood, and invented modern horror
Duckworth Overlook, 2012
The release of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus has attracted much attention. One man who would be particularly interested in seeing it is Jason Zinoman. What he would make of it is another matter. For Prometheus is, broadly speaking, a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. It supplies back story. But this is not necessarily what Jason Zinoman would want. In Shock Value he chronicles the decade of innovation and excess in the horror genre that preceded Alien, and at the heart of this engaging and well-written book is the notion that what scares us most is what is never fully explained.
This was a lesson well understood by horror directors of the 1970s. Their monsters rarely had back story. Take John Carpenter’s Halloween, godfather of the modern slasher movie: exactly who, or what, the masked killer Michael Myers is, we never know; nor do we find out why he terrorises the mundane town of Haddonfield, Illinois. He just does it. The cinematic bogeyman was cut loose from the comforting ties of explanation but planted squarely in the real world. We meet similarly terrifying, and terrifyingly inexplicable, figures in the cannibals of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the zombies of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.
These are among the key texts in what Zinoman terms the “New Horror”. Others were Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), two tales of the devil at large in contemporary America, as well as The Last House on the Left (1972) and Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), the latter starring 1930s horror icon Boris Karloff seemingly as an encapsulation of the move from an old, outdated type of horror cinema to pastures new and frightening. And the pastures were new and frightening indeed. Gone were the supernatural preoccupations and traditional movie monsters of previous horror films; gone too was the clear divide between the realms of fantasy and reality. Contemporary uncertainties and more perennial anxieties were thrown into the mix; this was, after all, the age of Vietnam and Watergate. The concoction was explosive.
That is not to say that the New Horror came out of nowhere. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a real-world serial-killer shocker that refused to play by the rules, was a major influence, though a double-edged one. Brian De Palma may have spent most of his early career as a director revamping Hitchcock for films such as Sisters and Dressed to Kill, but like many horror directors of the time he took pains to avoid what was seen as Hitchcock’s great cop-out: the scene of medical diagnosis that ends the picture and grounds the movie back in some kind of rationality. Ambiguity was paramount. There should be no easy answers, no comfort, and no escape.
Yet these films were often as difficult to make as they were to watch, and as Zinoman shows, it was precisely this difficulty that made the films what they were. Budgets were usually low. On Halloween, Michael Myers’s iconic visor was, famously, an inverted William Shatner mask painted white. Newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis was paid $8000 for her role; the whole film cost a mere $320,000. On the set of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, soaring temperatures—it was filmed at the height of summer—played havoc with cheap make-up effects and the already volatile dispositions of cast and crew. The film’s most gruelling set piece, a darkly comedic family dinner with the heroine intended as the cannibals’ chief dish, took 26 straight hours to shoot; the scene’s intensity had as much to do with the awful shooting conditions as with its unpleasant (though, as in the rest of the film, virtually bloodless) content.
Creative differences were also significant. Producer and director did not always see eye to eye. Wes Craven’s infamous 1972 debut, The Last House on the Left, was a much-banned rape-revenge movie, cheaply, and in some ways poorly, made. But Craven was no schlock maestro. Prior to his movie career, he had taught literature and aspired to be a novelist. He channelled elements of his strict Baptist upbringing and his horror at media coverage of Vietnam into a despairing and nihilistic screenplay about the corrupting effects of violence. The Last House on the Left portrays, in unflinching detail, the appalling abuse of two girls by a gang of low-lifes, and the equally appalling revenge meted out on them by one of the girl’s parents. More perceptive viewers noticed that the film was in fact a grindhouse remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, but Bergman was certainly not on the mind of the producer Sean Cunningham, later to rise to fame as the brains (if one can call it that) behind the Friday the 13th franchise. He wanted a cheap exploitation film. In a sense, he got it. But Craven’s more ruminative, morally ambiguous underpinnings gave the film an aura of hopelessness that subverted Cunningham’s escapist intentions—and caught the attention of some of the critics. The contradictory ideals and ideas that went into the film made it all the harder to fathom, and all the more discomforting.
