Saturday, July 23, 2011

Bump in the Night: Jason Zinoman's Shock Value

In the summer of 1967, veteran actor Vincent Price appeared on The Mike Douglas Show to discuss the genre of films that made him famous, horror movies. When questioned by Douglas as to what makes a good horror film, Price responded that it was all about atmosphere. “An essential part of any horror movie is a cape, preferably blood-red.” He then went on to describe the cobwebs, fog, and thunder that are required to achieve the maximum thrill. Price himself didn’t even prefer the term “horror film.” He instead liked to call them “gothic melodramas,” a phrase that perfectly summarized Price’s acting, a delightful mixture of vocal theatrics, vampish humor, and sexual ambiguity. Price saw his films as harmless fun, escapism that was covered in so much cobweb that no one could mistake it for anything other than fantasy.

That all changed a year later with the release of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, a film that was pointedly absent in capes and cobwebs. Based on the best-seller by Ira Levin, the movie was a different breed of horror film. Gone were fantasy elements that Price so cherished. There was no red-caped devil to be found in Polanski’s picture, only a set of glowing eyes that opened from a darkly lit crib amid a chorus of triumphant chants of “Hail Satan!” Needless to say, controversy ensued. The Catholic League was outraged at the film, and tried to get it banned. But audiences flocked to it, making the film an instant hit. There was an authentic sense of realism and moral ambiguity in Rosemary’s Baby that was new to the genre, and would come to define the horror movies for the next decade. Jason Zinoman, in his thrilling new book Shock Value: How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conqured Hollywood, And Invented Modern Horror calls this style “New Horror,” and gives a roaring account of films such as The Exorcist, Alien, Carrie, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that changed the way horror film would be made and received in this country.

Shock Value aims to give the often-overlooked genre the respect it has never gotten and takes its approach in much the same way as Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Shock Value gives equal amounts of behind-the-scenes chronicles, director biographies, and cultural commentary in a fast-paced writing style that is both fun and informative. But whereas Biskind’s book, a look into the “New Hollywood” of the 70’s, is often filled with as much gossip as filmic insight (Biskind and Zinoman are both contributors to Vanity Fair), Zinoman mainly keeps his focus on the films and the players behind them. And what a cast of filmmakers it contains! Brian DePalma, Roman Polanski, Ridley Scott and Wes Craven were all relatively unknown before getting their start in a genre most would not dare to touch. And much like the young auteurs of the “New Hollywood,” these directors filled their films with a personal touch that was decidedly outside of the studio system that was crashing all around them.

Zinoman’s writing is punchy and fast-paced. He is just as clear at describing the amount of blood needed to effectively film a brutal attack on a helpless blond as he is when detailing the cultural environment these films were born into. He is at ease making such claims as The Night of the Living Dead did for horror “what the Sex Pistols did for punk,” and that the director who modernized the Devil was “an agnostic Jew.” Zinoman also doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to overanalyze or mythologize the films and directors he covers. This is Zinoman, writing on Tobe Hooper, director of Chainsaw: “He has explained that the idea of the killer’s mask comes from Greek tragedy… Doing publicity for the movie, Hooper also claimed that it was really about Watergate. This was all nonsense.” Needless to say, this is not an academic treatise, nor does it pretend to be.

Shock Value is most effective in drawing a clear line from the rise of the underground horror films of the 70’s to their eventual co-opting and death in the 80’s. What started out as a revolt against the ending of Psycho (most directors loved the first half of the film but vehemently hated Hitchcock’s reduction of Norman Bates to a five minute explanation of his psychosis by the end) turned into something dreadful and truly scary—as well as financially profitable. And it was that profitability that eventually destroyed the mood of bloody good fun DePalma and others helped to scare up. Studios, seeing horror’s massive potential, embraced the underground genre and turned over to a new breed of monster in the 1980’s, epitomized by Freddy Kruger, a creature capable of murder and one-liners. Kruger’s jokey excess could easily scare one off of horror for good. Shock Value works hard and succeeds in legitimizing a genre that is often overlooked in respected circles. It also is a thrilling reading experience. I finished the book in one sitting, only putting it down to update my Netflix queue with each film discussed. Hail Satan, indeed.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Rules of King

“I read the whole thing, all 1,000-plus pages of it, and it was bad. Not just bad, it was really awful. He’s had all of this time, and he’s not even a good writer. And the ending! It was aliens. Aliens! All of that for aliens.”

This was the reaction a friend of mine had after reading a recent novel by horror master Stephen King. When I heard this, I felt a twinge of disappointment, maybe even some sadness. The novel in question has been sitting on my shelf for some time, one of those “I’ll get to it soon” books that sits and sits and sits on the shelf or bedside table, reminding you of just how much time you don’t have. When she told me this, I knew I would never read the book. Not because she ruined the ending, but because she confirmed my belief that I should not be reading Stephen King anymore. I have read Stephen King for most of my life, starting around age 12 when I secretly read a copy of The Stand I found in my father’s closet. In fact, several of the most vivid and endearing memories I have as a reader come from King, or “Uncle Stevie,” as he annoyingly calls himself. And the fact that these memories came from middle school doesn’t seem to stop me from continuing to pick up Stephen King novels to this day. But, like my friend, I never enjoy them. Sometimes they even make me angry. I have vowed on more than one occasion never to read him again, but always find myself with the desire to read just one more before I swear him off for good. Like everything in life, however, we need rules, and here, dear reader, are 5 hard and fast rules to successfully enjoy your next Stephen King novel.

