So I’m dusting off the cobwebs on this blog to bring you a book review of Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value out now, and if you’re reading t...

Book Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

So I’m dusting off the cobwebs on this blog to bring you a book review of Jason Zinoman’s book Shock Value out now, and if you’re reading this why haven’t you bought it? I received a copy from the publisher a few weeks back and could not contain my excitement which was thoroughly justified by this very satisfying and entertaining read.


In 1968 William Castle, the master of suspense who made a living electrifying audiences with gimmicky horror films like The Tingler, bought the film rights to Rosemary’s Baby, the disturbing tale of a young woman who discovers she is having Satan’s child. Castle was keen on directing a film adaptation. He had years of experience, but the success of his B-movie horror features leaned heavily on publicity stunts, like taking out an insurance policy for any audience member who died of fright, instead of content. The studio recognized that Castle’s brand of horror was not what Rosemary’s Baby needed and asked Roman Polanski to direct, keeping Castle on as a producer only. Polanski represented the new guard of American horror filmmakers, who were concerned with the horrors of the here and now rather than supernatural scares. The clash between Castle and Polanski that Jason Zinoman presents in chapter one (“The Devil’s Advocate”) of his book Shock Value is a great fable for the transition from the old school of American horror to the new.

Shock Value is the first book of its kind that I’ve ever read and I could not put it down. There is a glut of books on the Golden Age of horror from German expressionism to the classic Universal monster films, but Zinoman is focusing on a very short time frame in horror film history from the 60’s to the 70’s. Granted I wasn’t alive when any of this stuff came out but the films of this era, among them Last House on the Left, Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, have all impacted me like well placed punch to the gut. They are visceral, haunting, disturbing and pure genius. The source of that genius is revealed to us by Zinoman who gives a comprehensive and entertaining history of the movers and shakers of second wave American Horror with cleverly titled chapters. I will touch on a few of my favorite parts here, but rest assured Shock Value is a book every horror fan should own and love.

In chapter two “The Problem with Psycho” Zinoman gives us another dueling pair of Old versus New Horror directors, but instead of William Castle vs. Roman Polanski it’s Alfred Hitchcock versus everyone else. Those directors on the new side of the divide include Craven, DePalma, Romero and Bogdanovich who rebelled against Hitchcock’s highly technical style of filmmaking and traditional brand of story telling. For Psycho this meant that the famous shower scene only suggested carnage instead of rubbing our face in it and the insane killer has a perfectly rational motive: its mommy’s fault. Brief glimpses of blood and a neatly tied off storyline allow the terrified audience to sleep better at night, knowing that Norman is safely locked in a prison of celluloid reason. This order is what directors like Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and Craven (Last House on the Left) rebelled against. Night of the Living Dead begins and ends with no explanation of where the zombies came from, the film refusing the make order out of chaos. Chaos was the order of the day for these new filmmakers who bathed the screen in horrible imagery, their main goal to show the knife slicing through flesh as the camera unflinchingly looks on and doesn’t cut away.

As Zinoman explains in chapter eleven “The Fear Sickness” what makes these films so good is the terror of uncertainty, as they blur the line between fantasy and reality. As viewers we are also in between as we watch the dead/alive zombies of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead or question our own sense of reality in Rosemary’s Baby. The borders that these movies crossed also accounts for their success during this narrow time period. It was a time before strong studio systems and after the fall of the production code. Independent filmmakers had a shot at creating something new and disturbing before Hollywood demanded more of the same.

Honestly Shock Value is a book every horror fan should have in their collection. I wish I could tell you more, but I won’t spoil it for you. It’s easy to read and I learned so much from it (like Boris Karloff was in sniper horror movie Targets directed by Peter Bogdanovich!? ) The stories of several key directors lead the chapters and by contrasting Old with New Horror auters Zinoman sets up each piece of this book like a well scripted play. After basking in the glory of second wave of American horror, Zinoman also traces its decline and explains how it went bust. His epilogue gives some idea of where we are now headed in this hand basket of horror which is echoed in his series on How to Fix Horror over at Slate.com which I suggest you read religiously.

2 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one! Thanks for being on the tour.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'd really be interested in where Zinoman thinks horror is headed.

    Thanks for being on this tour!

    ReplyDelete