September 12th, 2011


Shock Value

There aren't enough words to express how much I adored Jason Zinoman's Shock Value. Subtitled "How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror," this chronically readable history tells the tale of New Horror, the gritty, low budget, more realistically portrayed horror films of the 1970s that followed on the heels of the more stylized Hammer horrors and Vincent Price vehicles of the 1950s and '60s. Brian De Palma, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, George Romero, Dan O'Bannon, Roman Polanski, and many more are all represented here via hundreds of hours of research and exclusive author interviews. Zinoman has written a book that's tailor made for cinephiles, but also for horror nerds like me.

Zinoman treads some familiar ground in relating the history of films like Last House on the Left and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but also brings to light a lot of things I didn't know, such as a movement among all these directors, spurred by a shared love of H.P. Lovecraft, to do away with motivation and backstory in an attempt to show how meaningless and unpredictable violence truly is. Some of this was a reaction to the Vietnam War, but mostly it stemmed from a mutual loathing of the final scene of Hitchcock's Psycho, wherein a psychologist explains Norman Bates' mental state to the survivors. (I agree that this scene is unnecessary, but I love the "'Why, she wouldn't even harm a fly" line at the end.) Remarkably, much of New Horror is in direct dialogue with the Old Horror it replaced.

Also startling, to me at least, is how much of an asshole John Carpenter turns out to be, especially in the way he threw his friend and cohort Dan O'Bannon under the bus so he could be thought of as an auteur instead of a collaborator. He didn't even attend O'Bannon's funeral when the creative genius died a few years back. Since Carpenter is responsible for some of my favorite movies--The Thing, In the Mouth of Madness, Halloween, Escape from New York, Big Trouble In Little China--this hit me especially hard, and reminded me how necessary it is sometimes to separate the artist from the art in one's mind. (It's also made pretty clear that Carpenter stole Halloween directly from Black Christmas director Bob Clark, who told Carpenter he was thinking of a sequel to his groundbreaking slasher film wherein the killer of the first film escapes from a mental hospital and resumes his killing spree on Halloween. It was to be called Halloween. A couple of years later, Carpenter released his own Halloween. Coincidence? Unlikely. And yet, this does not lessen Carpenter's Halloween's incredible impact on cinematic storytelling.)

The book also managed to open my eyes to the worth of some films I've never cared for. Last House On the Left is a perfect example of this. I find it an amateurish mess (I feel the same way about Craven's follow up, The Hills Have Eyes, too) but Zinoman digs beneath the surface to reveal the film's historical context and surprisingly lasting influence, two things I never would have bothered thinking about because I consider the movie a stinker.

I think it helps to have some knowledge about the films being discussed (reading about them made me want to immediately watch so many of these movies again, too), but even if you don't, it's quite a readable story about a group of visionary directors who shook up the movie industry in ways we're still seeing today.

I can't recommend Shock Value highly enough. I loved it.