My initial reaction to Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror was “awesome title, but I feel like I’ve read that already, and more than once.”
In this age of instant downloads to your e-book reader, all it took was a quick read of the sample first chapter to impulse buy the whole bloody thing.
Like my all-time-favorite non-fiction Summer read, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Zinoman’s approach to document the New Horror movement is a story of personalities, inspirations and motivations. It’s an approach that does the book good. It’s a fun read, generally staying to important periods in the genre’s rebirth around the late-1960s.
Even better, it’s not afraid to jump around and reference future films and filmmakers. Zinoman’s account of New Horror works to deliver the goods to the real genre geeks, while at the same time working towards a more general film history audience.
Debunking the more popular theory of Hitchcock’s Psycho as a turning point in the genre, Shock Value emphasizes the need to look back to the sociology of audience reaction to Horror. By the mid 1960s, Horror was, it turns out, a dead genre. The term Horror Film, wouldn’t even be applied to the now imperative classics of this time period. Not by their directors and certainly not by the critics. Zinoman connects the monstrous lineage of old and new Horror Film approaches like Rosemary’s Baby (William Castle as the old producing Roman Polanski the new) and Targets (which featured a self-satire Borris Karloff).
From this launching point, each landmark film that’s explored in the book used as an example in the evolution of the new Horror is presented with no-nonsense. Detailed stories of production conflicts, personality clashes and ultimately audience reaction back up the book’s raison d’être. Keep in mind, this is in a sea of already published books on the same subjects. But what sets this one apart from others is a strong sense of journalistic investigation, rather than heavily researched rehash.
As much fun as it is to discover new tales behind the Horror classics you love, it’s the social impact of the New Horror movement that gets its true exploration here. Zinoman brings in quotes and theories from everyone in the industry and outside it. Any history of the Horror film can dig up the Freudian theory of “The Uncanny,” but it takes a keen eye to point out theories shared by Pauline Kael (of all people).
In particular, I loved how Zinoman establishes the book almost like the answer to that often asked question of non-Horror fans—“how can you watch that stuff?” Given that there’s a new generation embracing New New Horror films jump-started by the “Splat Pack,” it’s refreshing to see a text putting it all in perspective how the genre thrived, back from the dead and ready for more blood.
SHOCK VALUE is now available from Penguin Press