Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Horror!

Book Reviewed: Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, by Jason Zinoman

Currently, my days as a graduate student consist of reading Romantic poetry (for my lit class) and somewhat unsatisfying contemporary poetry (for my workshop).  Outside of class, I find I don't have much patience to read the things I actually want to read.  I never thought I'd say this, but I might be spending too much time in the world of words.

For this reason, I decided it was time to read a book on some pop culture subject.  I originally intended to read the usual Chuck Klosterman type of thing, but intentions never really work the way they're supposed to, do they?  I heard theater critic Jason Zinoman give an interview on the AV Club's podcast, Reasonable Discussions, a couple weeks ago.  Zinoman was talking about his new book, Shock Value, a brief history of the "new modern" horror film.  I found him to be funny, intelligent, and well-spoken.  I was sold.  Then, last week, I found the book on display at my campus library.  I grabbed it up.  After all, it's October and I had an entire fall break ahead of me in which I could read whatever I wanted. 

I have a soft spot for film histories.  I was a film fanatic in high school, and though I've lost my former love for watching movies, I still love reading about them.  In any given year, I probably read more film criticism than I do literary criticism, despite the fact that I physically watch very few movies per year now.  So I was already predisposed to like Zinoman's book.  He concentrates on the way the horror genre shifted from goofy monster movies into violent, more personal films completely dictated by the director's vision.  He starts with 1968's Rosemary's Baby and ends with a chapter on 1979's Alien.  During this eleven year span, Hollywood saw the rise in popularity of a grittier type of horror film.  In Shock Value, Zinoman concentrates on the strange genius of people like George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and screenwriter Dan O'Bannon.  The way Zinoman describes the creation of the movies makes them sound like little miracles, flukes that happened to go big.  He shows his bias sometimes, particularly in his affection for the put-upon O'Bannon.  He also never goes far enough into the gender politics of these movies for my taste.  A couple of times he pays lips service to the themes of exploitation in these dark movies, but he sort of waves away the arguments in order to get to other things.  (Somewhere out there, there must be a book that gets further into the icky factor of gender in horror films.  I intend to find said book.)  But overall, it was a well-written, well-argued look into a genre I know nothing about.

Because here's the funny thing.  I've never actually seen any of the movies Zinoman talks about here.  He starts his book by talking about the influence of Hitchcock, mainly through the prism of Psycho, a movie I have seen and loved (full disclosure: Psycho is actually the movie that turned me into a teen film buff.  I saw it in middle school, and from that point on I was obsessed with movies).  But I haven't seen any of the others, not even The Exorcist.  I've been easily terrified for most of my life, so I've always stayed away from horror movies.  And now that I'm older and actually enjoy the feeling of being scared once in a while, I've lost my interest in movies themselves.  So even though I found this book super-fascinating, I didn't actually have any point of reference.  Luckily, Zinoman is a good enough critic to realize that he has to give some background to things, so I wasn't too lost.  That being said, I've now made it my mission to go find some of these films. 

So if you'll excuse me, I need to go find some time to watch Night of the Living Dead.  Because if there is one thing you dear readers of this blog know about me, it's that I loooove me some zombie-related thrills.

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