Sunday, July 10, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Horror (Now Updated!)

[See below for Jason Zinoman's response]

Jason Zinoman had an interesting four-part series on Slate last week entitled “How to Fix Horror.” He’s the author of a new book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror – I haven’t read it, but the guy seems to know his stuff, and I'll probably get his book as a present for my wife, who's the horror-fiend in the family. Not being a particularly huge horror fan myself, I haven’t pondered much the notion that it might be broken as a genre. But here’s how Zinoman sees it:
Today the genre is bigger, more diverse, and more lucrative than it was back [during the ‘60s and ‘70s], but its films rarely shock or inspire as they once did. There are many good new scary movies, but few great ones.
Zinoman’s proposed “fixes” certainly got me thinking, but a couple of them also confused me. I think it’s fair to say that he generally seems to favor a particular kind of no-nonsense horror movie. (His first piece of advice is: “Stop trying to be so damn respectable!” The second: “Kill the back story.” The third: “Don’t be afraid of remakes.” The fourth: “Gore is good.”)  He believes that the genre has been “infected” by “a creeping – and not-at-all creepy – pretentiousness.” And he feels that horror is “more at home being impolite and gross and borderline unethical.”

So he likes True Blood, it appears, but is less kind towards The Walking Dead, which he deems slow, and whose makers “desperately want to be considered worthy by readers of the New York Review of Books.” He admires Human Centipede, with its undeniable shock-value and gross-out premise, but doesn’t care much for The Wolf Man, with its Shakespearean-actor protagonist. And so on and so forth. He also has quite a soft spot for the work of Alexandre Aja (“the most gifted gore artist working today”) -- whose films, I must admit, barely ever raise my pulse and whose alleged masterpiece Haute Tension actually put me to sleep.

In fact, I don’t care for any of those above titles, so I’m probably coming at this from a slightly different outlook, but I have to take exception to the idea that the classic horror films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, at least the ones Zinoman cites, were somehow gleefully disreputable shockers without any aspirations towards something greater. True, John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (which btw I’ve never really thought of as horror, but whatever) was made on a dime and has plenty of impressively low-rent B-movie tension; but it’s also a loose remake of Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, at the time canonized by auteurist critics as the pinnacle of directorial achievement. (And like Rio Bravo, Assault is often slow as molasses -- which, as I recall, Carpenter himself has even acknowledged.) Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left was a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Similarly, Rosemary’s Baby was an adaptation of a best-seller – a big studio movie made by a European director who had been nominated for an Oscar and had won two big prizes at Berlin for two earlier films. None of these seems like what we might call a movie with humble ambitions.

Zinoman also takes issue with the tendency to add back story to slasher movie killers (he admires the original Halloween for its refusal to try and explain Michael Myers): “Movies with an unexplained killer…are more unsettling than torture porn or the zombie apocalypse.” But what to make then of Freddy Krueger, whose elaborate and gruesome past (“The bastard child of a hundred maniacs!”) is for my money the scariest thing about the Nightmare on Elm Street series? Zinoman also mentions, with disapproval, some critics’ admiration of the fact that Paranormal Activity doesn’t rely on gore to achieve its effects. But such suggested horror was also one of the selling points of Carpenter’s original Halloween, no? Similarly, when Zinoman cites Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as a great example of a film that doesn’t try to explain its killer, he butts up against his earlier admonition against trying to be respectable, since the much-awarded Henry is also kind of an indie art film par excellence. (I’d also argue that it’s more disturbing than scary.)

The Shape
How no-nonsense were the films Zinoman admires really intended to be? I seem to recall George Romero not being averse to the idea that Night of the Living Dead was meant to evoke the unhinged nature of1968 and the Vietnam era. Wes Craven, himself a former literature professor, has spoken at length about the ways that horror films reflect the unease of societies in turmoil. (Here’s an interview I did with him in 2007, where we briefly discussed the subject.) Plus, a lot of the low-rent, down-and-dirty horror flicks of the past have inspired plenty of serious critical thinking – the late Robin Wood, for example, did lots of excellent academic work on horror – though that’s probably placing the cart before the horse: If the films hadn’t been scary and groundbreaking in the first place, presumably nobody would have written about them later.

Try to imagine a world where horror filmmakers begin to take all this advice to heart. What would we get? A bunch of gory schlockfests and sequels that lack psychological depth or ambition. I dunno. Does that sound like a new Golden Age of Horror, or the End Times?

Again, I haven’t read Shock Value, so it’s entirely possible these inconsistencies are explained or reconciled at greater length. (This NPR piece suggests that Zinoman most definitely understands the societal dimensions of the '60s/'70s horror resurgence, and I'm happy to see that he's giving air time to Peter Bogdanovich's wonderfully underrated Targets.) I see what Zinoman is really getting at, though, which is quite simple: What makes horror horror is the horror itself and not the frills that often get added to it. And sometimes, the more stripped-down and unhinged the film is, the darker the place it puts you. But isn’t that, ultimately, just an argument for quality? Seriousness can work if you’re Roman Polanski making Rosemary’s Baby -- or the next Roman Polanski making the next Rosemary’s Baby. Back story can work, if you’re Wes Craven making the Freddy Krueger movies, or the next Wes Craven making the next…well, you get the idea. But in order for us to find that next visionary, plenty of other filmmakers with ambition will have to try, and fail. That’s how it works. Maybe the first real rule of horror should simply be that there are no rules.

