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The throes of the feel-bad 1970s were a great time for American movies. Picking over the bones of a collapsed Hollywood, a new wave of filmmakers took post-Watergate, post-Vietnam weltschmerz and spun it all into a sexy, druggy, kinetic library of modern classics, and along the way became the new studio system.
But that’s another book. While the directors chronicled in Peter Biskin’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls tore down the old conventions of the movie screen, another cinematic upheaval was brewing at the grindhouse down the block. No one gave a damn about Frankenstein or Dracula, and in an era of dead soldiers and political assassinations on television, Hitchcock just wasn’t scary anymore.
“Psycho was kind of restrained, I always thought,” Wes Craven says early on in Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value, a new history of modern horror films that aims to do for the blood-and-guts set what Biskind did for the New Hollywood generation.
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Of course, cheap, hidden thrills have been part of the film industry since the technology was invented. Early nickelodeons showed quick nudie films down the boardwalk from silent-era classics; in the early ’60s, drive-ins and downtrodden art-houses played Herschel Gordon Lewis’ hardcore bloodbaths.
Lewis, who cranked out titles like Blood Feast a few years after Psycho, is one of Zinoman’s earliest adopters of the “New Horror.” But it was George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead that combined Lewis’ taste for human entrails with relevant social commentary—a black protagonist fighting a mob of white zombies at the nadir of the Civil Rights movement—and made the genre relevant, even if Romero won’t cop to the political subtext.
The bulk of Shock Value focuses on Craven, a former English teacher, and John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, who met as classmates at the University of Southern California. Zinoman delves into the genesis of Craven’s 1971 breakout picture, The Last House on the Left: Sick of teaching and bitterly divorced, Craven plumbed those depths and came up with a more visceral twist on Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. A few years later, Carpenter and O’Bannon collaborated on Dark Star, a largely unseen science-fiction parody that is more a sketchbook for visual-effects artists than a landmark film. Carpenter’s big move came in 1976 with Assault on Precinct 13, which combined Rio Bravo-style cowboy justice with a Romero-like horde.
O’Bannon is Zinoman’s tragic figure. Throughout Shock Value, O’Bannon is never less than a brilliant writer and artist, perhaps too brilliant to find success. Only after developing Crohn’s disease in the late ’70s did he find a winning idea: The lasting image of a grotesque alien fetus bursting through a man’s abdomen.
This kind of detail is Zinoman’s best strength, but it betrays one of Shock Value’s underlying weaknesses. For all of O’Bannon’s Lovecraftian inspiration, it took an emerging visual stylist named Ridley Scott to realize Alien. Scott might have directed a key horror film, but that hasn’t been his career. Other directors of the era pass through on their way to greater heights. Though Rosemary’s Baby makes Zinoman’s point that the “New Horror” added “prestige” to scary movies, Roman Polanski has branched out since then. Polanski, Scott, and William Friedkin all directed groundbreaking and critically acclaimed horror films, but one wouldn’t exactly call them permanent members of the club.
O’Bannon, who never repeated the success of Alien, died in 2009. Carpenter and Romero’s new films are laughed out of theaters on arrival. Only Craven has experienced the same kind of success as his New Hollywood brethren—by spoofing his own work with the Scream series. Zinoman rightly laments that today’s horror landscape is lousy with remakes of his touchstones and “torture porn” that’s more gross than scary. Originality is in a body bag. So what is Craven up to? Scream 5 is said to be in development.
Zinoman speaks on Thursday, July 28 at 7 p.m. at Politics & Prose. Free.