Book Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman
Since its publication last July, Jason Zinoman's Shock Value has received more mainstream press - and largely favorable mainstream press - than most critical analyses of horror cinema in recent years. The attention is understandable, as this is a well-written account of a pivotal period in the genre (the late '60s to early '80s) that's also accessible to a general readership. It's not aimed purely at cinephiles and academics or the fanatical horror fandom. It also doesn't hurt that, in this age of information overload, the book is a quick read or that Zinoman writes regularly for The New York Times (mainly covering theater). Even in a time of a historically fractured mass media, the "Gray Lady" still has clout.
Unfortunately, for all Zinoman's talent with prose, he proves to be a sloppy journalist and his thesis, spelled out in the book's subtitle (How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood and Invented Modern Horror) never pans out as anything but a pretty vague proposition.
Several reviews have compared this to Peter Biskind's controversial bestseller on the rise of the maverick American filmmakers of the 1970s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Like that book, Shock Value filters its history through personal stories of some of the major players of the era. This approach requires intense selectivity, especially in a relatively brief book (241 pages). Zinoman ends up crowding out or undervaluing significant talents while devoting a great deal of the book to what he sees as the unsung contributions of Dan O'Bannon.
As a big fan of Alien (for which he co-wrote the original screenplay) and his splatter horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead, I think O'Bannon is certainly deserving of attention, but Zinoman goes overboard in trying to prove his importance to the evolution of horror. This elevation comes at the expense of O'Bannon's one-time friend and collaborator, John Carpenter. (O'Bannon co-wrote, edited, supervised special effects, was production designer on and played a lead role in Dark Star, the low-budget directorial debut of his USC classmate Carpenter.) While Zinoman acknowledges O'Bannon had a combative, sometimes off-putting personality, he mainly paints him as a figure denied his just due from the industry, while Carpenter is depicted as cold, controlling, quick to swipe other filmmakers' ideas, and a bit cruel in lording his greater success over O'Bannon.
This may or may not be the case, but O'Bannon is quoted extensively criticizing Carpenter's character (a taste of his vitriol: "Some people will just cut your head off, run away and not look back") while there's neither a denial nor confirmation of the charges from the object of his ire. Carpenter is quoted elsewhere in the book on other matters, so did he simply refuse to respond to O'Bannon's harsh remarks or did Zinoman even give him the chance? There's no way to tell from the book, so one is left with the suspicion - fair or not - that the author chose to embrace O'Bannon's bitter view to cast him as the tragic fallen protagonist (O'Bannon died in 2009 after a long battle with Crohn's disease) in a narrative he preferred over illuminating two sides of the same story.
While O'Bannon was certainly essential to the creation of Alien - co-writing the original script, consulting on the design of the film and, perhaps most importantly, bringing artist H.R. Giger on board to create the unforgettable title monster - Zinoman doesn't really prove his contributions outweighed those of director Ridley Scott or even producer Walter Hill (who rewrote much of the screenplay). Indeed, while auteur status is often unfairly proclaimed in the highly collaborative art of moviemaking, Scott's Blade Runner certainly has more in common with Alien's aesthetics than The Return of the Living Dead. But Zinoman largely reduces the film's considerable influence to O'Bannon's devising of the "money shot": the alien baby bursting out of John Hurt's stomach. It's an unforgettable scene, of course, but Zinoman posits it almost as the film's reason for being. It's part of an increasingly cloudy argument that shock and "trash" appeal reign over other aspects in horror's allure.
The heavy focus on O'Bannon means much more limited space devoted to figures undeniably more important to the genre of the period, including David Cronenberg and Dario Argento. Zinoman details the era almost exclusively through the work of American directors, so the Canadian Cronenberg and the Italian Argento don't fit neatly into his connected thread of characters (though Argento's relationship with George Romero is mentioned and could have easily opened up an international dimension to the book).
Zinoman also has a hard time holding a rather disparate group of movies together under his "modern horror" umbrella. The release of both Rosemary's Baby and Night of the Living Dead in 1968 stands as his epochal moment of change, but while the former may have pushed the envelope with regard to the mixing of sexual content and horror in a mainstream film, it's still mainly a movie of suggestion, whereas George Romero's breakthrough was definitely intent on showing the gore (tame as it may seem by today's standards).
