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How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror
Hitchcock is not the Godfather of the horror film. Moreover, the greatest horror directors of this era were actually reacting against him, as much as paying homage to him. This is particularly true of the end of Psycho, which horror makers hated as much as they loved the shower scene. This is a new argument that is at odds with most everything written about the genre.
The origins of horror tropes: Zinoman does a masterful job of tracing the origins of those now familiar horror standbys: the masked serial killer, the point of view shot in slasher films, the use of the chainsaw, the introduction of Giger’s aesthetic (H.R. Giger was a painter and sculptor; the now-seminal design for the alien in Alien was inspired by his painting Necronom IV and earned him an Oscar in 1980); and the roots of the unmotivated serial killer.
Solving the "Monster Problem": This is a term Zinoman coins, which essentially means how do you retain the sense of the unknown (the "unknown" being the scariest thing in the world according to the intellectual Godfather of the genre, H.P. Lovecraft) while showing the monster? Every great horror movie of this period provides a good answer to this problem, and Zinoman shows exactly how the directors did it.
The slow embrace of the mainstream press to horror: In the 70s, the media's coverage of horror radically evolved. Roger Ebert's pan of Night of the Living Dead in Reader’s Digest helped launch a new kind of alternative horror press which took horror very seriously at least a decade before the major critics. Now of course almost everyone, from A.O. Scott to Anthony Lane, does.
Tracing the origins of the two greatest monster movies of the era – Alien and Halloween: Zinoman explores in detail the influential friendship at USC in the late sixties between John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. Zinoman is the first journalist to really reconstruct the USC scene (and almost the entire class), back before film school was really that popular.
Wes Craven: Zinoman explores how a fundamentalist upbringing and an early career in porn inspired Craven to be a master of horror.
Brian De Palma. The common wisdom about this director has been completely wrong. Despite his reputation as a coolly stylish director who emphasizes form over content, Zinoman shows how De Palma’s movies are actually very personal, even autobiographical. To take one example, his greatest theme – voyeurism, which shows up in everything from Carrie to Scarface to Blow Out– did not originate as an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as everyone including him says, but rather in the story of De Palma, as a child, spying and catching his father cheating (De Palma videotaped his father meeting-up with his mistress so that his mother could win in a divorce).
The making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Much has been written about the insanity of making this film, but Zinoman colorfully reports on the unlikely role of the New York mob and the Governor of Texas had in producing perhaps the most original exploitation movie of all time. Zinoman captures a Wild West period at the birth of the Texas film industry, when a classic horror movie could be made because a rich businessman wanted to sleep with the leading lady.