Jason Zinoman's Shock Value: Five Astounding Revelations About the Horror Movies You Love | Public Spectacle | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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Jason Zinoman's Shock Value: Five Astounding Revelations About the Horror Movies You Love

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Wed, Jul 13, 2011 at 3:01 PM

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"I think horror fans are like crack addicts," says New York Times theater critic Jason Zinoman, whose rigorous history of the horror movie, Shock Value, arrives in bookstores tomorrow. " As you get older, it gets harder and harder to find things that scare you. But you don't stop looking."

Zinoman says he wrote Shock Value to get to the root of his addiction. Lucky for us, he threw in enough trivia for you to one-up your friends for the rest of your life. You knew William Peter Blatty wrote both the novel and the screenplay versions of The Exorcist, but were you aware the guy was also a spy?

5. The Exorcist (1973)

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When Blatty was shopping his adaptation of The Exorcist to studios, producer Paul Monash approached him with an offer for almost half a million dollars and a cut of the profits. Blatty smelled a rat, so he talked his way into Monash's office on a day he knew the producer would be out.

In a locked filing cabinet, Blatty discovered an agreement promising a much-revised version of his script -- which Monash didn't own -- to Warner Brothers. Blatty mailed a copy of the illicit contract to his agent, the agent had Monash pulled from the project, and Blatty became a producer. Not too shabby for that most-maligned species of Hollywood grunt, the screenwriter.

Zinoman: "One thing about Blatty is, he knew the game. He knew sometimes you had to play a little dirty. He saw this project as completely inextricably tied to his religious devotion, and because of that he was willing to do this sort of thing."

The auteur theory says that this is William Friedkin's -- the director's -- movie, but if you look closer at it, you notice that because of the circumstances, the writer had much more power than he or she usually does. Blatty and Friedkin had two very different visions of this movie, and they compromised. What resulted was a confused vision, and that confusion made it scarier."

4. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

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George Romero's production company never trademarked Night of the Living Dead -- in fact, it remains in the public domain -- which meant he and his investors saw almost none of its multi-million dollar gross.

Zinoman: "There's a huge amount of litigation. It's incredibly complicated and the details aren't that interesting, but if I were to make that more of a central part of the book, I would have questioned the premise a little more. If the movie wasn't Public Domain, does that mean there wouldn't be as many versions out there? It could have been the best thing that ever happened for them."

3. Halloween (1978)

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John Carpenter composed Halloween's theme music himself because he didn't have the budget to hire a musician. Today, it's one of the most iconic scores in film history.

Zinoman: "In smaller movies, if you have no constraints, all the energy, the creativity, and the life goes into the conception of the idea. You have to come up with something fresh and new. It's not about how to show the monster, it's about how not to show the monster. How do you preserve the sense of the unknown while not disappointing the audience?

You get it in Jaws by not showing the shark until the very end. You get it in Halloween by creating this bizarre almost abstract character Michael Meyers, who is unknowable. In Blair Witch you tell the story through found camera footage. Even in the realm of graphic violence and horror -- to come up with a really creative way for someone's head to blow up is more impressive than finding a really realistic way to show someone's head blowing up."

2. Alien (1979)

click to enlarge Model based on H. R. Giger's Alien design
  • Model based on H. R. Giger's Alien design

Producers wanted the aliens in Alien to look like "giant, deformed babies," until screenwriter Dan O'Bannon persuaded them to go in a different direction.

Zinoman: "It took somebody with a fine arts background to see the genius of H.R. Giger's design. People don't realize how weird that alien was. A giant black penis and vagina in one -- It happened because here was this guy who understood the importance of aesthetic and design to the horror genre.

People think when you're scared, you focus on your fear. O'Bannon makes the exact opposite point. The design becomes more important because, when you're scared, you focus more on what's around you. When you look at Alien now, the movie hasn't aged a day."

1. Music of the Heart (1999)

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Devastated after critics panned his ultraviolent first feature, The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven wrote "a comedy about beauty contests." Oddly, no studios bit. In 1999, the creator of Nightmare on Elm Street would finally live out his mainstream dream, directing Meryl Streep in her turn as a violin teacher in Music of the Heart.

Zinoman: "What I found was an incredibly articulate, smart guy who had kind of a melancholy streak. There was like a hint of embarrassment, maybe more than a hint, about what he was doing. The reality is he didn't grow up obsessed with horror films. He was an academic. He had a real moral core. He had ambition. And when he came up it was not the artistically ambitious thing to do to make exploitation movies. I think that stuck with him.

If you meet successful younger horror movie directors today, like Rob Zombie [who directed 2007's remake of Halloween] and Eli Roth [who directed Hostel], they do not carry this around at all. They have no qualms. While I like their films, I don't think they're as good as those made in the 70s. Which makes me wonder -- is there something about a little bit of unease, of insecurity, that finds its way into these movies and makes them scarier?"

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