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SHOCK VALUE
By JASON ZINOMAN (The Penguin Press; 2011)

The subtitle says it all: “How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.” This book, in other words, seeks to do for the “New Horror” films of the late 1960s and 70s what Peter Biskind’s much-revered EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS did for mainstream films of the era. The problem for longtime horror fans is that the information provided in these pages is nothing we don’t already know, although in the defense of author Jason Zinoman (a New York Times theater critic) SHOCK VALUE appears to have been aimed at non-horror buffs unfamiliar with the scene it details.

     It at least begins with an interesting incident of which I was previously unaware: a verbal altercation between Vincent Price and SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT author Fredrick Wertham on THE MIKE DOUGLAS SHOW, during which Price attempted (without success) to convince the ever-self righteous Wertham that horror movies were harmless entertainment. That was certainly true in Price’s heyday, but the New Horror movies were anything but harmless escapism, providing harsh and impacting scares that mirrored the unsettled time in which they were made.

     Zinoman fills us in on the making of many of those New Horror films and the background of their makers, who, unsurprisingly, tended to be dreamers and social outcasts. John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper and Brian De Palma all receive plenty of attention, having each made an iconic New Horror film: HALLOWEEN, THE TEXAS CAINSAW MASSACRE and CARRIE, respectively. Also profiled in these pages are Wes Craven, Sean Cunningham and their jointly made LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, the late William Castle and ROSEMARY’S BABY, William Friedkin and THE EXORCIST, Peter Bogdonovich and TARGETS, and George Romero and THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Puzzlingly, the late Dan O’Bannon is also profiled, even though his output was pretty scant outside DARK STAR and ALIEN, both of which receive generous coverage in these pages.

     Also covered, albeit less prominently, are BLOOD FEAST, DEATHDREAM/DEAD OF NIGHT, THE SHINING, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, ERASERHEAD, IT’S ALIVE, DAWN OF THE DEAD, the early films of David Cronenberg, and the most iconic 1970s horror movie of them all, JAWS--which indelibly transformed the horror genre and the American film industry overall, yet is only given a few brief mentions in SHOCK VALUE.

     The overall effect is agreeable, with lively and unself-conscious prose that generally avoids glib moralizing and intellectual twaddle. Be advised, however, that this book contains some highly opinionated dissertations on the nature of horror films, which according to Zinoman appeal to people “not because they are good for them, but precisely because they aren’t.” A persuasive argument, but I’m more partial to another line of reasoning aired in these pages: “It’s too simple to boil down the appeal of horror to one reason.” Amen to that!

     

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