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.

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