Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Shock Value, by Jason Zinoman

Shock Value: How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, And Invented Modern Horror, by Jason Zinoman. New York: Penguin, 2011. Hardcover. $25.95. 274 pp. ISBN 978-1-59420-302-2

By the 1960s, Vincent Price had become as recognizable a horror film star as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were during the 1930s and 1940s. He had already starred in sixteen classic horror films, including House of Wax and The Fly, as well as Roger Corman’s House of UsherThe Pit and the PendulumThe RavenThe Masque of the Red Death, and The Tomb of Ligeia. With his dapper style and erudite charms, Price became an unlikely representative of a style of horror that was heavy on atmospherics and cheesy thrills. Films like William Castle’s The Tingler were less concerned with confronting real fears and more in providing escapism for the teenagers who filled the drive-in movie theaters. Yet by the ’60s, the style of horror represented by Price, Lugosi, and Karloff was quickly falling out of favor. It couldn’t compete with the real violence being broadcast nightly into American homes. As the decade progressed and political assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam War became a disquieting and ubiquitous backdrop, American cinema began to address the political and cultural changes that were taking place. The real world was ugly and frightening, and filmgoers, particularly younger filmgoers, wanted to see that reality reflected in film.

A new wave of filmmakers emerged to provide audiences with the scares they demanded. While much has been written about the 1970s auteur movement, which gave filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, and others the opportunity to produce deeply personal and challenging work, very little consideration has been given to the role horror films played in pushing the movement forward and providing many of these directors their first break in the industry. Jason Zinoman’s new book Shock Value hopes to rectify that oversight. Zinoman follows the early careers of Polanski, Bogdanovich, Friedkin, and De Palma, whose films brought a shocking new realism to horror, as well as the four directors who are as synonymous with modern horror as Price, Lugosi, and Karloff were to Old Horror: George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead), John Carpenter (Dark Star, Halloween, The Thing), Wes Craven (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Nightmare on Elm Street), and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist). Zinoman portrays these men, along with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alienand producer Sean Cunningham (The Last House on the Left), as a scrappy group of eccentrics who bucked maintstream Hollywood to produce their own films with friends and fellow film school geeks on shoestring budgets (Texas Chainsaw Massacre was largely funded with the help of local politicos and mob money). Their independent spirit prefigured the indie film movement of the 1980s.

While on the surface many of the directors Zinoman covers seem different in terms of style and approach to film, they do have one thing in common: a desire to move away from the kind of storytelling defined by the controversial ending of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Though well regarded and much studied, Psycho, as an influence on modern horror, has been, Zinoman argues, overestimated. “The relationship between Hitchcock and the younger generation of genre directors,” he writes, “was sometimes even hostile.” In fact, both Polanski and Friedkin believed Hitchcock copped out with his ending. This scene, some fifty years later, still stands out as a blot in an otherwise fine film. Serving more as a comforting coda to audiences unused to the level of screen violence Hitchcock introduced them to in the infamous shower sequence, the scene in which Norman Bates’ psychosis is elucidated nonetheless reduces him to a psychological case study, easily explained and thus dispensed with. Modern horror filmmakers rejected Hitchcock’s approach. “If you took the scene out and you end on just Norman Bates, with Bernard Herrmann’s music, it would have had people in a way that it did not,” Zinoman quotes Friedkin as saying. The end of the Production Code opened the way for moral ambiguity. Evil no longer needed to be fully defined and defeated. Filmmakers now could approach horror in a way that reflected the anxieties that were already marking American society.

While Zinoman discusses the production of films like Rosemary’s Baby, Targets, The Exorcist, and Carrie, his real focus is on the outliers in the Hollywood system operating in the underground, cult, and independent film communities. These filmmakers — Romero, Carpenter, Craven, Hooper, along with O’Bannon and Cunningham — were the true envelope pushers who brought more shocking depictions of violence and moral ambiguity to their films. Unlike Polanski, Friedkin, and De Palma, these directors stayed largely within the horror film genre. Not only were they weaned on old horror movies and comic books, they were also greatly influenced by European filmmakers, including Polanski (Knife in the Water, Repulsion) and Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace, Black Sunday), who were also doing new and interesting things in the genre. Porn and underground horror films of the 1960s and ’70s that ratcheted up the level of gore were also major influences.

