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Today we continue our chat with author Jason Zinoman, who
discusses the writing of his Penguin Press hardcover book SHOCK VALUE,
subtitled HOW A FEW ECCENTRIC OUTSIDERS GAVE US NIGHTMARES, CONQUERED HOLLYWOOD,
AND INVENTED MODERN HORROR. See part one here.
FANGORIA: Today we hear about rewrites and filmmakers’ ideas
being prematurely disrupted along the way on projects. Studios see more reason
to meddle now in these things, where they might not have in the period you
JASON ZINOMAN: Right. Another theme of the book in terms of
the reporting of it, is the book believes in the auteur theory, that you need
to look closely at these directors to understand the movies—but it also doesn’t
believe the auteur theory is completely sufficient. These movies were
collaborative efforts. Tobe Hooper had a lot of help on TEXAS CHAINSAW
MASSACRE, William Friedkin on THE EXORCIST… What I tried to do with these
movies with what I discovered is that behind every one of them is a conflict,
an argument between two or more artists or traditions. People tend to think
that great art is the result of one artist achieving their vision. What I
discovered is that a lot of the great art in the horror genre came out of the
clash of two competing visions, which resulted in compromises, and in some
cases the compromised vision turned out to be better than the original version.
So there are things about the commercial aspect of making
movies, which are terrible, but there are some things that make these movies
better. The reason John Carpenter says he made the music for HALLOWEEN was
because he [couldn’t] afford another person. If he’s being honest, I don’t know. But
he ended up making an incredibly brilliant musical score that ended up
influencing many movies. Tobe Hooper worked out the plot of his movie with Kim
Henkel. Dan O’Bannon didn’t get much credit at all for ALIEN, but the key
decisions of that movie that made it great were as much his doing, or more so
than the director’s. So the auteur theory can help explain, but it can also
obscure the truth of these movies.
FANG: You mentioned O’Bannon and his role in cultivating
ALIEN; the concept of the creature itself and the anxieties it elicits are
purely his doing.
ZINOMAN: That’s right.
FANG: You detail it at length, but could you talk a bit
about what you dub “the monster problem,” as you understand it?
ZINOMAN: Yeah. This, to me, was the great challenge of all
these movies. This is not a new idea, but that the scariest thing in the world
is the unknown, which H.P. Lovecraft pointed out, among others. Then, the
challenge of the horror movie is that the audience wants to see the monster,
either literally or figuratively. The problem is, once you see the monster, an
element of the unknown is lost. So the audience wants to see the monster, but
often at the climax, when they do, they’re disappointed. That’s where I came to
the term “the monster problem.” That was the central problem, and still one of
the central problems in horror movies. In the period that I look at, every
single one of these films provides a brilliant answer to that problem, with
different answers. The pinnacle to why they’re great is the ingenious way that
they solve the monster problem.
In the case of HALLOWEEN, John Carpenter built this killer
who you see, he’s on the screen, in person. But he has absolutely no
psychology. No motivation you can tell. He moves in this way that seems a
little like a ghost, but he’s not a ghost. He’s somewhere between a ghost and
not. And this is what Carpenter intended, that he is something of an absence of
a character. So that, on screen you see him, but he preserves a sense of
mystery and the unknown. And that to me is the great innovation of [the film],
and that solved the monster problem.
ALIEN is interesting, in that it’s one of the few movies
where the idea that seeing the monster is the anticlimax breaks down. The
chestburster scene, I’ve seen it hundreds of times, and it’s one of the few
monster appearances that’s still amazing and still powerful. There’s many
reasons for it, but there are two kinds of fear that he’s working on. One is
the sort of suspense, misdirection, the Hitchcockian thing. But what’s great
about O’Bannon, he also appreciates the power of disgust and repulsion and
gore, and that sort of stickier, more disgusting thing, and he tapped into it
with this kind of childbirth-type thing in the context of a man. It’s also in
between; it’s very mechanical and hi-tech, but also sexual and human. There’s
the sense that it’s hard to put into a neat category, which makes it elusive
and gets it around the monster problem.
FANG: There’s also the flipside. In the case of Romero, the
solution to the monster problem was achieved inadvertently. People saw NIGHT OF
THE LIVING DEAD as a political allegory, but he just thought he was making a
ZINOMAN: Right, right [laughs]. That’s one of the great
things about the genre. The fans really deserve a lot of the credit. The reason
for every zombie movie he made since NIGHT is because of fans. And critics, but
mainly fans. It was unusual to see this black protagonist as a survivor figure,
and they read all this critical meaning to it, and it actually opened Romero’s
eyes. So when he made DAWN OF THE DEAD, he thought…
FANG: Now I’m actually really gonna work in this stuff [laughs]…
ZINOMAN: Yeah, exactly! And he owes that debt to horror
fans. There’s this dialogue between people who make horror and people who
consume it that has produced great things. Too often there’s the [perception]
that if you’re thinking about the audience too much, you’re pandering. But in
the case of Romero, responding to what the audience saw in that movie made him
more artistically ambitious. It is possible to adapt your movies to pander to
your audience in a way that’s crappy and cynical, but in this case, keeping a
dialogue not improved his career, but made him deep in his vision. Not only
credit goes to the fans, but to the alternative horror press back in the day,
for treating these movies seriously in a way the mainstream press did not.
