Talking with: Jason Zinoman, author of Shock Value

Film nerds rejoice! New York Times theater critic, Jason Zinoman’s new book Shock Value is this year’s best book about movies. It’s strange, but horror flicks that used to be considered exploitative trash (e.g. Night of the Living Dead,  Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween etc.) are now cannonal works of American Cinema! Heck, Texas Chainsaw is in the Museum of Modern Art! With Shock Value, Zinoman dissects what made these films so successful and so scary; by talking to hundreds of people involved in making these films, considering the inspirations and influences of the directors, and breaking away from traditional critical interpretation of these movies, Zinoman comes close to cracking the core of sheer, senseless cinema terror. Zinoman talked to me about writing his book, new ideas about Brian DePalma and Dan O’Bannon (Alien screenwriter), horror’s meta tendencies, torture porn, and VHS tapes. Enjoy!

AHG: Can you tell my readers Shock Value’s overarching argument?

Jason Zinoman: During the fifties and early sixties, horror movies were lumped into the fantasy genre. At the end of the sixties, horror saw a jarring shift. I don’t want to read too much into it, but there’s common traits these films share. They became more graphic and saw a shift toward realism, blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Instead of focusing on the supernatural, these movies are about the prom queen, going to the beach, babysitting–things that were very familiar and mundane in people’s lives. The films are ambiguous in moral and unresolved in ending.  As the auteur theory took hold in the cinema world, directors saw themselves as auteurs. Focus shifted away from stars like Borris Karloff and Vincent Price onto the directors of themselves. Perhaps an implicit argument in my book is that the auteur theory alone doesn’t explain what makes these movies good, though. One of the things that made The Exorcist great were the arguments between William Friedkin (director) and William Peter Blatty (the novel’s author). In Alien, Dan O’Bannon (screenwriter) is a tremendous creative force in these movies. Even Halloween, which is traditionally thought of entirely driven by John Carpenter, was the articulation of ideas were evolving over many years, and Carpenter was great at paying homage to other people. The clash of points of view lead to compromises that ended up making the movies better than if there was only one aeuterist vision.

AHG: I’ve read that a lot of critics/scholars think that these movies are a response to Vietnam, but I got the feeling you disagree. Can you elaborate?

JZ: Well, Vietnam was an influence on these directors lives. Part of the impetus for Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left was that Craven’s thought America wasn’t being show the real violence in Vietnam; he thought journalism was covering it up, and he wanted to be explicit about it. People who have defended horror over the last couple decades–the ones who made the case that these movies aren’t trash, that they’re worth paying attention to, and that they’re works of art–frequently invoke Vietnam to understand these films. A documentary called The American Nightmare looked at these movies through only that prism–their argument says that these movies are rooted in political and social anxieties of the day. Now, I think there’s a lot of truth to that argument; however, I think the success of these movies is rooted in something more univeral or timeless than the politics of the day. If you talk to these guys, you’ll realize they’re not very politically active people. George Romero is the perfect example. That movie was widely interpreted as a statement about civil rights, that it came from the wake of political assassinations. The truth is though, Romero cast his black protagonist randomly; it was a pure accident.

AHG: Wasn’t Night of the Living Dead already finished before MLK was assinated?

JZ: Exactly. Albeit, the fact that Living Dead was interpreted that way at its release is part of the reason the film became so influential. By focusing on primary sources from the period, and talk to people who knew these guys before they got famous. I wanted to find out what their original motivation was. In some ways, these people who said these movies are about Vietnam, or Watergate, or whatever are doing these movies a disservice. They’re better than that! If we’re still watching Night of the Living Dead four decades later, it can’t only be about Vietnam. People today aren’t obsessed with Vietnam as they once were, yet a TV show like The Walking Dead is a huge hit. Time has proven that these movies are more potent than merely a political statement.

AHG: How did you get access to all the people in the book?

That was probably the hardest part of the book–some of these people took years to just get into the room with me. I worked on the book for four years in tandem with my day job. I guess there were two types of challenges. First, the horror directors: most of the horror people are nice, accessible guys who’ve done a lot of interviews. The book started as a Vanity Fair piece about The Masters of Horror dinner. That was my intro to the whole world: it was great to have a chance to get these directors in the room, talk to them and get a lay of that land for context. Then there were the big Hollywood guys. That was much harder. Getting in touch with William Friedkin is my biggest accomplishment of the book; it took four years.

Some people I never talked to though. For example, Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby) was in jail for part of the time I was writing. I actually got in contact with him before he got put in jail. I told him I was writing a book on horror films and he responded that he’s not a horror director, so I’m not talking to you. That taught me that these guys from this period aren’t necessarily proud to be known as great horror directors.

The other thing is that a lot of these guys have done tons of interviews, telling the same stories over and over again and now the stories have a life of their own. The challenge was getting past the stories and finding out what really happened. Generally, with a guy like Brian DePalma (Carrie, Scarface), I tried to talk to the people around him–his ex-wife, friends before he was famous, people he went to college with–and only after having this picture did I go talk to DePalma directly. What’s different about my book compared to most other books about horror, is that while there’s certainly theories and interpretations, it’s firmly rooted in reporting. That’s what I wanted. My proudest accomplishments are reporting accomplishments. Like getting DePalma to say things about his life and work that haven’t already been in a million interviews.