The social, political, and cultural shifts that were occurring in society at the time of each release certainly played a role not only in how each filmmaker chose to shoot his films, but in how those films were interpreted by modern audiences. While George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is one of the few films that did not repudiate old horror conventions (Romero goes out of his way to explain what actually causes the flesh-eating ghouls to rise up from the dead), it nonetheless presents social commentaries on race and social disintegration in subtext. As Zinoman points out, the common thread between the studio-released and the independently produced horror films was their social commentary. Whether this was by design or an unintended consequence of the 1960s and 1970s cultural rifts, these films provided audiences with the sort of moral ambiguity that was previously lacking. If Craven raised the stakes in screen violence on a movie like Last House on the Left, it is only because, as Zinoman argues, it allowed him to critique the savagery of the Vietnam War and the “bourgeois, civilized” attitudes of the American middle class. Whereas old horror left no doubt in the audience’s mind about who and what were evil, modern horror muddied the question, leaving audiences more doubtful and anxious than ever. Yet while Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre created monsters that were at least explicable based on the class milieu they represented, Michael Myers in Halloween reaches an apotheosis in moral ambiguity. Myers is inexplicable, with no real meaning. As Zinoman explains:

The monster has traditionally been a stand-in for some anxiety, political, social, or cultural. But Myers doesn’t reveal anything. He wears a mask, but there is nothing of importance under it. Emerging out of an idyllic suburb, Myers is evidence that evil wasn’t the result of urban blight or the Vietnam War. Myers doesn’t represent the cold calculus of scientific progress (see 2001) or a religious conception of evil (The Exorcist).

What type of horror Halloween and other films like it actually represents is what gives them their cinematic power even as critics at the time were quick to point out the film’s misogyny and sexism (Alien, written by O’Bannon, was a rare inversion of the standard horror trope with Sigourney Weaver playing the heroine who battles and wins against evil). Modern horror capitalized on contemporary fears, whether serial killers (the Zodiac killer, David Berkowitz) or anxieties over the cultural shifts that had taken hold in 1970s America (feminism, urban violence). Therefore Zinoman’s main argument, that these films were as influential as other films produced during the 1970s, is particularly apt. He goes to great lengths to describe not only the cultural influences these movies had on modern horror but how influential they were on future generations of horror filmmakers such as Eli Roth. He clearly loves these films and is most interested in giving them their due.

Shock Value lacks the epic scope of such socio-historical cinematic treatments as Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls or John Pierson’s Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes. Unfortunately the book rushes through the production details of each film and lacks a cohesiveness that Pierson’s and Biskind’s treatments had. This is likely because, unlike Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, which was about a community of actors, producers, and directors in L.A. during the 1970s, the subjects in Shock Value operate in their own self-contained vacuums, despite the fact that they all worked in and were influenced by the modern horror genre. Attitudes toward the genre and regionalism are partly to blame for this. Polanski, Friedkin, De Palma, and Bogdanovich worked within the Hollywood system and did not consider themselves directors working primarily in the horror genre. Romero, Carpenter, Hooper, and Craven, however, worked outside of the Hollywood studio industry and were often isolated from each other. Romero filmed his movies in the Pittsburgh area and now resides in Toronto; Hooper shot Texas Chain Saw Massacre in central Texas; while Carpenter and O’Bannon, who worked together on the sci-fi film Dark Star, shot their films in Los Angeles. Despite its flaws, Shock Value offers a strong argument for why these films should be considered important entries in the 1970s film canon that have redefined conventional expectations of the modern horror movie.