Craven is one of the “eccentric outsiders” of the title, an edgy intellectual who poured his personality and experiences into the films he made. Another was Dan O’Bannon, the writer of Alien, a moody introvert racked by the pains of long-undiagnosed Crohn’s disease (which was eventually to kill him), but blessed with an offbeat sense of humour and the ability to turn an imaginative hand to various aspects of film production: he co-wrote, edited, designed, and acted in John Carpenter’s debut feature Dark Star, as well as providing special effects. Alien’s most notorious scene witnessed the nascent creature erupting from an astronaut’s body, a potent expression not only of O’Bannon’s own intestinal trauma but also of the male fear of giving birth. George Romero was, more straightforwardly, a childhood fan of EC Comics out to have a good time, rather like Tobe Hooper, the director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; but the youthful Romero shared the concerns about racism and consumerism voiced by his demographic, and struck a blow against both in his Dead movies.
Zinoman revels in the details. His dissection of what went into these films is exemplary. Only very occasionally are the facts faulty, for instance when he confuses his Herschell Gordon Lewis movies. This brings us to the book’s chief problem. Zinoman excels on a film-to-film basis. On the bigger picture, he is less convincing. We should not doubt for a moment that Zinoman takes the films of the New Horror seriously. He wants the reader to take them seriously too. That is an honourable aim, but it has the unfortunate side-effect of brushing aside the vast swathe of horror cinema that predated them. Central to Zinoman’s thesis is the idea that horror cinema grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So the myth of progress rears its head, and with it the myth that greater ambiguity means greater sophistication. We should be wary of giving undue credence to both.
Zinoman observes, rightly, that “originality has always been overrated in horror movies”. Given this, we are due a clearer picture of what the New Horror owed to the Old. We do not get it, no doubt because Zinoman’s argument would be the first casualty. But the debt is profound. Noted horror producer Val Lewton, who receives one single mention in the book, pioneered a distinctly ambiguous type of horror cinema in the 1940s with films such as Cat People and The Seventh Victim; the latter, in fact, with its plot about Satanists in Greenwich Village, dreamlike blurring of fantasy and reality in the mind of its protagonist, and downbeat ending, is too great an influence on Rosemary’s Baby to be ignored. Nor should we forget that Lewton was merely part of a horror heritage that stretched back to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw—itself filmed, brilliantly, as The Innocents in 1961. And what are we to make of such French efforts as Les Diaboliques and Eyes Without a Face, two films that wobble the moral compass spectacularly while failing to come to a satisfyingly explicatory resolution? The New Horror may have refused to play straight, but to do so was hardly novel.
But if Zinoman errs in supposing the approach to be new, he also errs in supposing it to be more interesting. The main horror outlet of the 1960s was Britain’s Hammer Studios, and this underrated institution gets short shrift from our author. It deserves better. Hammer specialised in period gothic, building profitable franchises around such traditional monsters as Dracula and Frankenstein in much the same way that Hollywood’s Universal Studios had done in the 1930s. To start these, they had successfully tinkered with the classic horror set texts to produce short, sincerely melodramatic, and full-blooded adaptations. (The unprecedented goriness of these films undoubtedly paved the way for the excesses of the genre in the following decade, though Zinoman doesn’t mention this.)
The need to keep the formula fresh produced some fascinating, and criminally neglected, Hammer horror pieces. One was Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, an oneiric (and bandage-free) reworking of Bram Stoker’s strange novel The Jewel of Seven Stars; another was the violent, Ray Bradbury-inflected Vampire Circus. The less said about The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, an unsuccessful attempt to wed Dracula with kung-fu, the better; but two points arise. The first is that the Old Horror had a good deal more vitality than is commonly appreciated; the second is that horror cinema can, and does, have many strands. There is a place for the kind of nihilistic, angst-driven terror that Wes Craven and George Romero did so well, but there is surely also one for Hammer’s gothic melodrama. Zinoman has done us a great service in laying the New Horror before us in all its detail. Yet in doing so he has lost sight of the inherent continuity and breadth of the genre.
Hugh Reid is reading for a DPhil in History at Lincoln College, Oxford.