Book Review: Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman

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Jason Zinoman’s history of 1970s horror is a welcome companion piece to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, only Zinoman has genuine affection toward his subjects. There are no heroes or villains in the book, just some creative people who burnt out a little too fast.  Published in 2011, Shock Value focuses primarily on John Carpenter, Dan O’Bannon, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero.  Others known for their work outside the genre also appear, namely, William Friedkin and Brian De Palma.

The story begins in the 1960s, a period when few took horror movies seriously.  Mainstream society considered them a bad influence on the youth.  But for a generation the Vincent Price movies and William Castle extravaganzas were unforgettable experiences. Then came Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller Psycho which opened new possibilities for horror, proof the pubic had an appetite for dark and lurid subject matter and that such films could be taken seriously as art.

Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby raised the bar even higher, using film techniques to keep audiences unsettled. Polanski intentionally obscured what happened in his compositions and the location shooting in Manhattan brought a sense of realism, making the audience paranoid along with Mia Farrow.

Meanwhile a new generation of filmmakers brought a DIY attitude to the genre.  George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was shot in low budget black and white like a cinema verite documentary. Romero broke taboos and tapped into the social anxieties of the 1960s.

Wes Craven, the most prolific of the group, was raised by devout Christians and was not allowed to watch movies as a child.  In rebellion against his family’s values, Craven made The Last House on the Left, a shockingly violent film with scenes of graphic torture and rape, forcing audiences to confront the violence within themselves.  Critics dismissed the film as crude exploitation, but Craven’s anti-violent message was lost on most.

Horror went mainstream and became cultural phenomenon with the 1973 release of The Exorcist. Based on the bestselling William Peter Blatty novel, the film galvanized audiences. Detractors saw it tasteless exploitation, a misogynist film less about demonic possession and more about male fear of female sexuality.  Others saw it as sobering exploration evil and faith. The Exorcist received 10 Oscar nominations, unprecedented for a horror film.

The central relationship in Shock Value is between John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon.  Classmates at UCLA in the early 1970s they collaborated on the 1975 cult film Dark Star, a slight parody of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  O’Bannon resented Carpenter getting director’s credit and the two feuded (O’Bannon wrote the script, acted, and designed the special effects for Dark Star).  Zinoman presents a Mozart/Salieri dynamic between them: Carpenter went on become an auteur in horror and sci-fi, while O’Bannon struggled to get studios to read his screenplays. He wrote the original Alien, only to be upstaged by the director yet again.

Zinoman argues the 1970s were a golden age for the horror genre – setting a high bar yet to be crossed. While the Vietnam War, Watergate, and other social upheavals had a tangential influence, the lowering of the production code allowed directors to push the envelope further than ever before. All outsiders in their own way, their movies reflected the dark side of American life. Proof of their enduring legacy exists in the flood of reboots and remakes their movies inspired – most of which failed to measure up to the originals.

Horror went mainstream in the 1980s, but the genre lost its edge. People want a fun roller coaster ride, the Paranormal Activity franchise being an example. Straight up gore fests attracted audiences, social commentary not so much.  Purists believe true horror should leave the audience confused and disturbed.  Zinoman wrote:

The most unpleasant thing possible is what Wes Craven and Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter were trying to put on screen.  That was the point.

As a work of film history, Shock Value is great way to revisit a pivotal decade in American cinema.

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