A history lesson for horror buffs at Doc

Using Halloween as a case study, New York Times film critic Jason Zinoman laid out his idea of a horror renaissance that began in the late 1960s and continued through the ’70s.

By Philip Ehrenberg

Last Friday, Doc Films hosted New York Times film critic Jason Zinoman during a screening of a short horror film, Foster’s Release, and of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

Zinoman, who recently published Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror,  participated  in a panel discussion following the screenings, and answered audience questions on the nature of horror films, why we watch them, and their development from the 1970s until now.

Using Halloween as a case study, Zinoman laid out his idea of a horror renaissance that began in the late 1960s and continued through the ’70s. Citing the film’s every-town, middle-of-suburbia setting, Zinoman pointed out a shift from distant locales to more mundane and familiar places; this was echoed in a similar transition from more supernatural creatures to more human villains.

He also pointed out how the quality of special effects at the time required more creative ways to scare audiences, and, specifically, how the irrationality of antagonist Michael Myers hearkens to the ever-present fear of the unknown.

The discussion then progressed to comparisons between the renaissance of the horror genre and its current condition. Zinoman spoke to a feeling of embarrassment within the community of horror directors of the ’70s, which he uncovered through research and interviews. Positing that their shame fueled a lot of the evocative images on screen,  he said that most of these directors made these films for a quick buck or to get out of horror as quickly as possible.

While many might find cynical the idea of an entire film genre rising in prominence because people wanted to make money, Zinoman finds it inspirational that it could flourish as it has. He compared this with the moneymaking horror films of today whose directors are typically quite proud, “as if they are doing God’s work,” said Zinoman. Moreover, ’70s horror has had a major effect on many critically acclaimed films today, such as Black Swan and the character Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

One question from the audience focused on why the fairly sizable crowd laughed at certain points during Foster’s Release and Halloween, raising a point about the crossover of horror and comedy. Zinoman responded by pointing out that a lot of these movies are exploitative and technically amateurish. A later question returned to this point, allowing Zinoman to discuss horror and comedy’s tendency to “find out where the line is drawn and then cross it,” as George Carlin put it, pointing to contemporary examples in the Saw franchise and The Human Centipede.

While discussing independent films and distribution today, Zinoman said that there are more good horror films today and more opportunities to view them, but fewer great ones. He’ll always have a great respect for The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and the rest of the classics born in the ’70s.