Wednesday, July 13, 2011

NERD ALERT! Shock Value


If you're even a ticket stub-size as movie nerdy as I am, then you're most likely always on the lookout for a good physical BOOK (remember those?) about genre film. There are the personal library shelf standards--Carol Clover’s Men Women & Chainsaws, Kim Newman's Nightmare Movies or the Joe Bob Briggs canon, to name a few--along with less impressive works, generally those that aim for unworthy self-importance or offer nothing more than tidbits gleamed from a director commentary track.
TLC Book Tours sent me, and many of my favorite fellow film bloggers Jason Zinoman’s new book, Shock Value, now available from Penguin Press. Focusing on a handful of auteurs who helped shape horror as we know it today, Zinoman explores how American horror of the late 1960s and 1970s evolved past its playful, mostly innocent roots into something realer, bleaker, and deeper.
Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, George Romero, Roman Polanski, William Friedken and Brian De Palma get the most attention as Zinoman’s writing shapes just how they came to make their flagship films. Yes, some of the anecdotes have been heard before in interviews and DVD extras, but Zinoman lays it out in a manner that's both comprehensive and interesting, lending insight into how everything from Craven’s strained relationship with his Christian mother to Hooper’s experience documenting a shooting victim’s death in an ER led to such creations as Last House On the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Virtually every horror fan with a DVD player knows about William Shatner's connection to Michael Meyers, but most have never learned the decades-long saga of John Carpenter’s frenemy-like relationship with his one-time collaborator and pal, the late Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon, the superbrain behind Alien and creator of Return of the Living Dead, might very well be one of horror and science fiction’s most important figures of all time, yet it’s rare that the writer/director gets his due. Unlike most of the other directors on profile, Zinoman follows a large chunk of O’Bannon’s career, including everything from his work on Dark Star to how his Crohn’s disease birthed (pun sorta intended) one of cinema’s scariest scenes of all time. It’s refreshing to get a fair and multi-faceted portrait of a criminally underrated talent, even if it means making Carpenter, long-time hero of genre fans, come off as, well, a bit of a jerk.

For the other filmmakers, Zinoman narrows his focus to their earlier work, using the common misconception of Hitchock’s grandfatherly status in the new wave of horror as a starting point. "As influential as he was, the notion that Hitchcock is the inventor of the modern horror genre is overstated," Zinoman claims, citing the explanatory nature of Psycho’s coda as the exact opposite of what the Shock Value subjects did with their own nihilistic spins. The Exorcist is commonly referenced as the key representative of this brand of horror, but I’d never quite heard how Friedken’s interest in the work of minimalist playwright Harold Pinter lent so much to general structure and ambiguity of the film (something author William Blatty fought against and lost until the special edition released 20 years later). 

Some territory has been well-tread, including a few morally dubious tricks Polanski used on Mia Farrow during Rosemary’s Baby and how Gunnar Hanson was so miserable while playing Leatherface that he actually found himself wanting to hurt Marilyn Burns’ Sally. What Zinoman does well with some commonly-known facts is put them in context. To explain the evolution of how Rosemary’s Baby went from a gimmick-ready William Castle film to the Oscar winning classic it became while following it up with an examination of Peter Bogdanovich’s controversial yet rarely discussed Boris Karloff vehicle Targets helps to create a dynamic timeline of the new horror cinema.


A writer for the New York Times, Jason Zinoman clearly knows and cares for genre films, and it’s refreshing to hear a balanced but passionate voice on the subject. Though  his closing chapters feel a tad too dismissive of modern horror, Zinoman does make a strong case for just why these titans of blood and guts will probably never quite be matched. It’s not that their films are perfect (in fact, even the author seems to objectively point out one issue or another with virtually all of the touchstones on display here) but the mere combination of U.S. culture and the newfound independent market simply gave way to a type of filmmaking that tapped into something deeper than ever before or, so far, since. “These are movies that want to confuse you, in part because getting lost focuses the attention on the terror of uncertainty,” writes Zinoman. “They endure, like great art does.”

Shock Value isn’t the end-all for genre studies, but those on the lookout for a good read on the subject will most certainly find some new nuggets worthy of exploration. While there's plenty of ground around and within the films that could still use some attention, the book provides an interesting thesis on the development of modern horror while also offering a few new perspectives on classic and underlooked films.  It may also give you plenty to argue with, so pack some post-its in your beach bag and enjoy some summer reading the right way.



19 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great book!

    As for me, I could most definitely call myself a massive genre fan, how else could I have recognised Miguel Angel Fuentes in a movie earlier today. And what was said movie that had Vladinho from Pumaman you ask? Oh, only the buddy action movie starring Connor MacLeod and Sweet Sweetback! I'll get a review of it posted on my blog shortly so you and every other genre fan who finds and reads it can soak in the awe of this awesome, sadly forgotten film!

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  2. You sir, are the definition of a modern hero. Shine on brother, for the world needs more like you to light the way.

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  3. And of course, it would be me, with several forgotten gems to extol, from Dead Heat, to Inferno (the one with Don 'The Dragon' Wilson), and possibly Scanner Cop (Which I haven't seen yet, but will in a few minutes), who has the crappy computer that don't play movies on Windows Media Player, so I can't take screenshots. At least I'll be getting a new, better computer soon.

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  4. The true shame is that I haven't seen ANY of those titles. Even Dead Heat! Hitting self now...

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  5. I'm hearing nothing but good things about this book and it's definately something I'll not only use but need in the near future.

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  6. It's totally up your alley Ashlee.

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  7. Haven't seen Dead Heat? Blarg!

    will keep on the lookout for this book

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  8. I'm sorry, you'll have to speak up. I can't read right now because my head is hung in shame.

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  9. Hey now, no hanging of the head in shame! You still have the best marionette themed blog on the internet to be proud of!

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  10. (blushes, then asks puppet master to pull string that controls neck) no more hanging for m'head!

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  11. Haha, don't worry too much about not having seen those films Emily, there's a reason they're called forgotten gems!

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  12. True. And I think the fact that I've watched Cathy's Curse twice this year buys me some gem credit too

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  13. yeah and i've not seen scanner cop or inferno or a ton of other classics. So little time!

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  14. Gotta pick up this. I want to read the section on Targets. I found a gently used copy and was really impressed at how the movie shows how old Victorian/gothic horror was giving way to real terror. Great movie.

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  15. I'm surprised Targets doesn't get discussed more in the smsrtypants horror community. It's such a strong announcement in a tide change for the genre.

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  16. I'm glad you enjoyed this one! Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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  17. steve prefontaineJuly 15, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    Emily, have you read the quite magnificent DVD delirium books ?, the 4th edition was published last year, they are absolutely un-put-down-able. By the way, i`m pretty certain that nearly all (if not all) of the reveiws in those books are freely available to read on that equally superb site called Mondo Digital but the books themselves are so marvellously presented and put together that i`d still buy one every week if they published them that often.

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  18. I'm not familiar with those books, but I'll be sure to look into them. Thanks fir the tip!

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  19. steve prefontaineJuly 15, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    My pleasure darlin`.

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