(Blatty says he wrote the book as a devout Catholic, as a means of convincing people that if the devil was real, so was God.)
But the beginnings of “New Horror” had started a few years earlier, when Hollywood’s restrictive Motion Picture Production Code was dropped in 1968. Zinoman writes that filmmakers began leaving behind the “Old Horror” of Frankenstein and Dracula and reaching into the explored territory of “New Horror,” going far beyond anything Alfred Hitchcock ever dreamed. Films could be far more graphic in their violence and much more frightening.
A group of filmmakers — George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper — began dedicated work in the genre, and directors such as Friedkin, Brian De Palma and Roman Polanski worked in the format when the project was right. Steven Spielberg’s film-length directorial break was a 1971 television movie, “Duel,” about a tractor-trailer driver terrorizing a commuter. He became a name in 1975 with “Jaws,” about a shark with a taste for the beach crowd.
“Never in the history of the movies had so much talent been put to work frightening audiences,” Zinoman writes. “The flesh-eating zombie and the remote serial killer emerged as the new dominant movie monsters.”
The landmark films that created the modern genre — “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Exorcist,” “Halloween,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Alien” — had a postmodern sensibility of evil. The directors often refused to give a motive why the monster (real or supernatural) was bent on killing everything in sight, reasoning that the unknown was the most frightening explanation of all.
Zinoman was telling all of this to a crowd of 50 or so at Politics and Prose on a recent evening, treating them to two short, influential films that were almost lost to history.
“Foster’s Release” and “Blood Bath” both involved an unsung hero of the genre, Dan O’Bannon, who went on to script “Alien” and “Total Recall.” O’Bannon played the villain in the 14-minute “Foster’s,” in which a babysitter contends with a madman who calls her on the phone. It turns out that he’s in the house the whole time.
You’ve seen that a million times, he tells the crowd — except this was one of the first times anybody did it on celluloid. A film student named John Carpenter saw this in college, critiqued it . . . and made a fortune on it a few years later with “Halloween.”
“I’m a big horror fan, and he’s someone who takes the genre seriously,” says Drew Harris, a lawyer who speaks with Zinoman after his talk. With him is his girlfriend, Molly Maguire, a lobbyist who makes it clear that watching demonic forces feed on human flesh is not a couples activity at their house.
Zinoman says this is fine, because when horror films are really good, people stop calling them horror.
“ ‘No Country for Old Men’ is about a serial killer, ‘Black Swan’ is about mental terror, and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is about a young girl and the supernatural,” he says. “But nobody calls them horror films. It’s how mainstream the genre has become.”