AHG: It seems like pregnancy and the female body is a big source of terror in the movies you mention (Rosemary’s Baby; The Exorcist; Carrie; Alien). You wrote, “Overwhelming terror may be the closest feeling we get to being born.” Can you elaborate?

I think the most important sentence ever written about horror was by H.P. Lovecraft: “The oldest emotion of mankind is fear and the strongest kind of fear is the fear of the unknown.” If that’s true–that the unknown is scarier than heights, or rats, etc.–then what exactly is “the unknown”? I think something that makes Alien so scary is the stomach explosion scene. No man can ever fathom the horror of childbirth. We can imagine it, but we’ll never experience it. It’s an unknown exclusive to men–once a woman has a baby, the whole process is a lot less mysterious. My wife had a kid a few years ago, which in a weird way, helped me write the book. If you look at a one year old, the first game they play is peek-a-boo–we love to be scared! It must be hardwired into our brains. When you’re born, you enter a world you know nothing about. Things we take for granted–how gravity works, what faces look like, knowing that touching something won’t make it fall apart–all those things are new. If you believe Lovecraft, then for an infant, everything is unknown. There’s an analogy to be made between that infantile unknowing and what horror directors are trying to do: they want to disorient you so much that everything you understand is wrong; what you see is not real. There’s a whole other world to which we can never have access.

AHG: People think that Scream was the first self-aware horror flick, but you bring up plenty of others like Romero’s Martin. Why do you think the genre has always been so aware of its cliches and conventions?

Good question. The traditional history of horror is that Scream ushered in a self-aware, meta style. I think that’s not true. Take a look at Halloween: it’s no accident that Jamie Lee Curtis is watching a scary movie while she’s babysitting (editor’s note: it’s The Thing From Another World).

I have a few theories. One, there’s an element of ritual in horror movies. Some people go to horror movies to see something new, but a lot of people see horror movies to watch the same thing again with slight tweaks. The conventions of horror are integral in scaring the audience. If there’s a scene where a woman goes into the shower, anybody who’s interested in horror movies immediately thinks, Psycho. A smart director could use that to trick you: maybe the killer appears when the woman gets out of the bathroom, for one example. Essentially, horror movies are tools to manipulate the audience and one of the tools of manipulation is your own knowledge of horror movies. These movies are all derivative in some way. The director is making explicit what most genres leave implicit: your previous schema of other horror movies becomes a part of the movie itself.

Two, horror movies are a particularly visual genre. The storytelling has more to do with point-of-view and where the camera moves than it does with the script. The narrative of a movie like Halloween isn’t just a guy breaks out of a mental asylum and kills babysitters–that’s pretty crude and uninteresting. The real narrative is seeing how Carptender manipulates the point of view of the movie from the victim, to the killer, to an observation of the dance back and forth. Those shifts become more important than plot shifts–you could even argue that they are the plot shifts. I think the audience becomes more aware that they’re watching a movie.

There’s also element of immorality, or disreputably inherent to horror. One of the scary things about horror films of this period was simply the fact that you were watching a horror film. It was sort of an embarrassing thing to do. Finding out you liked horror films at this time was almost disturbing. The directors were self-conscious about that. Perhaps that’s on the low-brow end of the spectrum.

Where it gets more high-brow… DePalma, for example, (perhaps the most self-aware of all these directors), was really into Brecht ideas about drama. Brecht advocated for an alienating affect in art; a means of calling attention to the fact that the audience was watching, in Brecht’s case, a play. It allows the audience to dissect these ideas with a little more critical distance. Now, I’m not saying Dressed to Kill is a Brechtian drama, but I do think that DePalma absorbed those ideas and tried to incorporate them into his film. I guess it’s not just one answer, but I think it’s a combination of all these things.

AHG: What’s your take on the “torture-porn debate?” Do you think movies like Hostel and Saw are an extension of ideas introduced by Craven and Hooper, or is it something different?

I think there’s some similarities. Certainly if you talk to Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever) he’ll say that Hostel is an anti-war movie about Iraq, and torture, etc. I tend to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. But I do think that the term torture porn obscures more than it illuminates. What does the term even mean now? When Hostel and Saw came out, everyone understood it; now, I find it’s used mostly as an insult. Movies like A Serbian Film, Human Centipede, or The Hills Have Eyes remake are called torture porn because they have extreme violence, but is that accurate? In my mind, the important distinguishing factor isn’t how graphic the violence is, but instead the point-of-view the director is trying to portray about the violence. I like Hostel. I don’t think it’s about exposing you to horrible things or trying to desensitize the audience to violence. I think Roth is using immoral acts to get to his ends. Maybe the Saw sequels are just violence for the sake of violence. But, I think it certainly depends on the movie.

AHG: You mentioned earlier that Polanski didn’t want to be called a horror director. In the book, you bring up the high-brow pleasure of low-brow art. I guess, has that stigma evaporated away from horror films? What do you say to change the minds of people who dismiss the genre?

I think that it’s already changed a lot. There’s still some stigma, but not to the extent of what was seen in the seventies. Wes Craven really was ashamed of making Last House on the Left; people stopped him at parties to remind him how he was a horrible person. But Eli Roth and Rob Zombie aren’t ashamed of what they do; they see themselves as part of a grand tradition. And, the presidents of movie studios think that too! You don’t need to convince a studio big wig that horror is a bankable genre. Critics too! In Roger Ebert’s review of Night of the Living Dead, he says he hadn’t seen a horror film in 10 years. There’s no way you could find a professional film critic who hasn’t seen a horror film in one year–maybe not even as long as one month!

I think that perhaps the bigger fear is that horror could go too mainstream. If horror loses it’s stigma, then you loose the low-brow pleasure of the genre. It’s fun to do something a little disreputable. People see their first horror movies as kids fully aware that their parents don’t want to see. The fact that they’re morally ambiguous, kind of trashy, maybe even bad for you–that’s part of the fun! People like guilty pleasures; we like what teachers and parents say we shouldn’t like. I think the best horror films tap into that, while simultaneously giving other pleasures. But I know I wouldn’t want to live in a world where horror movies are completely reputable. Horror movies have always tried to push the envelope and find out what is taboo, or shocking at the time of creation. Locating the taboo isn’t obvious–it’s not more violence or gore, that’s been done. It takes a lot of creative to push the line just far enough before it becomes unenjoyable. A movie like Texas Chainsaw Massacre dances on that line between trash and art, moral and immoral, and I think that’s a fun place to be.

I get what you mean! While I was reading your book, my roommate was watching Antichrist. That seems like a film that takes away all the “low-brow pleasure” of the genre. Once you make an art house horror movie, it’s not fun anymore.

I agree. We don’t want to give the horror genre to Lars Von Trier. Sure, he’s interested in things typical to horror movies: scares, violence, shocks. But he’s missing something essential about what makes horror movies fun. There’s a certain self-seriousness about his movies that lose the fun.

AHG: On a much lighter note completely devoid of castration and female circumcision, in the book Eli Roth  says, “The way that kids first learned about horror movies in the seventies and eighties was usually from unreliable sources..hearing about these movies secondhand gave them the power of legend before they became popular.” Did you have any experiences where you heard about horror movies before you saw them?

JZ: In third or fourth grade, my friends would have long conversation about the Friday the 13th movies even though none of us had ever seen them. We told stories trickled down from older brothers about various graphic details and murder scenes. The movie we were describing probably barely resembled the Friday’s actual plot (and really, there wasn’t much plot to begin with). But there was something great about recounting the plots of horror movies. It was like telling ghost stories around a campfire. I like contemporary horror movies, but today’s horror market makes it so hard to make a  movie scary. The script will get leaked on the internet, the trailer gives too much away, the press and PR talk it up too much. Not to mention, kids are technosavy: they can read reliable summaries, or even download the whole movie! In the eighties, there was no internet or cable. You heard stories and let your imagination fill in all the details.

AHG: I remember talking about Friday the 13th when I was a kid, too, but I’d try to figure out plots from the VHS covers at the rental store. I can’t remember which Friday the 13th it was, but the one where a worm is coming out of Jason’s mask really creeped me out. I still remember it.

JZ: Exactly! Going to the video store and knowing a movie only for its cover. I remember a movie called April Fool’s Day. There was a girl at a party, holding a knife behind her back, and her hair was braided into a ponytail noose. I’ve never seen it, and I’m probably never going to see it. There’s no way the movie could be better than that poster.

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2 comments
  1. vancinema said:

    Dan Zukovic’s “DARK ARC”, a bizarre modern noir dark comedy called “Absolutely brilliant…
    truly and completely different…” in Film Threat, was recently released on DVD through
    Vanguard Cinema (http://www.vanguardcinema.com/darkarc/darkarc.htm), and is currently
    debuting on Cable Video On Demand. The film had it’s World Premiere at the Montreal
    World Film Festival, and it’s US Premiere at the Cinequest Film Festival. Featuring
    Sarah Strange (“White Noise”), Kurt Max Runte (“X-Men”, “Battlestar Gallactica”,) and
    Dan Zukovic (director and star of the cult comedy “The Last Big Thing”).

    TRAILER : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPeG4EFZ4ZM

    ***** (Five stars) “Absolutely brilliant…truly and completely different…something you’ve never tasted
    before…” Film Threat
    “A black comedy about a very strange love triangle” Seattle Times
    “Consistently stunning images…a bizarre blend of art, sex, and opium, “Dark Arc” plays like a candy-coloured
    version of David Lynch. ” IFC News
    “Sarah Strange is as decadent as Angelina Jolie thinks she is…Don’t see this movie sober!” Metroactive Movies
    “Equal parts film noir intrigue, pop culture send-up, brain teaser and visual feast. ” American Cinematheque

  2. josh said:

    I think we are seeing a new genre forming and in ten years movies like Serbian film will seem tame.

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