The Horror! The Horror! Fright Flicks Finally Get Their Due

“In the 1960s,” Jason Zinoman writes, “going to see a horror movie was barely more respectable than visiting a porn

“In the 1960s,” Jason Zinoman writes, “going to see a horror movie was barely more respectable than visiting a porn theater. You watched scary movies in cars or in dirty rooms with sticky floors.” These days, the multiplexes are jammed with splatter sequels and remakes, and zombies have invaded every corner of our culture. How did we get here? That’s the story of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (Penguin Press, 272 pages, $25.95), Mr. Zinoman’s examination of the late-’60s and ’70s movies that scared—and continue to scare—the living daylights out of us.

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Mr. Zinoman, a theater critic and culture reporter for The New York Times, has crafted a horror version of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. While the filmmakers in Peter Biskind’s 1998 book—Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg et al.—saved Hollywood, Mr. Zinoman’s subjects—among them George Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter—salvaged a moribund genre. Mr. Zinoman sees them as artists, rather than schlockmeisters. Like Easy Riders, Shock Value is extensively researched and enjoyable to read, with numerous directors, writers, producers, actors and executives describing their memories of productions. Unlike Easy Riders, it’s not gossipy or bitchy. There are outstanding books that contemplate horror movies of this period, such as Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws, Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies and—for the truly depraved—Stephen Thrower’s Nightmare USA, but Mr. Zinoman’s is the only one The Observer knows of that features interviews with so many of the figures involved.

By the 1960s, popular horror movies had mostly degenerated into campy entertainments embodied by Vincent Price, the campy star of so many of them. That changed in 1968 with Rosemary’s Baby. Mr. Zinoman shows how that film was the product of old Hollywood and new. William Castle, the director of fun, gimmicky scare pictures in the ’50s and ’60s, sold his house for an option on Ira Levin’s novel, hoping to direct the adaptation. In a deal arranged by the young Paramount exec Robert Evans, Mr. Castle became the project’s producer and Roman Polanski, then a 34-year-old wunderkind who had not yet worked in the United States, became its writer and director. By aiming for urban paranoia rather than haunted-house thrills, and by giving us only a glimpse of Rosemary’s baby, “Polanski removed the last traces of childish comedy” from horror.

Night of the Living Dead opened later that year. It was shot in Pittsburgh for about $100,000 “by a group of recent college graduates who smoked pot and tossed some ideas around.” Their leader was George Romero, who chose horror because he couldn’t get funding for what Mr. Zinoman calls a “Bergman-inspired coming-of-age film set in the Middle Ages.” The movie stunned audiences not only because of its almost unbearable suspense and graphic flesh-eating, but because its hero, a young black man, comes to a bitterly ironic end. “Wes Craven saw Night of the Living Dead in a theater in Times Square,” Mr. Zinoman writes, “and describes it as the first horror movie that wasn’t shackled to a sense of decorum.”

In 1972, Mr. Craven upped the ante. A onetime college professor from a strict Baptist upbringing—“I had so much rage as a result of years of being made to be a good boy,” he tells Mr. Zinoman—Mr. Craven joined up with Sean Cunningham, a pornographer who would go on to create the “Friday the 13th” series. Together they made The Last House on the Left (Mr. Craven writing and directing, Mr. Cunningham producing), an amateurish tale of rape, murder and revenge that remains shocking for its cruelty. As Mr. Zinoman puts it, the film “challenged one of the most basic assumptions about the relationship between the audience and filmmaker—namely, that people go to movies to enjoy themselves.”

Seeing complacency about the devil in Rosemary’s Baby inspired William Peter Blatty, a Catholic, to write the novel The Exorcist. The 1973 film version, which Mr. Blatty wrote as well, was a well-financed Hollywood production with a hot young director, William Friedkin. An admirer of the playwright Harold Pinter’s belief in withholding information, Mr. Friedkin cut out Mr. Blatty’s explanation for why the devil chose to possess a 12-year-old girl—to undermine a priest’s wavering faith. “Blatty hated it,” Mr. Zinoman writes, “arguing that the trimmed-down version opened up the possibility that Satan might have actually won.” But audiences ate it up, making it the biggest blockbuster in U.S. history.

Some of the most insightful parts of Shock Value are Mr. Zinoman’s considerations of what he dubs the Psycho Problem and the Monster Problem. “The most serious grudge that horror directors held onto was that Hitchcock ruined Psycho when he explained the madness of Norman Bates in the final scene,” Mr. Zinoman writes. So Peter Bogdanovich, in his first feature, Targets, offered no motive for that film’s killer, who shoots people at random. Critics, mostly appalled, “missed what became one of the most important philosophical ideas of the decade in horror film,” Mr. Zinoman writes. “Being in the dark about evil: that is the real horror.”

The problem with movie monsters—the Monster Problem—was that once you saw them, you were no longer scared, because it was usually just a guy in a rubber suit. Inspired by how the monster in Frankenstein “earned your sympathy,” the director Tobe Hooper “set out to make a monster who was unloved and bullied himself.” The result was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the supposedly sympathetic monster was Leatherface. In his huge indie hit Halloween, John Carpenter put the killer in a blank mask and a jumpsuit and stripped away all defining details but his name. He doesn’t speak or show any emotion, and moves “as fluidly as a ghost.” Since Michael Myers “has been imitated so often,” Mr. Zinoman writes, “it’s easy to forget that he was actually a rather radical, even experimental character, an entirely new kind of monster.”

The emotional core of the book is Mr. Carpenter’s troubled collaboration with Dan O’Bannon. They met as students at U.S.C. film school in the late ’60s, when Mr. Carpenter was awed by Mr. O’Bannon’s first short, Bloodbath, a comedy about a misfit who accidentally slits his wrists while shaving. In a book of weird, loner artists, Mr. O’Bannon is the weirdest of all—“a mad, gloomy, dysfunctional genius.” Mr. Carpenter, who began making 8mm movies when he was 12, was laconic and businesslike. Together they made Dark Star, an odd, 1974 comedy set aboard a spaceship, featuring a beach ball with rubber reptilian feet as a monster. “We realized we couldn’t do real, so how about going for funny?” Mr. O’Bannon tells Mr. Zinoman. Mr. Carpenter claimed directorial credit, and they never worked together again.

Mr. O’Bannon, who died in 2009, was afflicted with Crohn’s disease and suffered its symptoms for decades: “The digestion process felt like something bubbling inside of him struggling to get out.” That’s how the most famous element of Alien—the creature hatching out of a man’s stomach—was born. Mr. O’Bannon wrote the script and handpicked the Swiss artist H.R. Giger to design the alien. The film’s director, Ridley Scott, wasn’t a horror fan, so Mr. O’Bannon arranged for him to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. “I told him, ‘You are not going to like this film, but just see it,’” Mr. O’Bannon tells Mr. Zinoman. “It was important because that showed him what he had to do.”

Trying to explain our fondness for this sort of thing, Mr. Zinoman quotes the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who noted in a 1973 review that the horror audience “wants an intensive dose of the fear sickness—not to confront fear and have it conquered but to feel that crazy, inexplicable delight that children get out of terrifying stories that give them bad dreams.” Mr. Zinoman adds, “It is undeniable that many adults like these movies not because they’re good for them, but precisely because they aren’t.” This is an important distinction. In an era of computer-generated monsters and torture porn, the real scary movies—the kind that terrify and disturb rather than merely gross out or startle—are harder to come by. The ones that matter are the ones that haunt us.

The Horror! The Horror! Fright Flicks Finally Get Their Due