1. Monsters Are Just Monsters, Never Metaphors. Horror works best when it takes our fears, our insecurities, our foibles, and projects them back to us in forms that we can digest without truly feeling any real sense of their presence. Thus in Rosemary’s Baby, a mother’s fears and worries for her unborn child are turned into demonic possession, and in every Nightmare movie from the 80’s (and in the many offshoots and copycats these films inspired) rampant teenage sexuality leads to a gruesome death from a dream figure. In a Stephen King novel, however, the monsters are real monsters, not symbols. They are present and exist for the sole purpose of scaring the hell out of us. The clown in the center of It goes no deeper than the sewers and drainpipes he inhabits. Cujo is just a rabid dog hell-bent on terrorizing a woman stranded in a car. Annie Wilkes from Misery is nothing more than a deranged fan wanting a better ending for the romance heroine she adores. These “monsters” offer us nothing below the printed page. They aren’t showing the reader anything they don’t already suspect is true. Childhood can be a scary place, dogs can be mean and dangerous, and some people are just plain nuts. The images, and what King produces best are images, don’t go much further from what they appear to be and are as thin as the page or roll of film they are often printed on. But King doesn’t really need them to do so, nor does he appear to want to. Misery is a ton of fun, a great afternoon read, and one that I always keep a copy of in my house. (I picked it up recently and accidently spent an hour flipping through the book, reading sections here and there to great delight.) Cell, published in 2006, is a 200-page zombie-romp that is as much fun as a 3-D movie at the drive-in. King’s best horrors don’t care to scare up old childhood wounds or sexual insecurities, but give us a fun-house jolt and then leaves us be. Read them for what they are.

2. The Ending Will Disappoint. Stephen King can set up the premise of a novel like nobody’s business. An antique store opens that has the one item each person needs...for a price. An ancient Indian burial ground has the power to resurrect the dead…and their horrors. A deadly superflu sweeps the nation, leaving only a handful of survivors to start over…and battle an even darker force. His books seem written for a books jacket. And yet he cannot finish a novel satisfactorily. He doesn’t so much seem unable to end his books with the power and imagination as he sets them up, as much as he seem uninterested in doing so. He likes the beginnings. King leads you down an interesting, dark, and sometimes frightening path with a masterful force, only to leave you angry you followed such a freak of a person in the first place. His novels, as a rule, crescendo into nothing. They “harumph out,” as I like to call it. So how to combat this problem? The answer is simple. Stop reading 50 pages before the end and imagine your own ending. 9/10 times yours will be better, no matter the size of your imagination. You could have never gotten into the “Pet Semetary” alone, but you can certainly find your own way out.

3. Longer Is Not Better. King is legendary for writing loooong novels, doorstops disguised as books. He has been quoted as saying he has the opposite of writer’s block, unable to stop spilling words onto the page. His body of work proves this. Most of his novels are more than 500 pages. It, The Stand, Under the Dome, and The Dark Tower series even clock it at well over 1,000 pages. The “Author’s Statement” that ends the 509 page Lisey’s Story (2006) refutes a common criticism of King’s work, that he needs to know when to stop and make cuts. He graciously thanks the novel’s editor, Nan Graham, and offers to “submit sample pages from my first-draft manuscript” to prove the work she did. Editor or not, skip King’s bigger novels. Long novels take time to read, and they take away from reading other, sometimes better novels. With King, the longer the novel, the greater the disappointment, and sometimes that disappointment feels closer to anger. I vividly remember trying my hardest to finish one of his 600-pagers on a car trip, if only so I could have it out of my life. When I was done, I made an oath never to read King again, and contemplated throwing the book onto the highway. The long ones simply aren’t worth it. On the other hand…

4. Shorter is Worse. You can also skip his short stories. He has published several collections of short fiction over the years, and while some of the stories are effective (“The Boogeyman” from Night Shift comes to mind), most are pure rotten. Some are even embarrassing. “Rock and Roll Heaven,” from Nightmares and Dreamscapes, about a couple trapped in, you guessed it, rock and roll heaven, makes one wonder how he ever got published in the first place. “The Lawnmower Man,” about a runaway lawn mower, even got made into a movie. Stay far far away from the short stories. Instead, seek out the 200-300 page novels, ones that can be consumed quickly, without much effort. Even better are his novellas, which usually come four per book. Most King fans swear by “The Body” from Different Seasons, which was later adapted into Stand By Me. My personal favorite is Four Past Midnight, which contains a story with an image of a dildo that has forever been burned into my brain.

5. When In Doubt, Read The Shining. Really, it doesn’t get any better than King’s third novel, published way back in 1977. The classic tale of the Torrance family’s nightmare winter in the Overlook Hotel is as scary as a novel can get, and inspired one of the most dreadfully iconic phrases in recent memory with “RedRum.” This is the King novel that has it all: a perfect set-up, masterful characterization, and a final section that is as terrifying as anything you will ever read. (You will never look at a topiary garden again in the same way.) In the Torrance family, King has found his perfect balance of entertainment, and, yes, art. Jack Torrance, the recovering alcoholic who moves his family into a snowed-under and haunted hotel to write his novel, is King’s most terrifying monster, a well-meaning father whose inner-demons slowly begin to destroy him and his loving family. It is near impossible to read the novel without picturing Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, but don’t let Stanley Kubrick’s equally-engrossing 1980 film version keep you away from the novel. Kubrick is able to capture some of King’s horror in vivid detail (“Here’s Johnny!”), but misses much of the sadness that runs through the novel’s center. The Shining is a pulpy ghost story on the surface, but ultimately it is the humans in the novel who are the most horrifying. Shine on, Uncle Stevie.