BOOK REVIEW: SHOCK VALUE by Jason Zinoman

Four out of five dentists may recommend sugarless gum, but four out of five horror fans recommend movies made in the 1970's.

It's true. Ask any genre lover worth their weight in gore what their favorite decade is and more often than not you'll get the same response. Things may have gotten schlockier in the 80's and ironicized in the 90's, but modern American horror was born in the "Me" decade. And according to New York Times writer Jason Zinoman, we've been trying to force our way back into the womb ever since.

I think Freud would probably agree.

Shock Value is a cinematic paternity test, attempting to identify the father(s) of the bastard child that is modern horror. It has been compared to Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls in that it focuses on the exploits of the handful of young upstarts thought responsible. It traces the roots and the influence of this band of outsiders as they go rouge like Sarah Palin, taking on the Hollywood system and setting the standard for decades to come.

In his acknowledgments, Zinoman claims to be a huge fan, but this isn't some gushing love letter to the genre. Culled from hundreds of interviews and thoroughly researched, Shock Value is much more academic in tone. But that doesn't mean the book is a bore. It goes into great detail about the personal lives and the politics of those involved as well as the trials and tribulations associated with the filmmaking process. By eschewing the overview format and concentrating on the key players, we get a depth rarely seen in books about horror.

That's not to say the book is perfect. The first few chapters read a little unfocused, jumping around in a non-linear fashion as Zinoman sets the scene. Chapter one details the making of Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, released in 1968. We then jump all the way back in time to 1960 for a chapter on the influence of Alfred Hitchcock and the REE! REE! of Psycho. From there, Zinoman works back to front, documenting the gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the giallos of Bava and Peter Bogdanovich's Targets along the way. Eventually, we arrive at USC in the late 60's where two young film students- Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter- are making each other's acquaintance. Their partnership results in the farcical science fiction film Dark Star, in which the crew of a space ship must talk a stubborn bomb out of exploding and killing them all.  

From there on out, the book settles into a more chronological structure, giving us chapters on Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Carrie. All the while, we keep returning to the story of Carpenter and O'Bannon's relationship, which culminates in chapters on Halloween and Alien, two of the biggest films of the era. Zinoman paints O'Bannon as one of the unsung heroes of horror, a man who got a raw deal and was lost in the shuffle of bigger names and more imposing personalities. He died of Crohn's disease in December of 2009, never having achieved the success of some of his contemporaries.

O'Bannon's passing serves as an appropriate ending. Zinoman makes a brief foray into the 80's, touching on The Shining and the decade to come before wrapping everything up in a nice little package. Things may not all have been as pat as that, but it serves its narrative purpose. If you listen closely, you'll be able to hear the geek grumbling over importance placed and films left out, but that comes with the territory and is part of the fun. What Shock Value lacks in breadth it makes up for in detail. And while not the definitive word on the decade as a whole, the book makes a compelling case for its most important players.

Joshua Chaplinsky also writes for ChuckPalahniuk.net. He was a guitarist in the band SpeedSpeedSpeed and is the poison pen behind thejamminjabber, although he's not so sure he should admit it.

 
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