05 August 2012

Shock Value (Jason Zinoman)

Jason Zinoman's Shock Value, a simultaneously intimate and wide-ranging history of 70s horror film, puts paid to the Christmas 2011 book haul, and it only took me till July 1st!

Horror, an admitted blind spot in my genre literacy, is as marginalized in film as in fiction; Zinoman argues--persuasively--that the seventies saw not only the much-vaunted New Hollywood of Coppola and Scorsese, but a parallel and still more gutsy revolution in scary movies. Directors like Wes Craven (Last House on the Left), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing) rejected the over-the-top but harmless hijinx of Roger Corman, Vincent Price, and various atomic monsters (Night of the Lepus, anyone?) in favor of raw, primal fears.

Shock Value is a great read for any movie buff (it was, in fact, a gift for my erstwhile-film-major fiancé, who also enjoyed it), but I'd like to applaud Zinoman especially on two points. First, he's really good at describing visuals and sound--I know this seems a necessary skill for any film critic, but it's easy to just assume your audience has seen what you're talking about, and/or gloss over technique in favor of narrative, and he avoids both those pitfalls, without belaboring the reader with data. I've seen several of the movies he chronicles (Rosemary's Baby, Alien), and I wasn't bored reading their stories; several I haven't yet seen that his book made me add to my list (particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Carpenter's The Thing); and he ratifies my desire to NEVER EVER EVER see Last House on the Left, yeesh.

He also manages to combine artists' biographies with discussions and analyses of their art without giving in to the temptation to find analogues for every motif in said artist's life, a common and comfortable means of critique that is also really, really boring to me--in that it de-mystifies imagination, turning the godlike ability of the creative brain to create novelty into a sort of psychological waste product. Sure, it's worthwhile to connect the famous chest-burster scene from Alien with writer Dan O'Bannon's painful, lifelong digestive troubles (diagnosed as Crohn's disease in 1980, the year after the movie came out). But lots of people with Crohn's disease (all but one, in fact, out of an estimated half million in North America) didn't write that totally awesome, terrifying, still-shocking-no-matter-how-many-parodies-you've-seen moment. O'Bannon's genius isn't diminished or "explained" by his physical ailment. Zinoman gets that, and this makes Shock Value a much more interesting, entertaining book.

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