Shock Value, by Jason Zinoman

Tonight at Dixon Place at 9pm, the latest edition of Fear Mongers, the series of panel discussions about horror films organized by Clay McCleod Chapman. This evening is being moderated by the New York TimesJason Zinoman, so I thought it might be a good time to talk about his excellent new book Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.

I think the most important function critics serve is as professors of appreciation. At their best, they provide us with a language to help us articulate our likes and dislikes, and help us widen our personal canons, (or at the very least gain new respect for artists who don’t immediately speak to us.)  Shock Value does all of those things for me.

As won’t surprise you, I am a fan of what Zinoman calls the Old Horror: supernatural Gothic tales with monsters, mansions and expressionistic atmosphere, the kind of horror films Hollywood produced in greatest number between the 1920s and the 1960s (though occasional ones have slipped through since). The Poe legacy. I am looking for something irrational, something that resembles a nightmare. I love the ritual of it. And the fact that much of it often descends to the level of camp is for me, only an added bonus.

But, when it’s good (as it often is), New or Old,  I find I require a supernatural element in order to score an effect. I want the primitive, unsophisticated, superstitious part of my brain to be aroused. I want the uncanny. I find for example, that I am terrified of voodoo zombies, which are produced by magic, and completely unmoved by post-Romero zombies of the scientific-explanation variety. And while I acknowledge there are some serial killer masterpieces out there (Psycho and Peeping Tom among them), I am much less frightened of a mere maniac than a creature than can fly, materialize and dematerialize at will, shape-shift or take over my soul.

Zinoman’s book is about the New Horror, chiefly the generation of directors who came up from the late 60s through the late 70s. Defensive of my Old Horror prerogatives, and disdainful as I am of graphic horror, gore, torture porn and cutlery, I was ready to be engaging the book from across a very wide gulf. But NOT so.

First, the crucial years Zinoman examines pre-dates the avalanche of junk that begins in the 1980s. So we don’t waste any time talking about Chucky or Leprochaun 6: Back 2 the ‘Hood, as edifying as that may ultimately be.

Second, he has chosen a pantheon of really fine directors, producers and screenwriters to discuss (for the most part), and puts them in the context of their times, stacking them up alongside the other New Hollywood auteurs like Spielberg, Coppola, Scorcese etc. Of the horror directors Zinoman talks about, probably only Brian de Palma is commonly lumped with these others. Zinoman shows how others of the same generation: George Romero, John Carpenter, and others may rate inclusion.

And third, a lot of these films (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Carrie, The Shining) actually do have a supernatural element. The difference between Old and New is the level of effectiveness for modern audiences. Zinoman helps provide crucial context here to help us appreciate the revolution. He cites a 1969 interview with Vincent Price on The Mike Douglas Show that is mortifying for all the wrong reasons, as the old ham extols the virtues of spiders and cobwebs and the necessity of wearing a black cape. This is horror for six year olds. And while I’d rather have one The Abominable Dr. Phibes than 1,000 Friday the 13ths, the point is inarguable. How do you revitalize an exhausted genre? (I often ponder the parallel question in comedy. The ultimate comedy film-making assignment: stage a pie in the face but make it funny. Because for me the pie in the face is beyond dead. Deader than dead. It was vital in the 1920 and maybe the 1930s, but after that, it is a tiresome cliche).  At any rate, several people in the late 60s and 70s showed that it could be done. A pivotal moment was Rosemary’s Baby, when schlockmeister producer-director William Castle was forced by the studio to hire Roman Polanski to direct. Polanski abjures the man with devil horns and pitchfork Castle might have depicted…instead he implies the malevolent presence of the devil. The Exorcist (to my mind one of the scariest movies ever made), breaks out a whole battery of special effects, but not before establishing a highly believable, realistic universe not unlike the one director William Friedkin created for his previous feature The French Connection.

But like I said, what critics do best is expand our personal canons. This book helped enhance my appreciation of De Palma, for example. While I think Carrie and The Fury are brilliant and I would (and will) watch them again and again, and Dressed to Kill, which I saw in the cinema when I was 13, was certainly one of the most shocking experiences I ever had in the cinema, I have found a lot of his other films coldly formal, derivative, and downright silly. But I’ve never seen any of his films before 1974’s Phantom of the Paradise, and there is much in Shock Value that makes me want to check out those early films. Likewise, the supposed brilliance of John Carpenter has always eluded me. I’ve seen most of his movies (most recently Halloween), and still can’t see it. This book (and several interviews I’ve heard Carpenter give recently about Howard Hawks) makes me want to give it still another shot. And likewise Tobe Hooper, whom Zinoman plainly admires and whose Texas Chainsaw Massacre I really hated. I’ll watch that again. But I draw the line at Wes Craven.

The book is elegantly written, full of astute insights, and contains an amazing amount of original interviews — a TON of research, all valuable stuff, as the comments by the artists gives us both historical information and perspective on the work itself. It will have an honored place on my shelf next to my dog-eared copies of David J. Skal’s The Monster Show and Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which is perfect — Zinoman picks up right where they left off.

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