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
Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., July 15, 2011
Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horrorby 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.