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Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Inven ted Modern Horror Hardcover – July 7, 2011

4.1 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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An enormously entertaining account of the gifted and eccentric directors who gave us the golden age of modern horror in the 1970s, bringing a new brand of politics and gritty realism to the genre.

Much has been written about the storied New Hollywood of the 1970s, but at the same time as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola were making their first classic movies, a parallel universe of directors gave birth to the modern horror film-aggressive, raw, and utterly original. Based on unprecedented access to the genre's major players, The New York Times's critic Jason Zinoman's Shock Value delivers the first definitive account of horror's golden age.

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.

What's Inside Shock Value

Hitchcock is not the Godfather of the horror film: Moreover, the greatest horror directors of this era were actually reacting against him, as much as paying homage to him. This is particularly true of the end of Psycho, which horror makers hated as much as they loved the shower scene. This is a new argument that is at odds with most everything written about the genre.

The origins of horror tropes: Zinoman does a masterful job of tracing the origins of those now familiar horror standbys: the masked serial killer, the point of view shot in slasher films, the use of the chainsaw, the introduction of Giger’s aesthetic (H.R. Giger was a painter and sculptor; the now-seminal design for the alien in Alien was inspired by his painting Necronom IV and earned him an Oscar in 1980); and the roots of the unmotivated serial killer.

Solving the "Monster Problem": This is a term Zinoman coins, which essentially means how do you retain the sense of the unknown (the "unknown" being the scariest thing in the world according to the intellectual Godfather of the genre, H.P. Lovecraft) while showing the monster? Every great horror movie of this period provides a good answer to this problem, and Zinoman shows exactly how the directors did it.

The slow embrace of the mainstream press to horror: In the 70s, the media’s coverage of horror radically evolved. Roger Ebert’s pan of Night of the Living Dead in Reader’s Digest helped launch a new kind of alternative horror press which took horror very seriously at least a decade before the major critics. Now of course almost everyone, from A.O. Scott to Anthony Lane, does.

Tracing the origins of the two greatest monster movies of the era--Alien and Halloween: Zinoman explores in detail the influential friendship at USC in the late sixties between John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon. Zinoman is the first journalist to really reconstruct the USC scene (and almost the entire class), back before film school was really that popular.

Wes Craven: Zinoman explores how a fundamentalist upbringing and an early career in porn inspired Craven to be a master of horror.

Brian De Palma: The common wisdom about this director has been completely wrong. Despite his reputation as a coolly stylish director who emphasizes form over content, Zinoman shows how De Palma’s movies are actually very personal, even autobiographical. To take one example, his greatest theme--voyeurism, which shows up in everything from Carrie to Scarface to Blow Out-–did not originate as an homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as everyone including him says, but rather in the story of De Palma, as a child, spying and catching his father cheating (De Palma videotaped his father meeting-up with his mistress so that his mother could win in a divorce).

The making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Much has been written about the insanity of making this film, but Zinoman colorfully reports on the unlikely role of the New York mob and the Governor of Texas had in producing perhaps the most original exploitation movie of all time. Zinoman captures a Wild West period at the birth of the Texas film industry, when a classic horror movie could be made because a rich businessman wanted to sleep with the leading lady.


“In Shock Value, New York Times scribe Zinoman attempts to give these directors the same treatment Peter Biskind gave Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola in his magnificent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. In other words, he explains the filmmakers’ importance while never letting his cultural theorizing get in the way of a good production yarn or intriguing biographical nugget. Zinoman succeeds monstrously well in this mission…there is plenty here to make the most knowledgeable of horror fans’ head explode.” — Entertainment Weekly

 “Not only is Shock Value enormously well-researched — the book is based on the author's interviews with almost all of the movement's principals — it's also an unbelievable amount of fun. Zinoman writes with a strong narrative drive and a contagious charisma.” — NPR.org

“[Shock Value] fuses biography (in this case, of such masters of horror as Wes Craven, John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper), production history, movie criticism and social commentary into a unified and irresistible story...You should finish a great movie book with your dander up and your Netflix queue swelled by at least a dozen titles. And on that count, Shock Value more than delivers.” — Laura Miller, Salon.com

"Zinoman...concentrates on a handful of films and filmmakers that brought the corpse back to life during the late 1960s and early ’70s, and he convincingly conveys what made movies like 'Night of the Living Dead' and 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' different from anything that had come before: more unsettling, purer in their sense of dread...where Shock Value excels is in its primary research, the stories of how the seminal shockers of this era came to be.” — The New York Times

 “Impassioned, articulate prose…Zinoman is such a literate, intelligent defender of the cause that his arguments are well worth reading. Even better, he has a knack for finding the characters in behind-the-scenes theatrics.” — The Onion

“Though in-depth character bios and discussion of the changing movie business are fascinating, Zinoman’s shot-by-shot descriptions of groundbreaking films and championing of understated gems are even more impressive. This volume reveals just enough to satiate horror aficionados, while offering plenty for curious fright-seekers who want to explore the formative years of what’s become a billion-dollar industry.” — Publishers Weekly starred review

“Insightful, revealing, and thoroughly engrossing…Thoroughly researched, Shock Value is chock full of nuggets of insider details that even the most hardcore horror fan might not know.” — About.com

“Between 1968 and 1976, all the films that redefined the horror movie were made: Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Dark Star, The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Carrie. In fluent reporter’s prose lent urgency by personal fascination, Zinoman tells how their creators made those paradigm-shifters…There are many good-bad and downright bad books about horror movies. Zinoman gives us the rare all-good book about them.” — Roy Olson, Booklist

