Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review : Shock Value By Jason Zinoman

Here's a little known fact about me; I occasionally take some time away from watching movies in order to read. You might not have guessed that being that it's often movie reviews I post and rarely, if ever, my thoughts on books, but i'm working on that.

A couple weeks back I was sent an advanced reader copy of Jason Zinoman's 'Shock Value : How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, And Invented Modern Horror', which is hitting the streets tommorow (July 7th), and I truly feel like I currently hold in my hands something that my fellow horror fans are going to absolutely gobble up this week and for years to come. It's my great pleasure to be able to rave about it in advance today and possibly even convince some of you to go ahead and pre-order your copies tonight. So here goes that.

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Rather than focusing the megascope on the horror movie genre as a whole, Shock Value instead puts microscopic attention on a certain golden era of horror and the people and films that have made that era still so influential to this day. That magical time was the late 60's through the 70's, when filmmakers like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George Romero, Brian De Palma and Tobe Hooper were fast and furiously spitting out their most enduring masterworks. What made their movies so good? How did their early lives shape their filmmaking styles? What films and filmmakers did they draw inspiration from? Shock Value answers all of these questions in just over 200 pages, making it a quick and thoroughly jam packed with information read that gives both diehard horror fans and non-horror fans alike a deeper understanding and appreciation for our modern day masters of horror, the ones who ushered the genre into a new era and completely reinvented the wheel while at the same time honoring and respecting the past. Shock Value gives much deserved mainstream respect to a genre that has always been given very little, making it a major win for all of us who have spent so much of our lives paying our favorite directors to scare the shit out of us. Shock Value is for us, but it's also a much needed wake up call for all those critics and haters who refuse to lump films like The Exorcist into the genre of horror, simply because they've won major accolades and awards. Such an insightful and smart look at the world of horror movies has been a long time coming and it has finally arrived.

The late 1960's - 1970's were a fascinating time for the horror genre. Up until that point, cheap monster suits and even cheaper thrills were the mainstays of the genre. And then Wes Craven came along and assaulted audiences with The Last House on the Left. George Romero took the hokey and non-threatening Haitian zombies of years past and turned them into flesh hungry savages that would eat their own parents without a moments thought. John Carpenter introduced audiences to the faceless essence of evil known as Michael Myers, a killing machine with no motive. The horrors on the screen became real, confrontational, scary, and, whether the directors intended them to be or not, topical and relevant. Before the special effects of folks like Tom Savini dominated the genre in the 80's (turning the killers into the heroes), and after the campy feel of the Vincent Price flick, this era of 'New Horror' was much more visceral and smart than ever before and perhaps ever since, a reflection not only of the times but of the upbringings and inspirations (often non-horror films) of the young outsider filmmakers who brought them to life. Shock Value captures this magical era in vivid detail, providing exclusive interviews with those involved as well as sharing never before told stories from behind the cameras. Author Jason Zinoman weaves it all together to create a very unique and in depth look at this time when the horror genre was at the top of its game, showing how one film led to another and how one director influenced the next, through either his mistakes or triumphs, and shining the light on a fact that so many people seem to not be aware of or not be willing to acknowledge; it takes a whole hell of a lot of intelligence to scare an audience.

The realization the book eventually comes to, as an explanation for why the films of this era were so effective, is that no motives were often given for the reason evil things were happening in them. Michael Myers was never given a backstory to explain why he began killing. Nor was Billy from Black Christmas (in fact, he was never even seen). Zinoman nails it right on the head with this one, explaining not only why those films were so terrifying, but also why so often remakes of those films are failures. Remember how Rob Zombie explained away Michael Myers as an abused and neglected kid who killed rats and eventually moved on to humans? That was different and all, but it also sucked all of the terror and mystique out of a character that John Carpenter made so terrifying. Remember when you saw Billy in the Black Christmas remake and he was just a yellow guy running around with a knife? Not so scary anymore, eh? In a chapter fittingly titled "The Problem With Psycho", Zinoman points out that Hitchcock's choice to explain Norman Bates' motives and reasons for killing at the end of the movie hurt the film as a whole, the one flaw in an otherwise masterpiece of a movie. "They missed what became one of the most important philosophical ideas of the decade in horror films", writes Zinoman. "Being in the dark about evil: that is the real horror." Indeed it is and that's also one of the main reasons why the horror films of the 70's were and still are so damn effective.

