The types of movies you are covering really aren’t made much anymore, not even in independent circles. It actually feels as if cinema itself has gotten a bit tamer. Exploitation films took chances, and there was a sense of “anything can happen at any time” that has been notably absent from filmmaking today. Why is that? Is the genre on the rebound with films like “Hostel” and “The Devil’s Rejects” not only enjoying box office success, but also (in the case of “The Devil’s Rejects”) critical acclaim?
Explicitness is going over gangbusters right now. The difference is in the attitude. It’s really hard to do something that has the naturalism and unselfconsciousness of the Seventies exploitation movies when you’re making conscious homages and incorporating your favorite bits of schtick from them. Maybe you gain something else with that self-consciousness if you’re really good at it, but “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” wasn’t winking at you about other horror films you’d seen before — except to say, “You want a horror flick, well, see how you like this!” And even a film like “Friday the 13th,” the first one anyway, manages to rip off “Halloween” (and the odd giallo) and gets away with it by making things less complex, not more ironic or self-aware. It strips down the format. And when you look at really far-out sex/horror films like Shaun Costello’s “Forced Entry” or Zebedy Colt’s “Sex Wish,” you’re out on your own with the filmmaker. You’re not protected by genre, pastiche or anything — it’s going to get nasty and you don’t know how far it’ll go or how fucked up it’s going to be. Like you said, it’s the feeling of being unable to predict where you’re going that makes a great exploitation horror film, and this can be as much to do with freaky acting or mad plotting (or no plotting) as it is to do with violence. Some of the best examples, like “The Headless Eyes,” “Boarding House,” or “Frozen Scream” are all over the place structurally, with insane dialogue, plots that buckle and warp and disappear, [and] actors who look like they’re on PCP. In the midst of all that, if someone gets a spoon shoved into their eye or gets chased through a graveyard by a pig-headed demon, well it’s a bonus! Whereas you watch a film like “Hostel,” and although it piles on the cruelty, you don’t feel endangered, confused, surprised or disorientated. It does a nice clean job of being a horror film, you know. Structurally it would make your teacher proud [and] it’s a nice sensible piece of storytelling. You need some insanity in horror movies, and the period I’ve covered in “Nightmare USA” is rife with it. My book is about getting to grips with that vibe as much as with the gore, which, let’s face it, most of the cheapies couldn’t afford to do that convincingly anyway.

I don’t want to be too down on the modern crop of Seventies-inflected horror films, but to me it looked as if “The Devil’s Rejects” staked its claim to a modern sense of “cool” by suggesting that killers are kinda cool themselves, like outlaws. But if you read “Hunting Humans” by Elliot Leyton, a really thought-provoking study of several major serial killers, he makes a very convincing case that they are actually motivated to kill mainly because they lack the social skills to match their status obsessions. So there’s nothing glamorous about being a mass killer. Most of these bozos killed because they resented the beauty or success or good fortune of others, whether real or imagined. Horror and dismay, not admiration, is my default position on that sort of stuff. I think a film like “The Devil’s Rejects” is in love with its own fantasy of what exploitation cinema was all about, and yet I personally think it has read those films badly. A lot of the heavier psycho-killer flicks were inspired by real life horrors like the Bundy or Gacy or Berkowitz cases, and they didn’t dress up their killers as hip gunslinger types. The guy who burns women with a flamethrower in “Don’t Go in the House” is a mousy little creep most of the time. He’s certainly not hip! William Lustig’s “Maniac,” for instance, is not about a cool killer. It’s about a self-pitying asshole whose downtime is spent whining and feeling sorry for himself. This strikes me as far more realistic and interesting than the “Wild Bunch” fantasies of “The Devil’s Rejects.” I think it’s a film that mistakes the vicarious pleasure of watching atrocity in film for the “vibe” of atrocity in real life.

You tread a fine line with horror films, and I admit you can’t be too uptight about these things — a lot of slasher films use rampaging psycho-killers in a superficial way, and you aren’t being drawn into a serious consideration of their real life counterparts. It’s just about superficial thrills. Fine by me. I like superficial thrills. But when you actually address the real-world phenomenon of serial murder, I guess for a me a moral sense has to be there in some way, and the best way to show that, I think, is to make the violence hard to watch and the overall tone very dark and disturbing — otherwise why go there? So, I love trash horror, I love grim, nasty, downbeat horror, but I’m not sold on “cool” horror.

You picked a time period to cover which I think is the last exciting era for American cinema. Why do you think this time period was worth covering instead of going for some earlier works and perhaps some later ones?
The 1960s are less explicit, basically, and there’s still a lot of campiness and skulking in shadows and a hangover from earlier decades. In a lot of the Sixties movies, the exploitation tease is often just that — a tease, “the sizzle without the steak,” as Dave Friedman put it so well. You get exceptions, like the Lewis films, which I’ve digressed to cover in the introduction, but it’s as if everyone took the start of a new decade as a challenge to go further. And they did! I cut the book off at 1985 to rein in the size a bit, but also because that was when I remember reading “Fangoria” and thinking, “Wow, all these movies are starting to look so glossy and professional and expensive, and they all suck!” The independents were drying up, the majors had muscled in and spent more money and most audiences weren’t up for the extremes anymore. I think Romero’s “Day of the Dead” was one of the last of the classic breed, and that didn’t do so well commercially. And if you recall, it was around then that filmmakers would turn up in “Fangoria” or “Cinefantastique” solemnly claiming that their murderer-on-the-loose tale or their haunted house tale wasn’t a horror film at all — it was an “urban thriller,” a “dark fantasy,” or whatever. And if they say so, fine. I’m going to check out something else. If you can’t call your horror film a horror film because the term has become verboten, don’t expect horror fans to flock to your door!

I agree that this period was one of the last really exciting times for American cinema. Filmmakers by and large enjoyed freedom from interference in the exploitation industry. As long as the requisite exploitable elements (sex, blood, etc.) were provided, you could tell stories idiosyncratically. If you look at something like “Axe” by Frederick Friedel, it has its share of violence, but it’s really a sort of Polanski-esque study of a young girl’s alienation. It’s well photographed, the director clearly has psychology and mood in mind as well as ketchup, and he knows how to give his work a strong sense of place. It has refinement and it’s made by someone with an aesthetic sensitivity. The guys who paid for the film, or who distributed it, didn’t ask for these things, but Friedel was a clever young artist who used the opportunity offered to him, the freedom from script interference, etc., and made something that was creative and interesting to himself as well as something that would pack ‘em in at the drive-ins. There are many independently produced horror films of genuine style and intelligence. Look at “Lemora” by Richard Blackburn, “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” by John Hancock (which was bought up later by Paramount as a “negative pickup”), or “The Witch Who Came From the Sea” by Matt Cimber. One the one hand, “Witch” is about a femme castratrice doing horrible things to men. On the other hand, it’s a very moving and well acted story about the aftermath of abuse. You would never in a million years get script approval for that movie from a studio — it’s kinda slow, it’s languid, it’s asking you to feel for someone who is committing atrocities. But it’s a great film. Then you’ve got something like “The Last House on Dead End Street,” which is one of the scariest and nastiest and meanest horror films ever made, but it’s also kind of arty, and the director, Roger Watkins, obviously had a lot going on upstairs. Again, you can see that he had an aesthetic which guided his choices, but it was an aesthetic that would never have been allowed outside the exploitation industry. Watkins died recently, and it’s a really sad loss. He was quite a talent.

Read on for Part Three of American Nightmares: An Interview with Stephen Thrower>>>

Posted on April 5, 2007 in Interviews by

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