Friday, July 22, 2011

The value of SHOCK VALUE

Below is my review of a book I was sent, titled Shock Value. It's a look at the men who shaped the modern horror film. Of all the free books I've been sent for review, this is one of the most impressive. I highly recommend it to all horror fans and lovers of film history.


It's too hot to go out now and do other things--add this book to your summer reading today, and spend some quality time with the masters of horror.

___________________________


In a valuable and engrossing new book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, Jason Zinoman gives us a personality-driven, anecdote-rich look at the rise and fall of "New Horror" in American film.
Chronicling the revolutionary changes in horror movies that began in the late 1960s, Zinoman
traces the transition of the horror genre from "queasy exploitation fare to the beating heart of popular culture," as Zinoman puts it. He contends that Peter Bogdanovich, Roman Polanski, Tobe Hooper, and George Romero, among others, invented modern horror. And in so doing, they took horror from being a popular, profitable, but disreputable and marginal genre, to one that is as much respected and scrutinized as any element in pop culture.

The value of this new book is that will foster a greater appreciation for the influence of these filmmakers. The group includes includes men as diverse in style as John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Wes Craven, and Brian DePalma. Another plus: it includes a much-needed examination of the under-appreciated imagination and talent of Dan O'Bannon, the brilliant-but-bitter screenwriter who dreamed up 1979's nightmarish sci-fi film, Alien.

The New Horror usually rejected Gothic trappings in favor of mundane settings, lessened or dispensed with supernatural elements, and replaced traditional villains with unemotional murderers committing motiveless killings. Explanations were de-emphasized or dispensed with. Downbeat endings became common. Out with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee; in with Leatherface, interchangeable flesh-eating zombies, and films that replaced traditional horror trappings with a dread of encountering overwhelming and relentless, horror. It aimed for an atmosphere so intense as to be unbearable. This is the sharp observation by Zinoman that underpins his analysis.

One of my few criticisms of the book is that Zinoman overreaches a bit. This is especially noticeable when he says "Horror has become so pervasive that we don't notice how thoroughly it has entered the public consciousness...[It's] the show that goes on in our minds when we go to bed at night. The modern horror movie has not only established a vocabulary for us to articulate our fears. It has taught us what to be scared of."


Author Jason Zinoman.

Really? The dark conventions of the "New Horror" movie of the late Sixties and the Seventies arose with similar conventions in other film genres of the same period, (Easy Rider and Mean Streets come to mind) as a more politically- and socially cynical age emerged, and the mass production sameness of the studio system collapsed. Certainly what audiences became afraid of changed, but that could be said to be following current events as much as new film conventions. Zinoman seems to acknowledge this when he writes about Bonnie and Clyde, released shortly before the groundbreaking Rosemary's Baby. He says that gangster film "reinvented the gangster drama as a counterculture fable with two killers as glamorous and sexy antiheroes." This had been done before--1949's Gun Crazy is one example--but Bonnie and Clyde was a big success as it reflected the current zeitgeist as much it influenced it.

All that said, this book is certainly a "must buy" for modern horror film fans and film scholars alike, being the first serious examination of the birth of "modern horror" in American films. (Right now I'd say we're in a post-modern age.) The late Sixties and the decade of Seventies saw a new vitality in all kinds of films around the world (including horror films), and this book presents in rich detail the story of "New Horror" and the men who created it. (The careers and rivalries of O'Bannon and Carpenter, from their time as fellow students at the USC film school, through the production of their feature collaboration Dark Star, and into very diverging paths afterwards, are especially well-documented.) This sort of journalistic "behind the scenes" approach makes for fascinating reading.

Until its gradual demise in the 1980s, as special effects and an ironic film buff-consciousness became dominant elements in shaping genre movies, "New Horror" was a fruitful time in American film, and Zinoman has described and explained the movement beautifully .

6 comments:

Mt. Wood said...

'Shock Value' killed horror I think.

The Saw movies? Those aren't scary. Just... shockingly retarded 'make your skin crawl' gore.

Zombie said...

I agree with Mt. Wood.

Fester said...

Funny, I just saw this book the other day and was wondering if it was any good.
Thanks to your rather thoughtful and informative review, looks like I have one more book to pick up.

I'm not sure what Mt. Wood meant about "Shock Value killed horror."
Does Mr. Zinoman address the Saw Movies?

trish said...

I'm not a horror fan, though there are horror movies I've enjoyed. However, in reading the reviews from the bloggers who were on this tour (since I set this tour up!), I'm actually become really interested in the subject.

Thanks for being on the tour!

Grumpy Taylor Hicks said...

Wow I just read this book and popped on to your site to recommend it to you. I should have known you I'd be behind the curve. I just did a review on it for my site too if you're interested.

Fester said...

Just finished reading Shock Value. It is a must read for any modern horror movie fan.

Thanks for the heads up!

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