Friday, August 5, 2011

Shock Value: People Who Like Horror Can Be Smart, Too

I finished a great book called Shock Value today. Well, that's not the full title. The full title is Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. But you're crazy if you think I'm going to keep typing that bastard of a title. I'd probably write SV if I didn't think it sounded like a new sexually transmitted disease.

And that random nugget of stupid actually segues nicely into the reason I liked this book so much. It's author, Jason Zimoman, is able to talk intellectually about what draws people to horror, specifically the New Horror of the late 1960s into the 70s. As he describes the work of classic horror directors like John Carpenter, William Friedkin, and Brian De Palma, he has a knack for discussing these films without looking down his nose at them like the majority film critics. At the same time, he also avoids the fanboy ravings that people like me would be prone to use. Whereas I'd be pointing out that most critics are stuck up douche bags and horror movies kick ass, Zinoman takes a very calm, scholarly approach to his topic.

Zinoman's inner fanboy does peek out subtly a few times, however, towards the end of the book as his tone shifts to one of wistful regret as he describes the horror movies followed the revolution of the 60s and 70s. He doesn't dismiss work in the 80s, 90s, and 00s entirely, but there's a sense that something about those movies just isn't the same. Even later work by the directors he discusses in the book is relegated to afterthought. I realize this is a book about a specific genre in a specific era, but when talking about Brian De Palma's later work, he briefly lists the gangster movies that De Palma made. The fact that these movies were Scarface and The Untouchables means absolutely nothing to Zimoman.

Another great aspect of the book is that it takes you through all the crap that these directors had to go through just to get these movies made. While reading about the ties that the production of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had to both Texas politicians and the New York mob, I couldn't help but think what a dull story the making of Avatar must be. I guess it would go without saying that the stories about people breaking into Hollywood are more interesting than those who are thriving there, but Shock Value brings that comparison into focus.

Now, while I'm trying very hard to emulate Zimoman's scholarly approach to writing about horror, I must admit that the best thing about Shock Value for me is that Zimoman pointed out some cool horror flicks to watch. One of my secret shames is that I call myself a horror fan but I still haven't seen Night of the Living Dead or The Exorcist. I'm a child of 80s horror like Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street. But Zimoman has me excited to finally give the classics a shot, along with a number of other titles which, lucky me, are in Netflix's Watch Instantly selection. So check back in the future as I'll probably be sharing my thoughts on them in the coming weeks. And, yeah, I'll probably babble quite a bit.


  1. In its own right Scarface is a horror to watch them, but usually with my hands in front of my eyes when its time for the gore. Oh, and by the way glad you typed that "bastard of a title" at least once!

  2. I'd love to read that book--thanks for the heads up. Picking the best/scariest horror pic is probably harder than any other genre. But I think Night of the Living Dead is probably the most horrific (as opposed to horrible) movie ever made. For me The Exorcist doesn't stand the test of time. What was your opinion of The Boogens?

  3. Anonymous...well the damn title is just so long!

    Tom...I can honestly say I've never heard of The Boogens. Who made it?