FANG: What of modern and postmodern horror? Are the recent
resurgence of remakes a sign of decline, or is there hope to be found in those
ZINOMAN: There’s a lot of hope, actually. The quantity,
there’s so much more. It’s an exciting time for horror. There’s fewer truly
inspired masterpieces. And to some extent, time will tell, but my view as a
critic is that now there’s more good horror, less great horror. I’m trying to
work on a story right now to sort of defend the remake a little bit. I don’t
think there’s anything wrong with the idea of remakes. Carpenter’s THE THING is
a great movie. Cronenberg’s THE FLY is a great movie. But I think there’s a
sense with a lot of the remakes today that they’re just trying to do the same
movie with a higher budget, and glossier-there doesn’t seem to be a point of
view behind it.
But what’s exciting today is that you have both big
Hollywood horror, which is generally not in a golden age, but then you have
this huge world outside of that, of low-budget horror, of horror on television,
which is often quite good. And then you have in some ways the true inheritors
of the legacy of the horror of the 1970s, in mainstream Hollywood art films. If
you look at BLACK SWAN, the Coen brothers’ movie A SERIOUS MAN… It’s clear to me
that those filmmakers grew up watching Brian De Palma, John Carpenter. NO COUNTRY
FOR OLD MEN, the killer in that is essentially the same as Michael Myers. The
kind of ambiguity, the sort of mystery we’ve been talking about, the Coen
brothers employ. Clearly BLACK SWAN is playing games with voyeurism and the
blurring of the line between fantasy and reality that De Palma and Polanski
pioneered. So it’s interesting when you see some of those ambitious horror
movies, although not all would call them that. I didn’t love SUPER 8, but I
liked it—most people talk about it being an homage to Spielberg, CLOSE
ENCOUNTERS, E.T. To me, it’s just as much an homage to Romero and Carpenter.
FANG: Well, that “Romero Plant” nod couldn’t be any more on-the-nose.
ZINOMAN: The guys who casted clearly spent a lot of time
studying photos of the people making NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The kid who
plays the director is wearing a shirt that’s in pictures that Romero wore from
the ’60s. There is that tension in tone between sort of E.T. and HALLOWEEN, to
say the least. It’s a movie-lovers’ movie, and I’m watching it and noticing the
different references and tones, but I’m watching it and wondering, “Do all
these different elements fit well together?” I’m not quite sure I know.
FANG: You touch on this rift in discourse that’s been going
on between Splat Pack and provocateur types, and the reactions of the
generation of filmmakers you cover in the book; Craven found room to praise
something like HOSTEL, while Romero knee-jerked it. Do you subscribe to
critical terms like “torture porn”?
ZINOMAN: “Torture porn” was a term coined by David
Edelstein, and like any term, it simplifies. It’s greater purpose is to
simplify. I think we should give movies like HOSTEL the benefit of the doubt
just like people gave NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD the benefit of the doubt. It
doesn’t really matter to me that Romero didn’t intend to make a movie about
civil rights, and it doesn’t really matter to me whether or not Eli Roth was
making a movie about torture. But it’s echoed in the movie. A lot of these
movies that are called torture porn I love. Horror needs to always be pushing
the envelope a little bit. I don’t like it when horror gets too safe, gets too
respectable. So these movies like HUMAN CENTIPEDE, SERBIAN FILM, it’s important
to have these movies that still upset people and may or may not be unethical.
And it’s actually good for horror to have some of these
elder statesmen kind of dismiss these movies. It shows that horror’s still
vital and daring and willing to take risks. I wouldn’t want a horror genre
where the older characters in the genre have too much respect for the younger
characters. You’ve gotta kill your father at some point [laughs]. If anything,
the problem I see with horror is that the younger filmmakers have too much
respect for the older ones. In some ways they’ve become too meta, too much
homage. But generally speaking, the phrase “torture porn,” it’s not a helpful
term. Maybe 10 years ago it would describe things in a way that made sense.
But is HUMAN CENTIPEDE torture porn? I don’t know. What’s a
slasher movie? How do you define porn? A lot of people use “torture porn” as a
synonym for “bad” [laughs], and a way to dismiss it. If you’re going to use the
term to dismiss something like SAW because you didn’t like it, then that’s not
useful; SAW is a lot better than that. If you use it as a descriptive term,
about what it “is,” and people can disagree about it, that is perfectly fine.
FANG: Any upcoming projects in the works?
ZINOMAN: I have a couple of ideas. I’m at the Times, so I’ll
be doing that, and I have ideas for another book. But I’ll tell you, it’s
exhausting. It’s a lot of work [laughs]. It takes a long time to write. The
reason I was able to finish this book, is at the end of the day, I love horror
movies, and I’m perfectly happy to spend years and years and years watching
movies and talking to people about them. I have an idea that I was into, some
big stories that I was reporting on Cirque de Soleis that I wanted to write.
But at the end of the day, I can’t justify spending four years of my life on
something I’m not as passionate about as I am in horror. So I think I’m gonna
wait till I can’t find something else before I jump into another book that I’m
really passionate about. Meanwhile, I’m still covering theater, which I enjoy,
and film. I alsos may write a movie. After spending three or four years talking
to all these great directors, it gives you some great ideas about what could
make a good horror movie. So it’s something I could try to do, just write a
low-budget horror movie. So that’s one idea I had when the book comes out and I
sort of finish with that—to take time off. Maybe nothing comes of it, but I
think it could be fun.
See our review of SHOCK VALUE in Fango #305, now on sale.
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