The author forces some suspect contrarian arguments as well. It's true enough that readings of Night of the Living Dead as a commentary on racial strife all come from the viewer's standpoint - Romero simply cast Duane Jones because he was the best actor available on a meager budget. But Zinoman later suggests Romero basically stumbled into being one of the genre's keenest social observers, seeing an opening to auteur status after the sociopolitical critical reaction to Night. But both The Crazies and Season of the Witch were made before those reactions had elevated that film's reputation (Night attained its classic status slowly, after falling into the public domain) and both are as overt in their commentary as anything Romero has made. What has separated Romero from the pack since the beginning isn't his place in the shock pantheon (where he's been surpassed by countless gore-meisters, including years earlier by the artless Herschell Gordon Lewis), but the meaty drama be builds around his bloody scenarios.
It's telling that the critics most frequently cited in Shock Value are Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael. Both are undeniably important figures who brought film criticism to greater mainstream prominence, but both also are also guilty of long histories of reductive declarative statements. To my mind, Kael was one hell of a good writer but also one hell of a shallow analyst, while Zinoman proclaims her "greatest critic of her generation" as if it were ordained...Andrew Sarris be damned! Kael's distinctions between "trash" and "art" were scattershot, even when she was embracing "trash" and condemning "art." While citing some of her "serious lapses in taste" in dismissive reviews of beloved horror fare, Zinoman still praises her for recognizing the obvious: that horror's appeal is often in the disreputable and taboo. He uses Kael's writing in that regard to awkwardly try and coalesce his own disjointed thoughts about the genre into a larger theme of the lure of the forbidden. Yet, as that attraction has been central to horror from the beginning (Freaks was as shocking in its day as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was in the '70s), what Zinoman is saying about it in relation to the films and filmmakers covered in his book is hazy at best.
As for Ebert, Zinoman mentions his favorable reaction to Halloween on his nationally broadcast TV series, but fails to point out that the praise came in the context of an episode in which Ebert and co-host Gene Siskel were condemning a wide range of horror movies and thrillers for sadistic treatment of women. The critics' argument wasn't entirely without merit. Ugly, misogynist fare was, and still is, a frequent stain on the genre. But in their moral crusading, The Howling bizarrely gets tossed in with the likes of I Spit on Your Grave. (Siskel, who seems not to have seen the film, even hilariously describes The Howling as being about a woman on vacation who is tortured by the locals! No mention of werewolves, the movie's overt artifice, or any of director Joe Dante's comic underpinnings.) The episode as a whole exposed both critics as largely ignorant of where horror was coming from and where it was headed.
Errors can slip into even the best-researched books, so it might seem petty to point out some of Zinoman's misses, but taken into context with his fast-and-loose approach elsewhere, it does leave you questioning the author's overall research. Two of most glaring flubs come in the portion of the book dealing with Carpenter and O'Bannon's time at USC. The Resurrection of Broncho Billy was a student film that won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Subject in 1970. It's described in Shock Value as Carpenter's film. While he edited and scored the film, and is one of several writers listed, the credited director is James Rokos. To be fair, Carpenter's own website makes it sound as if he sat in the director's chair for the film (perhaps lending credence to O'Bannon's view of him), but Rokos' credit is easy to find (you can even watch the short in its entirety on YouTube). Later, another award-winning student film gets mentioned: George Lucas' THX 1138. Zinoman writes that its success led to a theatrical release by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope company in 1971. Not quite. The 1967 student short (full title, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB) was the basis for the feature film THX 1138, made with the backing of Zoetrope and major studio support of Warner Brothers, with no less than Robert Duvall in the lead. That was the film that reached theater screens in 1971, not the short. And in the mention of Ebert's review of Halloween, the TV show is listed as At the Movies. Actually, that was the name of the show when Siskel and Ebert took it into syndication two years later. But in 1980, the show was still a PBS series called Sneak Previews.
I don't mean to be too hard on Zinoman, as Shock Value certainly has some value in revealing behind-the-scenes stories and background. Chapters detailing author William Peter Blatty's disputes with director William Friedkin during the making of The Exorcist and the blatantly autobiographical elements Brian De Palma worked into his films are especially interesting. Zinoman may have been better off writing a basic document of the production of some key films of the period, rather than trying to make a definitive statement on that era. Too plagued by errors and iffy speculation, Shock Value's reach far exceeds its grasp.