Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book Review: SHOCK VALUE: An Absolute Must-Read For All Horror Fans!

I'm a child of the 70's.  Of course I was born in the late 60's but what do you really know when you are two?
I grew up amidst of some of the greatest horror movies of our time.  Let it be known that I didn't actually watch any of these films until the 80's, as my parents were all stingy and didn't allow their six year old to go see Jaws with them. The nerve!  But even once the eighties and their run of slasher films started, I can say I was a 70's girl first and foremost.  Films like The Exorcist, Halloween, and the aforementioned Jaws have absolutely made me the horror fan I am today.
Finally, there is a book that has been written about the heydey of such films, and the writers, producers, and directors that made them possible.  SHOCK VALUE, by Jason Zinoman, is a new book from The Penguin Press that explores, recounts, and downright delves deep into the stories of these classic films.  With a keen eye to detail, he relates the stories of getting these movies made, the many political and social overtones of most of the films, and the nonconformist attitude of the directors.  As readers, we get to go behind the scenes of some of the greatest productions of that era. We also get an absorbing and comprehensive look into the lives and back stories of these men - these masters -  who shaped our love of horror.

I was so psyched to have been contacted to have an advance look at the book.  It had already landed on my Amazon wish list a while back, because there just aren't a lot of good books on horror in general, let alone one specifically covering my so-called 'golden-age' of the genre. 

So what can you expect from SHOCK VALUE?  I don't want to give too much away, but have to touch on a few things to give you some sense of anticipation...
Simply put, the titles of the chapters alone give you some idea of what you're in store for. 

For instance, chapter two is entitled The Problem with Psycho.  Now as anyone can tell you, I'm a huge (colossal) Psycho fan, and don't really tend to think there is anything wrong with it.  But what Zinoman is getting at here is that when Hitchcock revealed at the end of Psycho that there was a legitimate reason for the murders (ah! Norman was mentally unstable, he was the ultimate not-guilty by reason of insanity), he made everyone feel better.  Norman would get help. He didn't mean to do it. He just went a little mad.
But what the upcoming directors after Psycho did was up the ante:  they didn't comfort the audience with reasoning and hope.  They didn't make it all go away. They tore the moviegoers down, giving them films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the family lives on out there in the middle of nowhere - even after the senseless slaughter of innocents.  Hell, they may still be there today!
Also mentioned in this chapter is the tiny-budget, genre-changing Night of the Living Dead, in which the hero shockingly dies in the end.  Just when you think all will be fine...bam!  But the political subtexts in that film - a black man is the hero!  He slaps a white woman!  The good-ol-boy dies at the gas pumps after an act of unexpected (?) stupidity!  The ghoulish little girl is eating her father! - they tell the tale of the era better than anything. 

In chapter four, Assaulting the Audience, we get serious insight into the making of the gritty and degrading film,  The Last House on the Left.  The violence within the movie turned many a critic's (and audience member's) stomach, and had people wondering if Wes Craven had went too far with his first film.  But Zinoman explains how this film - and many to follow - started a pattern of violence breeding violence.  In other words, how far do these characters go to get even for the wrongs they have been dealt?  Even though for me, the final scenes of Last House in which the Collingwoods exact their revenge was rather a sweet justice, it still makes you wonder just how far you'd go.  Taking the law into your own hands is risky.  Do you then become as uncivilized as the criminals?  Many films of the 70's take this approach (Straw Dogs and I Spit on Your Grave come immediately to mind) as do films today.  The trend started in the 70's continues, with passion.

In Shock or Awe (chapter five) much discussion is had regarding just how appalling The Exorcist actually is.  To read about how irritated writer William Peter Blatty was with director William Friedkin's take on his story was quite interesting.  Blatty thought the Devil and possession was frightening enough, but it seems Friedkin was more interested in the physical changes as well - the "gross-out factor" if you will.  Shocking the audience with things like the masturbation scene (originally cut from the screenplay by Blatty) and throwing a priest down a flight of stairs to his neck-breaking demise were things that grabbed movie-goers by the balls and said 'pay attention!". The two men coming to terms and making the film you know and love is a story all unto itself, and it's fascinating.