UPDATE 7/13/11: Zinoman was kind enough to respond to the post. Here's his response, in full:

I really appreciate these excellent thoughts and while your wife may be the horror fiend in the family, some has clearly rubbed off to you. Which is to say: You also know your stuff. And while we do disagree about a few things, i believe we are not as far apart as you think, in part that's due to a completely understandable misreading of this series. I did not intend it as four-part how-to guide on how to make a horror film or as a comprehensive articulation of my horror aesthetic. Of course the title -- How to Fix Horror -- and the headlines you cite ("Gore is good") might suggest otherwise, but i wrote none of them, and some, like the "gore is good" line is misleading. The purpose of that essay was to argue that the old distinction between gorey bad horror and discrete good horror that left the scare to the imagination is a simplification that serves us poorly in an age when gore is such a diverse field. So i proposed a new way to break up kinds of gore -- the moral and the immoral, the artful and the simply revolting, etc. And i would say the best way to view this series is as four discrete essays that speak not to what is the best horror, but how to improve the genre today. I am coming from a point of view, however, that believes the horror movies from the 70s were spectacular and that has informed these articles, for sure. But there would obviously be less need for an article that proposing a better way to think about remakes three decades ago.

Also to put my cards on the table. I would not say i prefer gore to Hitchcockian suspense or that i always like unmotivated killers more than motivated ones. What i do think is that unmotivated monsters are scarier and the pleasure of being scared is one of the great things about horror. But not the only thing. Rosemary's Baby does not frighten me like The Strangers does, but it's a better movie, for many reasons. Same goes for pretentiousness point. It would clearly not be relevant in 1975 but today i do think that some people who make horror movies need to be reminded of the roots of the appeal of the genre. I do very much like smart and ambitious horror movies and as i point out in my Slate pieces, horror can be cerebral and about ideas and formally daring. Horror today, i would argue, has become so vast that it's too big for one prescription or even a simple definition. So i won't quibble with what you call Assault on Precinct 13. To me, it has traces of a western and a zombie film but who cares what it think really?

I do hope you take a peak at my book, because you will see that i agree that the movies from that era are very ambitious but not because they are remakes of art films. Last House may have borrowed a story from Bergman but that doesn't mean it wasn't an exploitation film that was considered deeply disreputable at the time. And its reputation also doesn't mean it wasn't ambitious or bold or even morally engaged. My belief is that to understand Last House you need to understand Bergman and grindhouse and to understand Rosemary's baby, you need to get Bill Castle and Polanski. The auteur theory is in some ways too limited a lens for these films, which informs the way i reported my book.

I also agree about Halloween, that i was more about suggestion. But i don't think that the fact that Carpenter's The Thing was more graphic makes it more humble. I also like Paranormal Activity but my point there was more about a certain kind of critical snobbishness against graphic violence. As for Freddy, i like him, but the source of the real terror of the original in my opinion is more the idea of a man haunted your dreams than the character. And i think the sequels proved that a quip-slinging killer with backstory is while perhaps more interesting from a character point of view than Micheal Myers, is not as scary. Again, this is my opinion and as i argue in the book, what we're scared of is as subjective as what makes us laugh.

You are correct about Henry's art film ambitions -- theater folk in chicago! -- and it's part of why i like it and find it such an unique movie. What else? Ahh, Robin Wood. I just finished working on a story that runs in the Times this Sunday that gives a primer on the way academics have thought about the question of pleasure in horror films and you're right, there's a mountain of critical work on the genre. So much that doing the story is a kind of suicide mission. Boiling down Carol Clover to a few sentences is not easy.

That said, one of things i try to do in the book is emphasize that politics is also a valuable but limited lens to understand these movies. Vietnam and race relations and Manson and Watergate all informed them for sure, but so did personal lives and Lovecraft and Harold Pinter and all kinds of other things. For a while, most of the defenders of horror leaned on psychoanalytic (return of the repressed, etc) or political theories (Romero's Night is about civil rights). In my book, I try to unpack that a bit by talking to the people who made those film, studying the critical response in the day, etc. Sorry for going on a bit, but just wanted to clarify my thinking since i do think the Slate stuff, in part because of my being willfully provocative, could be easily misunderstood.

But thanks again for the response. jason


  1. How would Zinoman assess "The Exorcist"? That a pretty arty/serious movie with a backstory 2,000 years long! We need better story tellers, not more regulations.... Above all we need smart horror makers who are unafraid to take the genre seriously; most contemporary horror has an apology built into it. And it seems Zinoman is mistaking audacity for horror. A willingness to push the gore further only results in "splatstick" silliness like the "Saw" series. I blame Evil Dead 2 for this trend though I love that movie. In some ways ED2 is such a merciless and dead-on critique of the genre that it's been gun shy ever since.

    I have not seen "Targets" but I remember well Herzog's thoughts on it when Jonathan Demme mentioned it in relation to Herzog's "Signs of Life", "I have seen this film, it is a very stupid film". Funny because it's Werner being Werner talking about "stupid stupidities" and such.