One of the awesome gifts I got for Hannukah this year was Shock Value
, by Jason Zinoman. The full subtitle is "How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror," and it's pretty much what it promises.
Zinoman approaches things more as an interviewer/historian than as a critic/analyst, although there are some solid bits of criticism mixed throughout (notably the focus on lack of motive and backstory as something that makes slasher movies stronger -- something that helped me clarify and better articulate to myself my hatred of the Saw
series quite nicely -- and the connections between Dan O'Bannon's battle with Crohn's disease and his approach to body horror in Alien
But it's really a book that focuses on the people behind the movies. Each chapter is basically focused on one movie, with one movie per director in the case of Polanski (Rosemary's Baby
), Hooper (TCM
), Craven (Last House
), de Palma (Carrie
), Friedkin (The Exorcist), Romero (NotLD), as well as a chapter each on Dark Star
(Carpenter and O'Bannon), Halloween
, and the Hitchock/Castle/etc stuff from earlier.
Each chapter is filled with interviews, digressions, little bits of analysis, and observations like, "the auteur theory was responsible for the end of hundreds of friendships." As Zinoman observes, none of Romero, Hooper, Craven, or Carpenter did their work alone, but they got the credit. The ones with the most control -- de Palma, Polanski, Friedkin -- were the ones operating, ironically, through the studio system and with very strongly-defined source material.
There's a lot to love here, but some of that love highlights the stuff that's missing. The lack of chapters on Bob Clark and David Cronenberg borders on the criminal. The lack of an interview with Polanski undercuts that chapter (much as I despise the man, he made in important movie, and not getting his perspective makes the chapter seem out of balance). The choice to focus on only one film means we hear about Rosemary's Baby
without a lot of Repulsion
, and Carrie with barely any Sisters
or Phantom of the Paradise
. On the other side, we barely get any mention of The Thing
, in spite of pages written about its influence on O'Bannon and Carpenter, and only an off-hand paragraph on how Friday the 13th
opened the rip-off floodgates (it deserved its own chapter and then some).
If that sounds like the book's weak, it's not. This is a book comparable to Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
, more about the interviews and personalities than about trying to present something comprehensive. It's very much opinionated -- O'Bannon is clearly the martyr, with Carpenter and later Walter Hill the villains (although JC certainly is given all the credit in the world for his own creativity). And making a book as comprehensive as I'd like would balloon the thing to over 1000 pages.
And some of the anecdotes are great. We learn of the (mostly one-sided) catfight that very likely led to the de Palma's decision to have Betty Buckley's Miss Collins die in Carrie
. We learn of Spielberg's influence on many of the later films (in very direct ways). We hear about Craven's excessively religious upbringing, Romero's surprise at making a "relevant" movie, de Palma's fucked-up personal life, the only-in-Texas political scene that allowed Hooper to make his movie to begin with, and so much more. He's acutely aware that almost all filmmaking contains inherent comments about fillmmaking (and has a brilliant analysis of the first two rape/murders in Frenzy
in that context), and this informs so much of the book without ever feeling forced.
If you're at all a fan of the modern horror movement, you at least need to check this one out from the library. I've got it sitting next to the Biskind book on my bookshelf, and