Thursday, July 21, 2011

Shock Value

One of my all-time favourite books is Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind’s fascinatingly trashy history of 1970s Hollywood. Biskind details how a bold young group of innovative new directors—Spielberg, Scorsese, Friedkin, Coppola, and Cimino, to name a few—took the movie business over from the suits with a string of critical and commercial hits…only to blow their newfound cachet on expensive vanity projects that, in some cases, derailed their careers. Imagine my enthusiasm, then, when I learned about a new book that told a similar tale, one that follows the trajectory of a trailblazing group of horror directors who helped make the genre respectable (more or less) in the very same decade. The book is Shock Value by Jason Zinoman, and it’s a must-read for fans of the new age in horror that brought us films like Halloween, Alien, Carrie, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The early chapters of Shock Value deal with the impact of films like Night Of The Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby, visceral, challenging movies that ushered in a new kind of socially relevant horror. The book ends with the release of Friday The 13th and the beginning of the dynasty of the Slasher Sequel, which robbed the genre of its newfound credibility (at least, until Silence Of The Lambs swept the Academy Awards a decade later). However, for the bulk of the book, Zinoman zeroes in on what happened in the years in between. He details how Wes Craven pushed boundaries past their limits for the Grindhouse set in Last House On The Left, and how the blockbuster critical and financial success of The Exorcist made horror hot. He examines the various connections that tied these groundbreaking movies together (William Peter Blatty wrote The Exorcist in response to what he perceived as the spiritual emptiness of Rosemary’s Baby; Ridley Scott screened The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to prepare for the filming of some of Alien’s bloodier bits). Most surprisingly, he reveals how eccentric screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was a powerful, unheralded influence lurking behind the scenes of some of the decade’s most innovative films; many of O’Bannon’s conversations with John Carpenter while they were at USC together, and during their later collaboration on Dark Star, were key in the conception of the unknowable horror of Michael Myers in Halloween, while O’Bannon’s contributions to Alien were downgraded by the film’s director and producers, despite the fact that he co-wrote the screenplay and had the inspiration to suggest H.R. Giger as the film's creature designer.

Zinoman interviews many of the participants of this era, like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, George A. Romero, William Friedkin, and Brian DePalma, along with various spouses and collaborators. The result is a thrillingly all-access look at the genre’s most creatively exciting period, peppered with telling biographical details and overflowing with revealing, sometimes shocking anecdotes (Romero got his start shooting short films for Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood! A teenaged DePalma helped his mother obtain a divorce by secretly recording his father’s adultery!). Zinoman treats the subject matter with a respect it is rarely afforded by the mainstream press, showing the zeal of a true fan when arguing the merits of the genre. My only real complaint is that, at less than 300 pages, it’s too short, although one can hope that, in true horror fashion, we’ll be treated to a sequel before too long.

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