Which brings me to one of the most impressive and admirable things about this book; the fact that Zinoman, though he obviously loves the genre and the filmmakers whose films he so appreciates and understands, never hails those men or those films as untouchable and perfect golden gods, like so many books about film and filmmakers seem to do. Zinoman, who is as much of a fan as he is a critic, realizes that they're flawed and that even their greatest films are too, and it's so refreshing to read along as he tells it like it really is, rather than merely praising folks like Craven and Romero in an effort to get on their good sides. He knows that even Hitchcock had his flaws. He's aware that William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis, gimmicks and gore aside, weren't exactly the greatest filmmakers. He accepts that Halloween is not a perfect film. He never gets too preachy about the works he's discussing or pulls out of movies things that the directors never intended to be pulled out (and if he does, he notes, for example, that Romero never intended the social commentary aspect of Night of the Living Dead). So many film books i've read are overly preachy and heavy, nauseatingly so, and it's so nice to read one that paints pictures of real people and the real and oftentimes flawed lives that led to great films. This biographical stuff is some of the most fascinating in the book, as Zinoman brilliantly connects the dots and truly makes you understand how the lives of these mavens of the horror genre shaped the films they made.

Another thing i'd like to praise the book for is giving a whole lot of love and apprecation to the late Dan O'Bannon, an incredibly influential figure in the horror community that is often overlooked in favor of the more iconic figures like Carpenter and Craven. O'Bannon created Alien, wrote and directed Return of the Living Dead, and yet it seems hardly a peep is ever spoken of him outside of gatherings of diehard horror fans who know the names of nearly everyone involved in the films they love. To see O'Bannon finally be given the respect and notice he deserves, albeit a couple years too late, is something that made this book a real standout gem for me. It shows that Zinoman really knows his stuff and truly appreciates everyone who helped make the movies of this era so damn good (collaboration is key), not just the ones who generally get all the accolades. From stories of his sex life to a revelation about how his own failing health directly led to him creating one of the scariest scenes in the history of horror, I absolutely loved learning more about O'Bannon and I can't thank Zinoman enough for giving him so much screentime, if you will.

Following along the lines of the book being raw and real, it even briefly delves into why the careers of people like Tobe Hooper never quite lived up to movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, suggesting that the freedom folks like him had back then is a large part of what allowed them to make such great films and pointing out that some of the greatest aspects of the films made during the time highlighted in the book were the result of small budgets and little to no resources. "The Last House on the Left captured a documentary feel by using handheld cameras, because Wes Craven didn't know about dollies." "John Carpenter composed his memorable propulsive synthesizer score for Halloween because he didn't have the money to hire an accomplished composer." Perhaps it was the freedom and need for creativity (to skirt money issues) of the time that best explains why some of these guys were so good back then but can't seem to make a decent movie in the present? Perhaps it also explains why the horror genre in general these days is rife with remakes and unoriginality? Through telling a story about a horror movie idea he pitched to a studio, and the feedback he got from it, Zinoman also shows that horror movies just aren't as unpleasant and edgy as they were back in the 70's, another strong theory as to why the horror of today is far less effective than the horror made back then. "They are not appealing to young men in trenchcoats anymore. That's not always a good thing." Amen to that.

I could go on and on about the book and what I loved about it but i'd really rather keep this as short as possible and let you discover it for yourself. I honestly feel like a better and more educated horror fan for reading Shock Value, and I already considered myself pretty damn educated before I ever started leafing through it. I've been filled with a greater appreciation for movies and filmmakers that I already had a pretty high appreciation for and the book left me with a list of influential films that I either need to check out or revisit (i'll never look at a De Palma film the same way again), to further my education about the time period that produced some of my favorites. While Shock Value literally is a masterclass on this certain period of genre filmmaking, a sort of textbook a teacher teaching a class about the era would hand out on the first day of class, I also must stress that it's a highly entertaining read to boot, full of utterly fascinating and interesting fly on the wall stories from the film sets and lives of the people who fill out the pages. Like all the best teachers, Zinoman entertains and engrosses just as well as he informs. There is so much information, so many little factoids I had never heard (William Castle was originally going to direct Rosemary's Baby?!) and several life stories packed into a relatively small book and yet it somehow makes for one hell of a quick and easily digestable read, never coming off as confusing or messy despite the many interweaving stories and lives in any given chapter. But most of all, Shock Value has made me love the genre I love so much just that much more and for that, I can't recommend it enough to each and every one of you. Take some time away from the movies this summer and do a little reading. I can't think of a better book to indulge in.

4 comments:

Dave said...

Just heard about this book, today. I hope my library system gets it (books are expensive!). I heard about it because the author of that book is writing a series of articles called, "How to Fix Horror" this week, here: http://www.slate.com/id/2297938/entry/2298161/
The first 2 articles are up, and I assume they'll continue throughout the week.

Johnny said...

Awesome, thanks for the heads up Dave!

heathertlc said...

"no motives were often given for the reason evil things were happening in them" - I hadn't thought about that before but it is very true.

I'm so glad you enjoyed this one! Thanks for being a part of the tour.

TheGirlWhoLovesHorror said...

Great review! Mine's going to be posted on Monday and I'm actually very nervous about it! I too absolutely loved the book and want to give it the respect it deserves.

I couldn't believe that William Castle was originally going to direct Rosemary's Baby either! Can you imagine what that would have been like? Do you even want to???