Zinoman’s “Shock Value” and the New Horror of the ’70s

book-cover-shock-valueIn his new book, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, author Jason Zinoman does a stellar job of presenting the story of the ’70s horror directors who took the horror genre from its supernatural underpinings and clean, “good triumphs over evil” endings into the realm of modern-day psychological terror and equivocating conclusions.

Throughout Shock Value, Zinoman continually makes the point that this is the transition from Old Horror to New Horror. The repeated contrasting of the ’70s directors and their earlier counterparts – De Palma and Hitchcock, most notably – allows Zinoman to ably demonstrate just what kind of innovation was at hand. I feel he missed some chances to connect the past when mentioning the marketing of Wes Craven’s Last House On the Left using “It’s only a movie…” with the various tactics utilized by William Castle, whose acquisition of Rosemary’s Baby gets the book rolling.

The author effectively uses snapshot biographies, which allow the reader to get a glimpse of the director as a youth and in their early career, without delving too much into pointless back story. Only the pertinent details are communicated. Also, rather simply focus on the major players (who, for the record, are Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, Dan O’Bannon, William Friedkin, Tobe Hooper, and Roman Polanski), Zinoman ties in quite a few players one might not expect.

Steven Spielberg and Jaws – and, although to a lesser extent, Duel – factor in, as do low-budget b-movie mavens George Romero, Roger Corman and Herschel Gordon Lewis. It’s astounding how the stories interweave with one another, with something like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead influencing many of the directors who came after, and thus becoming a major part of the story. Zinoman does a stellar job in keeping every story crisp and clean, despite the many different narrative threads.

At no point was I lost, nor was I confused, and the cast of characters is large, and the number of movies covered expansive. Even if you’re not a horror fan, you’ll still be able to follow along with little-to-no effort. As it was, I started Shock Value on a Sunday morning and had it finished by bedtime. It’s a page-turner of the highest order, and an invaluable addition to the library of horror aficionados, film buffs, and pop culture devotees alike.

Jason Zinoman will be on the NPR program Fresh Air next Tuesday, July 5, where he’s interviewed by host Terry Gross regarding the book. You can use this handy-dandy widget to find out when it airs in your neck of the woods. If you miss it, you’ll be able to listen to it online later this evening.