Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

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By the late 1960s, horror was stuck in the past, confined mostly to drive-in theaters and exploitation houses, and shunned by critics. Shock Value tells the unlikely story of how the much-disparaged horror film became an ambitious art form while also conquering the multiplex. Directors such as Wes Craven, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, and Brian De Palma- counterculture types operating largely outside the confines of Hollywood-revolutionized the genre, exploding taboos and bringing a gritty aesthetic, confrontational style, and political edge to horror. Zinoman recounts how these directors produced such classics as Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, creating a template for horror that has been imitated relentlessly but whose originality has rarely been matched.

This new kind of film dispensed with the old vampires and werewolves and instead assaulted audiences with portraits of serial killers, the dark side of suburbia, and a brand of nihilistic violence that had never been seen before. Shock Value tells the improbable stories behind the making of these movies, which were often directed by obsessive and insecure young men working on shoestring budgets, were funded by sketchy investors, and starred porn stars. But once The Exorcist became the highest grossing film in America, Hollywood took notice.

The classic horror films of the 1970s have now spawned a billion-dollar industry, but they have also penetrated deep into the American consciousness. Quite literally, Zinoman reveals, these movies have taught us what to be afraid of. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of the most important artists in horror, Shock Value is an enthralling and personality-driven account of an overlooked but hugely influential golden age in American film.

A highly interesting analysis of the resurgence of horror movies in the 1970s where the genre finally began to be taken a bit more seriously. It was the very lack of respect horror movies had that allowed several business outsiders to take risks and make their own experimental additions to the genre. It was also the very success of these movies that ended up dooming horror movies into becoming constrained by the same big business guidelines of other movies. The author doesn’t always like every movie that is considered ground breaking nor does he shy away from how difficult some of these directors were in personality, but there is a deep understanding of how horror went from being considered something for “kids” to a higher art form. It’s fascinating see just how some of these movies came into being and what it is about them that makes them stand out so much.

4 out of 5

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