Chapter seven (The Dance of Death) gives us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and its grunting anti-hero Leatherface. 
A grueling set in extreme Texas heat, shooting hour after hour of footage that was eventually molded into one of the most notorious horror films of all time - despite the fact that there is indeed, very little blood actually spilled.
Tobe Hooper and co. had a bit of difficulty getting a studio to pick it up, and Zinoman details the money issues, disappointments and eventual respect the film received. 

The Thing In-Between (chapter 9) is probably my favorite of the entire book simply because of the attention given to John Carpenter's Halloween and the director in general.  Learning the back story from early production to casting to Carpenter himself writing the score.  ("The music in Jaws told you something was coming.  The music in Halloween made it clear that it was never going away.")
The first scenes of the film set the standard for the killer's point of view, and in my opinion has probably never been done better.  Zinoman delves into whether or not Carpenter was making a statement about the dangers of pre-marital sex by killing off all but the strait-laced virgin, why Michael Myers isn't fond of just jumping into the shot with a knife and instead lurks, and just what makes Michael kill - if we can ever really know.  He also alludes to the imminent appearance of Jason Voorhees when he mentions Sean Cunningham wanting to "rip off" Halloween...

The Epilogue is interesting enough on its own, giving a synopsis akin to "where are they now".

What I am trying to point out is that every fan of horror needs to read this book.  It's well written, utterly engrossing, and a wealth of knowledge.  If you think you've heard it all, you haven't.  In-depth interviews with some of horror's greatest writing and directing minds gives us intriguing content that lends fascinating insight into some of our most treasured horror films.

The stories of John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, Tobe Hooper, George Romero, Dan O'Bannon, Wes Craven, Roman Polanski, and many others are like crack to fans like us. You won't be able to get enough.
In all honesty, I doubt I've read a more astute account of horror films and their makers, in general - regardless of era - in all my years.  If I was giving it stars, it would be a five out of five.  
SHOCK VALUE goes on sale July 7, 2011. 

A sampling of the films discussed: 

The Exorcist
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Last House on the Left
Dark Star
Dressed to Kill
Rosemary's Baby

From the back book jacket:
*Jason Zinoman is a critic and reporter covering theater for The New York Times. He has also regularly written about movies, television, books and sports for such publications as Vanity Fair, The Guardian, The Economist, and Slate.  He was the chief theater critic for TimeOut New York before leaving to write the On Stage and Off column in the Weekend section of The New York Times.  He grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Brooklyn.


Anonymous said...

I love your chapter-by-chapter descriptions - they really give a great idea of what the book is about. You're right, this looks like a must-read for all horror fans!

Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

Anonymous said...

(Or, I WILL be featuring it on TLC's Facebook page as soon as my login issues get straightened out!)

Franco Macabro said...

Looks like an insightful book, I'll look into it. There's no horror movies like the ones made during the 70's, back when cinema had balls.

Christine Hadden said...

Heather, no problem - I enjoyed doing it.

TFC: I think you'd like it. And I agree, the 70's just can't be topped. A lot of horror fans are all ga-ga over the 80's, and while they did have some fine films (esp.1981), I still think the 70's set the standard for originality, grit, and just plain fright.

deadlydolls said...

Excellent review! I read my copy on a road trip and have a post coming up next week. It will be a tough act to follow! You nail a lot of what makes this such a great read.

Christine Hadden said...

Thanks Emily! I really enjoyed the book and it will be kind of cool to read everyone's take on it.
Looking forward to yours!

Marvin the Macabre said...

I've been enjoying Zinoman's multi-part "How to Fix Horror," over at Slate.com. He really knows his stuff. My only complaint is his too common assertion that horror isn't as good as it used to be. If we're looking at Hollywood's output, okay yeah, point taken. But the unprecedented access we now have to foreign and independent horror films makes this a great time to be a horror fans. Plus, every era has its 90% share of crap cinema. But when we think back, we tend to remember only the films we loved.

Christine Hadden said...

Marvin, I do tend to agree with Zinoman about the quality of horror these days, but totally see your point about foreign horror. Regarding American films, I can only think of a few films made here in the US that literally scared me in the last twenty years or so. But foreign films - whoo! So many.
We are lucky to have the opportunity to see foreign works, because they are leading the way in my humble opinion.

Ashlee Blackwell said...

This book sounds great! Thanks for the write-up, it's just another Wish List add for me...