An entertaining history of the metamorphosis of the horror film during the 1970s from a cult genre to a major part of mainstream Hollywood.
Today’s filmgoers may think nothing of going to the local multiplex to see the latest incarnation of the Saw franchise, but New York Times theater reporter Zinoman reminds us of a time when such fare was restricted to drive-ins, while “mainstream” horror consisted of cheesy Vincent Price movies or vampire films from Britain’s Hammer studios. The change is attributed to a group of maverick writers and directors including Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and George Romero, makers of such films a Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, which created a new type of horror based on reality instead of fantasy. The author investigates the cultural conditions that made the “New Horror” possible, and Zinoman is particularly interested in the personal aspects of the genre, including the influence of the creators’ family lives and the idea that the appeal of horror movies is closely tied to childhood experiences. The author deeply explores the transition from the grindhouse to the mainstream theater through such movies as Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie and The Exorcist, as well as the commercialization of the genre into the sequel-producing monster of today. Zinoman sometimes stretches a bit with his psychoanalyses, and the narrative structure can be somewhat awkward, but the characters and stories behind the films are engaging enough to keep even casual readers involved. The author also includes interviews and first-person recollections with many of the participants, and there is no shortage of juicy gossip, notably the falling-out between Carpenter and his film-school partner and Alien creator Dan O’Bannon. Like many trailblazers, O’Bannon and others, including Hooper, often failed to profit from their influential work, and Zinoman argues that the promise of the New Horror remains largely unfulfilled.
An engrossing look at an important cultural moment and a valuable addition to the canon of popular film history.