In Print

Tracing horror's evolution from the camp-serious bastions of Roger Corman to the post-countercultural killing fields of 'The Last House on the Left' and on

In Print

Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror

by Jason Zinoman
Penguin, 272 pp., $25.95

Writer Jason Zinoman penned a smart, take-no-prisoners piece on the origins of the modern horror film for the March 2008 issue of Vanity Fair titled "Killer Instincts." With Shock Value he turns it into a book, one that rivals David J. Skal's The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror and Carol J. Clover's Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film for the title of sharpest blade in Leatherface's kitchen drawer. Zinoman's survey of Vietnam era on bloodbaths opens with Wes Craven's still-disturbing The Last House on the Left (1972) and closes at the annual, informal "Masters of Horror" dinner nearly 40 years later, where the old pros (Craven, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper) mingle with the new kids on the chopping block (Eli Roth, Robert Rodriguez, Tim Sullivan) and the culty overlords of genre filmmaking (William Lustig, Larry Cohen, Joe Lynch). In between lies the story of how a disreputable, barely extant type of filmmaking segued from the camp-serious bastions of Roger Corman and Vincent Price's gothy Poe pictures to the crimson-soaked, post-countercultural killing fields of The Last House ..., The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Halloween. For John Carpenter (whose middling comeback film The Ward is about to be released), it began in 1974 with the release of Dark Star (co-created with writer and future Alien scribe Dan O'Bannon), a sci-fi premasterpiece that the director described as "Waiting for Godot in space." Not quite, really, but it's a helluva micropitch. Craven's seminal film was reviled by nearly every critic in the country, the exception being Roger Ebert, who praised the film's hellish authenticity even as he was disturbed by it. More disturbing – technically, artfully, realistically – was Hooper's breathtakingly warped The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), a film Craven describes here as looking "like someone stole a camera and started killing people." Zinoman's (accurate) take: "a rather nuanced (for horror) portrait of a dysfunctional family and a disappearing class of people," an observation that could just as easily be applied, in reverse, to the directors and films he covers here. Explaining the lure of the New Horror, Zinoman heads straight to Pauline Kael and notes that the oft-repeated notion that filmgoers enjoy the horror genre because it provides them with a safe, presumedly cathartic glimpse into their own mortality is so much BS. People return to the horror, the horror, again and again not because it makes them feel good but because it does the exact opposite. Wallowing in "the forbidden, the taboo, the disreputable" creates "confusion, not catharsis." It's true: Good horror doesn't leave you feeling safer. It leaves you reeling, checking the locks on the front door, and peering into the darkness under the bed. It disturbs and returns the viewer to a childlike state of helpless terror – the insatiable need for which may be the most transgressive thing of all.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More horror films
Bedtime Stories That Bite Back
Bedtime Stories That Bite Back
Jennifer Kent discusses horror debut The Babadook

Marc Savlov, Dec. 5, 2014

American Nightmare
American Nightmare
A New IFC Documentary Examines Classic Independent Horror Films

Marjorie Baumgarten, Oct. 27, 2000

More Screens Reviews
What If Mickey Mouse Had a Life Outside the Movies?
What If Mickey Mouse Had a Life Outside the Movies?
Why we’re drawn to illustrated icons

Richard Whittaker, March 22, 2019

New in Print
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright explores the origins and alleged abuses of the Church of Scientology

Kimberley Jones, Jan. 25, 2013

More by Marc Savlov
The Twentieth Century
Suitably bonkers Canadian surrealist comedy rewrites history

Nov. 27, 2020

Jiu Jitsu
No jiu jitsu, and not enough Nic Cage in this Predator rip-off

Nov. 20, 2020


horror films, Shock Value, Modern Horror, Nightmares

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle