‘Shocking’ developments in horror movies chronicled

If I live to be a hundred, I don’t think I’ll forget the anticipation I felt waiting to see the 1973 thriller “The Exorcist.”

The movie, which had opened just after Christmas in big cities, had made its way to Muncie movie theaters by early 1974 and my friends and I at Cowan High School were eager to see it.

Eager? We were positively nuts about seeing the movie.

I was a horror movie fan from childhood, having grown up on classic Universal horror films and fun-but-sometimes-camp 1960s Vincent Price/Roger Corman flicks.

But “The Exorcist” was something else entirely. A big-studio movie, it was being promoted through a high-profile TV and newspaper ad campaign and the kind of word of mouth that money couldn’t buy.

Newspaper and magazine articles recounted the audience reaction to the film, about a pre-teen girl apparently possessed by the devil. People who saw the movie were fainting and wretching in theaters when confronted by scenes of the girl — played by newcomer Linda Blair — vomiting green bile and backhanding priests. Not to mention that crucifix scene.

My friends and I talked and joked about the movie incessantly. When we finally went to see it, some of the joking stopped. As we waited in the crowded theater for the movie to begin, I could hear a very anxious woman behind me, expressing concern that the movie might be too much for her. I sat forward in my seat, worried that she might throw up on me.

“The Exorcist” was in many ways typical of the new wave of more realistic, more controversial horror movies that were released in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a period documented in Jason Zinoman’s new book, “Shock Value.”

Zinoman covers a lot of ground and a lot of personalities in his book. The big, well-known movies and names are here, as well as the players who had great influence on the new wave of horror films but who were little-known outside Hollywood circles.

One of them is Dan O’Bannon, who, while a student at USC, made a funny science fiction movie called “Dark Star” along with a friend and fellow student, John Carpenter. The ultra-low-budget movie, about the growing madness among members of the crew of a deep-space mission to destroy unstable planets, is odd and funny and made the best of its shoestring budget. The movie’s alien is a spray-painted beach ball with feet. Seriously.

Carpenter, as some of you might know, went on four years later to direct “Halloween,” the 1978 classic that changed horror movies and influenced generations of filmmakers.

O’Bannon co-wrote another classic, “Alien,” but found his career eclipsed by Carpenter. Plagued by medical problems and a bad reputation in moviemaking circles, O’Bannon died in 2009; his memorial service was attended by relatively few of his contemporaries. Zinoman’s book portrays him as a pivotal but tragic figure in modern-day movies.

“Shock Value” touches on many of the best and most notorious movies and filmmakers of the period, from “Night of the Living Dead” and its director, George Romero — I’ll tell you about my interview with Romero in another blog entry — as well as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its director, Tobe Hooper. Like O’Bannon, Hooper was responsible for one of the most influential movies ever made. And as was the case with O’Bannon, Hooper found himself struggling to equal his early successes.

I was a movie fan and, later, a movie reviewer during much of the period documented in the book and even interviewed some of the leading characters from Zinoman’s story, including Romero and Carpenter. But “Shock Value” told me things I didn’t know, including the shady reputation of the people who financed “Chainsaw Massacre” and some of Carpenter’s inspirations for “Halloween.” If you’ve ever seen the 1961 ghost story “The Innocents,” for example, you’ll appreciate when Zinoman quotes Carpenter about the effectiveness of placing macabre characters in the far background of a shot.

In these days of the Internet and instant updates on movies while they’re still in production, it’s refreshing to find a scholarly but accessible look back at some classic scary movies and the people who made them. “Shock Value” is both enjoyable and informative.

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