Thursday, July 28, 2011

Connections or the Lack Thereof, Part 1

Two pop culture books I’ve read recently take group of artists bound by genre and time, and try to make overarching connections among them. Neither book is really successful at fulfilling its thesis, but both are interesting reads. The first, Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, is about the filmmakers behind what he dubs the “New Horror” movement of the late 60s and early 70s. He correctly points to Hitchcock’s Psycho as the seed for the more graphic horror films that came later, and he gives a lot of attention to all the right people--George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon--and gives interesting anecdotes about the making and reception of films like Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left and Halloween, but the most interesting thing he does is start with two movies not often grouped with the other grisly thrillers: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets.

Zinoman argues that Rosemary’s Baby was the first modern mainstream horror hit, making a big pop culture splash (and a lot of money) and marking the end of the career of 60s schlock filmmaker William Castle, who produced the movie and wanted to direct it until Paramount nixed that idea. (A Castle Rosemary’s Baby would almost certainly have been cheap-looking, had some chintzy gimmick--like a man dressed as Satan running up and down the aisles in the theater--and had a blonde, big-breasted screamer as Rosemary.)

Targets, a B-film co-produced by Roger Corman, who was a more successful Castle, was one of the last films of Boris Karloff, who plays a washed-up horror movie star lamenting that the horrors of the real world have surpassed all the old movie monsters. Though not a hit, it’s a good movie that is still worth watching, and Zinoman argues that it was the first to have a “monster” that wasn’t explained; in this case, an average young man who goes on a shooting spree for no discernible reason. He is ultimately defeated but his rationale is never given. The author draws a line from Targets’ shooter to Michael Myers in the first Halloween, an “empty space” at the center of the movie. In both cases, we are given just enough information to make guesses at each killer’s motives, but we are left not knowing for sure.

Coverage of the actual “New Horror” films is predictable but interesting and highly readable. Most of the directors were rather bookish and academic, and weren’t looking to become horror specialists, but got penned in to the genre after their first big hits. Zinoman spends an inordinate amount of time on Dan O’Bannon, a rather cranky writer who, after making Dark Star, a B-sci-fi spoof with John Carpenter, went on to write the first draft of Alien. He was frequently in a lot of stomach pain due to Crohn’s disease, which inspired the infamous stomach birthing scene with John Hurt. But after that, O’Bannon seemed unable to work well with others and he never had the career that some had predicted for him. O’Bannon and Carpenter had a major falling-out and O’Bannon spews a lot of bile aimed at Carpenter, who is never defended in the book’s pages.

I wish Zinoman had been able to make his larger connecting arguments with more force. He’s good about the films and the people, but not so good about looking beyond, at popular culture and the tenor of the times. I like that he considers Jaws a horror film, and that he includes Brian DePalma as one of the seminal horror directors of the 70s (even though only Carrie is probably, by definition, a real horror movie). Definitely a good addition to the bookshelf of any movie buff. Next post, a book about the music of 1970.