“May well prove to be the most indispensable overview of modern horror.” — Rue Morgue Magazine

“Brisk, accessible and incisive...walks a tonal tightrope of entertaining prose and sobering deliberation.” — Fangoria Magazine

“Five Stars. The most effortlessly enchanting treatise on the American horror film since Stephen King’s Danse Macabre.... die-hard horror fans will worship it.” — BloodyDisgusting.com

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press (July 7, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594203024
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594203022
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #701,621 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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If you are a horror-movie fan, and I am certainly one of them, Zinoman's biography of the men behind Hollywood's second "golden age" of horror, the 1970s, is an essential read. "Shock Value" is a nice blend of what makes guys like Wes Craven and George Romero tick - and how those ticks show up in their movies. But I'm sure every fright-flick aficionado will have nitpicks with Zinoman's critique, and so here are two of mine: Zinoman points out that most of these directors flamed out after initial success, but he doesn't offer much of an explanation for why that happened. William Friedkin ("The Exorcist"), Tobe Hooper ("The Texas Chain Saw Massacre"), Romero ("Night of the Living Dead") ... what the hell happened to these guys?

My other complaint is more subjective. I happen to believe that Bob Clark's "Black Christmas" was the most terrifying movie of the decade, and that John Carpenter (who, incidentally, comes off as a Grade-A jerk in this book) shamelessly stole concepts and techniques from that movie to use in his blockbuster "Halloween." Zinoman touches on this directorial "borrowing," but inexcusably devotes little text to Clark's woefully underappreciated, eerie masterpiece.
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Format: Hardcover
Shock Value seeks to take on a lot in a relatively small space. Almost all of the films chronicled in the book could be the subjects of entire books, and Jason Zinoman does a good job at giving the reader a nice sampler of the important films of the genre, while also giving us some interesting insights into the creators behind them, letting us peek into their inner workings, providing good background on why exactly these seemingly normal (in most cases) people could create some of the most stomach-turning, terrifying films ever made.

The book does falter, though, in a lot of ways that glare too much to make it completely enjoyable. While the book does feature portraits of horror luminaries such as Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Brian DePalma and George Romero, the main narrative of the book focuses on John Carpenter, and does so far too much. The book quickly becomes about Carpenter and his frequent clashes with his collaborator, Dan O'Bannon. The book describes Carpenter and O'Bannon's obsession with HP Lovecraft and their shared obsession with Howard Hawkes' The Thing from Another Planet.

Yet, despite Zinoman's adoration of Carpenter's work, and despite a half dozen mentions of his love of The Thing From Another Planet, the book makes only a slight mention of Carpenter's remake of the film, The Thing, which still stands as one of the most terrifying horror films ever made.

There are a few other quibbles I had with the book, including a number of rather glaring typos and factual errors, and a strangely self-absorbed telling of how a Hollywood producer approached Zinoman during the writing of the book to pitch him a horror film.
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First of all, I will say if you like horror films, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. There is too little written on the subject, and given that, I was delighted to find this book, and overall it did not disappoint.

Mr. Zinoman is a good writer, and within the areas that he chooses to focus, he has done a good deal of research and provides the reader with interesting insights.

My main complaint would be that there was not enough. The book covers the initial films of Craven, Carpenter, De Palma, Friedkin, Polanski, Romero and Hooper to a good deal of depth. But he ignores much, if not all, of the later works of these artists. I would have liked to have heard much more about how these directors evolved. In some cases, like Hooper or Romero, where there careers sort of flamed out (I know Romero fans won't agree, but how many zombie moves can one man make?), but many of them remained vital for many years. I was especially disappointed that there was not more coverage of Body Double and the Thing. These are two of the finest thriller/horror movies ever made IMO, and were fairly solidly within the time period covered by the book, yet were basically left out for some reason (I'm guessing time limitations, as the whole book though well done does feel a bit rushed). Maybe part two.

That aside, I did thoroughly enjoy reading this. Hopefully there will be more like it!
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An overview of horror movies from "Night of the Living Dead" (1968) and covering most of the main horror movies from the 1960s and 70s. He discusses "Rosemary's Baby", "Carrie", "Texas Chainsaw Massacre", "Last House on the Left", "Halloween" and the directors and writers behind them. This is well-written, VERY entertaining and (at 238 pages)short. Some of the stories I knew but Zinoman tells them in such an entertaining fashion I didn't mind reading them again. What's very interesting is how it chronicles the directors early lives to see what influenced them. It also gets into their fights and accusations against each other. I LOVED reading this.

HOWEVER I do have a few minor complaints. He complains about the end of the movie "Psycho" saying we didn't need an explanation. I disagree. He also complains about Hitchcock keeping it in. Hitchcock didn't write "Psycho"--Robert Bloch did. Blame him. I also disagree with his views on "Carrie". While I don't disagree that it's an important movie calling it operatic is a little bit ridiculous. I think that chapter was a little weak. And also, Stephen KIng DOESN'T like the character of Carrie and it comes through loud and clear in the book. Zinoman seems to think he does. Still, these are small complaints. The rest of the book is just great! One last complaint--it was too short! I wanted it to keep going. I'd love to see what Zinoman thinks of the "Scream" films (which he mentions only in passing) and the "Friday the 13th" series (which he doesn't mention at all!). Basically this is a must-read for all horror fans--and all NON-horror fans!
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