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July 19, 2011

Book Review - Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

In the history of my writing this blog, I estimate that I've hurled about 733 backhanded insults at horror films because they weren't made in the 1970s.  In doing so, I've repeatedly referred to the films of that decade as the "Golden Age of Horror" and lamented the fact that the overwhelming majority of horror films from the 1980s and beyond lost the power of their predecessors.  The genre became formulaic, and in doing so it lost something the films of that era had.  Something that Jason Zinoman calls Shock Value.

Truthfully, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what changed when the '70s ended.  At times I blame Friday the 13th, at others I mention the disappearance of supernatural and religious based horrors. (People these days will blame a lot of problems on religion, but I can't think of a time when its existence has hurt the horror genre...but that's another story for another day.)  Zinoman's book takes a far less theoretical approach than I do; focusing on the handful of filmmakers who made the biggest horror hits between 1968 and 1979 and looking back at the events that led to some of the most game-changing horror films we've ever seen.

All the films you'd expect are represented, and most of them - occasionally in roundabout ways - get a full chapter devoted to them.  Rosemary's Baby kicks off the book, as Zinoman recounts the early stages of the film and how William Castle ended up not directing the film with Vincent Price in the cast, and Night of the Living Dead and Targets also represent the late '60s.  (BTW, I can not understate how excited I was to find Targets getting some love in the book.  To me, it's basically the most underrated movie ever.)  As the book roles into the 1970s Zinoman brings forth The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, and Alien - among others - and we'd expect nothing less from a book that promises to cover the decade's best horror filmmakers.  There's also a surprising amount of time spent on John Carpenter and Dan O'Bannon's collaboration on Dark Star.  You wouldn't expect this sci-fi spoof to be a major player in the horror scene, but Zinoman does an excellent job of recognizing the connection between the film and each filmmaker's later works.

Zinoman seems to have been given the ability to look "behind the curtain" into the production of these films, and the amount of knowledge he presents on each film and each filmmaker is astounding.  While his discussion of each filmmaker is full of useful information, I was pretty blown away by his work in discussing the films of Wes Craven and Brian De Palma.  Craven's Last House has always struck me as one of the great "rogue" horror films because it falls so far outside the bounds of what we're used to seeing onscreen, and Zinoman does a fantastic job of getting behind Craven's assault on audiences in that film and The Hills Have Eyes.  His chapter on De Palma focuses primarily on Carrie, but it also draws out the voyeuristic side of De Palma's films that most already recognized - and offers a pretty fascinating look into why De Palma's films creep on their characters the way they do. 

The more heartbreaking side of the book features O'Bannon and Carpenter.  Two of my favorite voices in horror are chronicled here, and the recollection of the rift in their friendship that grew nasty over the years definitely was hard to read.  Again, Zinoman seems to have been given a lot of information (which seems to be mostly from O'Bannon's side) regarding what happened between these men at USC and after graduation.  The stories behind Dark Star, Halloween, and Alien all tie back to these two men and their different visions, and it's kind of sad to know that they had to go separate ways.  OK, maybe it's only sad if you're a huge horror nerd like me, but it's sad nonetheless.

I could keep rambling on and give away the whole book, but there's a simple way to sum up what I'm trying to say. If you've got any interest in the horror films of this era, Shock Value is a book you need to read.  If I had to teach someone on horror of the decade, this would be required reading.  (However, it's probably better if you see the movies first....don't worry, there's a comprehensive index in the back of the book!)

I did find some comments in the book that I personally disagree with (I'm not sure most horror fans would vote Rosemary's Baby as the best horror movie ever, and I don't feel The Exorcist and Night of the Living Dead have lost potency with age), but primarily he's talking about the same thing I'm trying to talk about here. (The difference is he's doing it well.)  There was something different about these horror films and the bold filmmakers behind them, and Shock Value manages to bottle that lightning into an easy to read 240ish pages.  Zinoman has done an amazing job of putting all of this information together, and his love for the genre carries the book from there.

If you believe in "The Golden Age of Horror", you need to find a copy of Shock Value immediately.

 Shock Value by Jason Zinoman has been provided for review by TLC Book Tours.  Head over there for more information on Shock Value, including more reviews from other great horror blogs!

Or, just head on over to Amazon and pick up a copy!


R.P. Kraul said...

You make a valid point about Friday the 13th pioneering an era of insipid films. What do you think of Halloween, though? I love Halloween, though I believe it spawned a plethora of bad imitations, even though the film itself was excellent.

JR said...

Mike-- From 1966-79 is one of the greatest eras for film in general. I teach a film class and the majority of the films we cover are from that era. It's a time directors and writers were more free from the studio system that cripples good ideas, good writing, good casting, downbeat endings, character development, etc. Spielberg was one of those great young directors in the 70s that made films he wanted to make, but it may be one of his films that really turned the tide and ushered in an age of mediocrity. Jaws was one of the first true blockbusters, and that may be the point films became less about messages, characters, and life, and more about how to appeal to the greatest number of people to make the most money and generate the most sequels and merchandise. If Jaws wasn't the starting point, then maybe Star Wars was... in any case, things have been on a downward spiral in all film since the late 70s/early 80s.

Michele (TheGirlWhoLovesHorror) said...

Love it, The Mike! Yeah, some of his little comments I didn't really agree with (The Exorcist has definitely NOT lost its "shock value" over time) but for the most part, his analyses are spot on.

He spent a lot of time on O'Bannon and Carpenter but it was an interesting story especially since I didn't know who O'Bannon was - and now I feel really bad about that. I rented Alien again just so I could rewatch it with all that information in mind.

Also, after reading this, I must see Targets! Never heard of it before but sounds excellent.

MarkusWelby1 said...

I've been curious about this book, but heard that Cronenberg doesn't even get a mention. He has to be right there as a pioneer in the genre in my opinion. sounds like a great read though.

Anonymous said...

I love that there is an index of films - that's a bonus for sure!

Thanks for being on the tour. I'm glad you found the book worth reading!

Enbrethiliel said...


What a great review! Thanks for letting us know about this book. =D

You probably know that I'm a fan of formula. I could live on a steady diet of sonnets, if you know what I mean. But it's the films that conform to no pattern that grip me immediately and stay with me for years.