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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Exclusive Interview: Author and Film Buff Ron Hogan Talks '70s Horror

I've mentioned it on here before, but Ron Hogan's The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane is one of my favorite books on cinema, in no small part because it deals with my favorite era in cinema, the 1970s. Hogan is an influential force in the literary blogosphere, having founded the groundbreaking book website/blog Beatrice.com in 1995, and currently earning his keep as director of e-marketing strategy for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Mr. Hogan was recently kind enough to sit down and answer some questions I posed to him about the movie era we both love so much, the '70s. In particular, given the nature of this blog, I thought it might be a worthy idea to focus on the horror films of the '70s in particular. I'll always have a soft spot for that decade in horror filmmaking, and having read Mr. Hogan's book, I figured he'd have a lot of interesting things to say on the topic. Turns out, I was right.

I happen to be a big fan of the '70s era of film in general, which is what attracted me to your book. What is it about that decade that really distinguishes it in cinema history, and made you want to focus on it in the first place?
I was inspired by Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls--basically, if that book was about a handful of directors who transformed Hollywood, I wanted to know, well, what did the rest of
Hollywood end up looking like? And it turns out to be a quite fascinating period: The studios' motives for hiring young directors like Altman, Bogdanovich and Coppola may have been largely financial, but they (and many others like them) played an important part in making the counterculture of the late 1960s the mainstream culture of the 1970s.

You devote a chapter in your book to the horror genre. What place do you feel it had in that whole era? What part did it play? How would you characterize the effect on the genre caused by the new-found freedom of this era in terms of what you could get away with depicting?
The elimination of the Production Code in the late 1960s is absolutely essential to horror's development in the 1970s, and you see a lot of envelope-pushing throughout the decade, as filmmakers see just how explicit they can make scenes. You only have to look at the use of
tension and indirection in, say, a Val Lewton-produced film of the 1940s like Cat People, then compare it to the spectacular gory deaths of The Omen and Damien: Omen II to see the shift in emphasis.
Horror tends to take a back seat in most considerations of 1970s film; it's not a genre of Academy-recognized serious message films, nor a genre of all-access blockbusters like Star Wars or Jaws. But it was a consistently popular genre--look at how many horror films from the
1970s have been remade in the last decade, and you'll understand how these films wedged themselves into our popular imagination.

What would you say are the most important horror films of the era and why? How about the most important directors?
Most of my answers are the fairly obvious ones: Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist for pushing horror into the mainstream, directors like George Romero and Tobe Hooper for their maverick ambitions. I would like to see greater recognition for Larry Cohen--God Told Me To is
one of the most unsettling films of the entire decade.
And although it's a TV-movie, Steven Spielberg's Duel reminds us that he learned a lot about cinematic storytelling from horror movies, and what he learned about pacing and tension is used to masterful effect later on in the decade in Jaws and Close Encounters.

Do you think there was still a stigma at that time with regards to horror, or was it becoming more mainstream?
Probably a bit of both, actually: Horror WAS becoming more mainstream, but there was still a critical stigma attached to the genre, not least of all because it was one that was frequently imitated on the cheap. (Which is the same reason it took blaxploitation films, for example,
to gain enduring respect as anything more than time-period artifacts.)

What was it that led so many filmmakers to explore such intense and disturbing themes at this point in movie history? What kind of an effect, if any, would you say that horror cinema had on non-horror film during the 1970s? Taxi Driver, for example, almost feels like a horror film at times!
It was an intense and disturbing time in American history, that's the main thing--and, as I mentioned earlier, the removal of the Production Code meant that filmmakers could be more explicit, whatever they were trying to say, and they didn't have to tack on a moralistic or happy ending to make everything alright in the final reel. The pervasive loss of faith in major institutions, from the government on down, plays perfectly into horror's unsettling of the normal world, and vice versa. The visual tropes of horror were a perfect mirror for the psychological fear and uncertainty of 1970s America.

Let's talk about The Exorcist. Most consider it the finest horror film of this era (or perhaps any). Would you agree, and why do you think this opinion is so commonly held? I'd agree, because William Friedkin, working off the William Peter Blatty screenplay, works from fundamental premises: We care about the film because we care about the characters. Father Damien's crisis of faith matters to us; the visual spectacles of Regan's torment resonate more because we've come to recognize her as a character, not simply a victim of horror pyrotechnics. The film isn't a roller-coaster ride through a series of horrific set-pieces; it's a serious story that
happens to have horrific elements perfectly integrated into its emotional core.

Why was Satanism such a prevalent theme in 1970s horror?
Again, the removal of the Production Code explains a lot, but it's also worth noting the general apocalyptic tone of the Cold War era was an effective breeding ground for a "God vs. Satan" mythology. Throw in a tireless self-promoter like Anton LaVey pressing at the fringes of
Hollywood society, and the rise of explicit Satanism as a metaphor for the pervasive corruption of American society becomes a lot clearer.

Whats your opinion on the slasher phenomenon, and why do you think it arose at that particular point in time with a movie like Halloween?
When I mentioned horror films as "a roller-coaster ride through a series of horrific set-pieces" up above, I had the worst knock-offs of the slasher film in mind. Not so much Halloween--which, like most of John Carpenter's work in this period, is a testament to what a determined filmmaker can achieve on a limited budget--but dozens of films that came afterwards, where everybody comes into the theater not only knowing they're going to see a string of brutal murders, but
cheering for them. To me, I'm not even sure that's really horror--more like bread and circuses.

How would you compare the horror of the 1970s, in terms of what came after, in the 1980s and 1990s? It seems to me they became a bit more light-hearted in the '80s, and then much tamer in the '90s.
That sounds about right to me--I didn't watch much horror in the 1990s, but I firmly remember the increasing ridiculousness of '80s horror, particularly the franchises where, as I complained above, a bunch of cardboard cutouts get killed in visually extravagant ways and then maybe evil gets pushed back into its box at the end or maybe it slinks away to kill another day.

Any future projects you might want to let my readers know about?
I've been thinking a lot about action films lately...

I want to thank Ron Hogan for taking some time out to discuss one of my favorite topics. I hope you enjoyed our little talk, and if you're a fan of 1970s film in general, I encourage you to have a look at The Stewardess Is Flying the Plane. You can also follow Ron on Twitter here.


Greg said...

Very interesting read. Besides Exorcist, Halloween, and Rosemary's Baby(all excellent art films), I really can't think of other 70s films I've seen, but that may be due to my favorite era of horror being the 40s, the Val Lewton era. And I'm really into The Innocents which was the 60s, I believe.

I'll definitely have to look up more of this era. I'm sure there's many stuff there I'd love.

B-Sol said...

Rosemary's Baby is technically the late '60s, but the idea is that it had a profound effect on horror in the '70s. I just love the visceral nature of horror in this era. My second favorite period is the '30s, for completely different reasons.

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview B-Sol. I've never seen God Told Me Too. Checking it out ASAP.

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