Thursday, 26 January 2012

Book Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

The Peter Biskind approach to film history (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) at its best captures – in its life and times methodology – a sense of the defining cultural moment,  of how events and personalities conspire to create a new epoch.  At its worst it falls into tittle-tattle and gossip (like Biskind’s latest book on Warren Beatty). Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value falls somewhere in between.

The book’s full title is Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. This makes it pretty plain that Zinoman intends to follow the Biskind approach, only instead of charting the revolution of Hollywood by the Movie Brats of the 1970s, Shock Value focuses on the revolution of the horror film by directors like Romero, Carpenter, Hooper and Craven. Zinoman’s main conceit is that up until Rosemary’s Baby, horror was stuck in the doldrums of gothic schlock and rapidly losing its audience. Then along came films like Targets and Night of the Living Dead that revived the genre by creating a ‘New Horror’ set in the modern everyday world. Zinoman describes the exact moment that this happened: during a television programme called The Mike Douglas Show in June 1967. Vincent Price, the guest, is taken to task by Dr Frederick Wertham about the ‘harm’ that horror films do to children. Price defends his films as harmless fun, full of silly capes and goofy costumes. Protesting that real horror is not the violence of the movies but the real-world violence of Vietnam, Price inadvertently admits his own - and along with it, ‘Old Horror’s - irrelevance. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Roman Polanski prepares to film Rosemary’s Baby and the rest is history. It’s a great story - Zinoman never lets the facts get in the way of a great story – and so it is with the rest of the book.

The Biskind approach relies on conflict to create an entertaining narrative. In Easy Riders this arises mainly from the clash of egos between free-wheeling eccentrics like Hal Ashby and the Hollywood suits.  In Shock Value there is tension between ‘Old Horror’ and ‘New Horror’, dramatized in the case of Rosemary’s Baby, in the conflicting approaches of Roman Polanski and his producer, old-school schlockmeister, William Castle. There is bitterness between Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter, who fell out after making Dark Star together. There are creative differences between Sean Cunningham (the moneyman) and Wes Craven (the artist) on Last House on The Left. This makes for an engaging read on the whole but sometimes it feels a little forced. In “The Problem with Psycho” Zinoman argues that the notion that Hitchcock invented the modern horror film with Psycho and The Birds is overstated. Although the younger directors were influenced by Hitchcock, he claims, they also rebelled against him. It’s an interesting point but one Zinoman never really manages to back up adequately, relying too much on reports of personal slights and a bit of old gossip (such as the occasion when Hitchcock instructed the young William Friedkin to wear a tie on set.) As a piece of film criticism, it simply does not stand up to the likes of Robin Wood and Christopher Sharrett, both of whom have argued for the primacy of Psycho and The Birds much more persuasively…

Zinoman had access to most of the directors in the book, and is clearly a skilled interviewer. One of the best things about Shock Value is the way Zinoman prises intimate details about their personal histories from the film-makers; vividly told, these offer new insight into their lives and work. We learn about the parental feuds that made Tobe Hooper come to dread mealtimes and family get-togethers; we learn how a troubled home life lies behind the voyeurism theme in Brian DePalma’s films. Perhaps most touching is the account of how Wes Craven’s life fell apart prior to his making Last House on the Left as he struggled against the conformism of his Baptist background. These sections alone make the book worth spending money on.

Déjà vu does set in at times. Sometimes Zinoman’s narrative momentum falters and he lapses into a ‘making of’ commentary – this is especially so in the chapter on Alien. Zinoman retells the story of how Dan O’Bannon conceived the original story, how Ridley Scott came on board etc. Really there isn’t much new here and I found my attention wandering.

There are also, as many reviewers have noted, a lot of factual inaccuracies: far too many for me to want to go into them all here. (There is an excellent review by Jon Putnam that lists all of the book’s mistakes, which you can read here.) I will say, however, that these mistakes sometimes make you question how well Zinoman knows the actual films. Describing Last House on The Left, for example, he writes ‘a character is slashed to death with an electric boat fan.’ Perhaps he was thinking about I Spit on Your Grave. Unfortunately when you read such a mistake as early as page two (‘Krug carves the word ‘love’ onto his victim’s chest’) it immediately makes you doubt the writer, which is a shame, because inaccuracies not-withstanding, Shock Value is a worthwhile read.

Buy it, then, if you are looking for an entertaining overview of 1970s American horror cinema.

Jason Zinoman is appearing at the Roxy Cinema in London on 29 January 2012 where he will introduce a double bill of Texas Chainsaw Massacre + Shivers. Info here


Wes M said...

Good stuff Jon. I must admit I'd be kicking myself if I read that LHOTL snafu on page 2. Really there's no excuse for that kind of schoolboy error with the wealth of existing studies on the Horror film, as well as websites and blogs. For what it's worth, I've always found your writing impeccable in terms of reliability, and even well worn topics have a fresh slant.

Jon T said...

Aw, thanks, Wes, and I come back to your site for the same reasons, knowing that you are always 100%.
I'm going to Zinoman's book launch on Sunday. He's showing a couple of student shorts made by Dan O'Bannon that apparently had a big influence on John Carpenter's Halloween. Should be interesting, and I will report back...