Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review: SHOCK VALUE by Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman's new book wears its heart on its book jacket--or rather in the verbose title on the jacket, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. Published just this month by Penguin Press, the book does exactly what it says on the cover, tracing the development of "New Horror" from its beginnings in milestone films such as Psycho and Rosemary's Baby, and through many of its more revered examples (Night of the Living Dead, The Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, and of course The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Along the way Zinoman travels over a lot of well-worn ground that most horror geeks will have visited before, but takes enough interesting detours to make the book worth a look for the curious.

Zinoman begins by making the customary distinction between "Old Horror," dripping cobwebs and peopled with creaky old monsters, and "New Horror," its grittier, more dangerous cousin. He explains how Roger Corman and William Castle, both grand masters of Old Horror, each inadvertently had a hand in birthing the genre's next stage--Corman through his bankrolling of Peter Bogdonavich's excellent Targets (1968, reviewed on MMMMMovies here), and Castle by optioning Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby, which he planned to direct himself, but was famously (and fortunately) forced to cede the director's chair to young upstart Roman Polanski. The author then follows the repercussions of these films (along with Hitchcock's Psycho, of course) and the cinematic dialogue they inspired in a new crop of hungry, visionary directors throughout the next decade.

As the title suggests, Zinoman definitely subscribes to the auteur theory of film criticism, though at times he glancingly admits its limitations. He follows a few select directors--Polanski, George Romero, John Carpenter, William Friedkin, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and Brian De Palma--considering how each was influenced by or reacting against "Old Horror," as well as work of the other young directors under discussion. In doing so Zinoman tells a lot of stories that will be very familiar to afficianados of the genre--Polanski and the Manson murders, Romero's "accidental" commentary on Racism and carelessness with copyright, the cast tensions and mob connections in TCM's history, etc. But he also paints an interesting picture of the sometimes volatile personalities involved in each film, and the friendships that were made and often destroyed along the way.

Most interesting to me was Zinoman's portrait the partnership/rivalry between John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon, who worked together on the sci-fi oddity Dark Star and each made their own marks on modern horror. O'Bannon particularly gets a lot of ink, painted as an eccentric, combative outsider very bitter at his perceived betrayal by Carpenter after their collaboration. Carpenter comes off as cold and sometimes petty, lording his success over his former friend. O'Bannon's involvements in Zodorowsky's Dune and later Ridley Scott's Alien are explored in detail, though his zombie classic Return of the Living Dead is only mentioned briefly. Still, it's an interesting picture of a fascinating personality.

As an introduction to the "New Horror" of the 70s, Zinoman's book fits the bill; however, someone already fairly familiar with the decade's horror output might not find much new information. And as is always the case, every horror fan is going to find himself wondering why this or that movie was overlooked. (I found myself wishing Zinoman had given more thought to the influence of Italian horror--he mentions gialli and talks about Dario Argento briefly in relation to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, I felt there might well have been more to be said, particularly in relation to the American Slasher genre.) Still, Zinoman's style is clean and easy reading, and the book not too long to get encyclopaedically boring. If you're looking for a way "in" to 70s American horror, Shock Value is a good enough doorway.

1 comment:

heathertlc said...

Thanks for reviewing this book for the tour!

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