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‘Shock Value’ exhumes source of modern horror film

"Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror" (Penguin Press), by Jason Zinoman: Rack up another dubious achievement for the 1960s. That’s the decade when scary movies went from hoary to gory.

Schlocky monsters and Edgar Allan Poe rip-offs were aimed at kids. Blood-and-sex flicks were designed to titillate and disgust adults. As author Jason Zinoman explains in his enjoyable book, "Shock Value," no one was taking the genre seriously.

Attitudes began changing with two movies released in 1968, not by happenstance the year Hollywood broke the shackles of self-censorship and society itself nearly came apart. "Rosemary’s Baby" had a healthy budget and a respected director, Roman Polanski, and its story was overtly psychological, drawing from commonplace sources of fear: career, finances, marriage, parenthood. Instead of an old haunted house, the setting was a seemingly normal Manhattan high-rise building.

Nothing was normal in the year’s other influential horror film, George A. Romero’s "Night of the Living Dead." His tale of flesh-eating zombies was low-budget but connected to the times — its hero a black man fighting a mob, its ending nihilistic — in ways classic horror films didn’t. And it was exceedingly bloody, even in black and white.

From those two films arose the key qualities for a new kind of scary movie: a multilayered story, complex characters, a familiar setting and shocking images. Re-imagining the genre further: a handful of insecure outsiders, often isolated and lonely, who maintained a childhood zeal for the frightening. Their inspiration was H.P. Lovecraft, not E.A. Poe.

Filmmaking talent was important, but money was the lifeblood behind horror’s return from the grave. "The Exorcist" (1973), which some rank in adjusted dollars as the ninth biggest moneymaker of all time, proved that a fortune could be made from scaring people sick.

Zinoman focuses on the back story of these and other significant films, reflects on horror’s place in our culture and psyche and, most effectively, sketches the men behind the mayhem, directors like Wes Craven ("The Last House on the Left"), Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chain Saw Massacre") and John Carpenter ("Halloween"), and writer Dan O’Bannon ("Alien"). The seams holding together these and other pieces are loose and, consequently, Zinoman’s creation lumbers a bit.

Unlike the Frankenstein monster, though, "Shock Value" has a good brain behind it. Zinoman balances his insightful examination of a cultural phenomenon with an appreciation for an often-misunderstood genre.


Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).

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