Book Review: Shock Value

Shock ValueFor those who like horror movies, and for those of us who find their appeal elusive, Shock Value (Penguin, July 2011) is a thorough and thoughtful study of movies that lead to bleed. New York Times critic and theater reporter Jason Zinoman appears to have absorbed the most prominent horror films and the lives and careers of their makers, and the result is a surprisingly involving account, even for this reader, who abhors the genre. I learned more about how we went from cheap and cheesy scary movies about monsters under the bed to today’s vile and purely nihilistic fare.

Tracing each horrormaker’s origins, with tales from the backlots that provide an interesting perspective on the moral and psychological stature of Hollywood’s best-known horror writers, producers, and directors, Zinoman reports, discloses and demonstrates how artists such as Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), with his highly praised use of light and shadow, came to influence the mind that made the highly influential (in the worst sense) Night of the Living Dead. Here are the main forces behind some of the worst, most repulsive, and successful movies of our times; their actions, ideas, and values are laid bare, with analyses of the works of Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby), Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Wes Craven (The Last House on the Left), John Carpenter (Halloween), Brian De Palma (Carrie), and William Friedkin (Cruising). As someone who writes about film, I found myself drawn into their dark and depraved worlds, marking the incredible influence on today’s films, certainly the majority of them, and the widespread nihilism in the culture.

From the latest exercise in depravity by Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson, or the makers of 300 to the TV wasteland of cynically sniveling blood porn that runs the gamut, the films discussed in Zinoman’s Shock Value, and the publisher got that title right, horror dominates the culture. Most of today’s most wildly praised pictures, such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Departed, No Country for Old Men or almost anything by Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg, traffic in unfiltered horror. Those who want to understand how artists that are often tortured malcontents (who, the author notes, festered in the vacant late 1960s) came to control what drives an industry, will learn something from this book. Some of us seek a sight of something other than that which is horrible; something, such as The King’s Speech, that affirms life. Shock Value by Jason Zinoman offers an account of those who choose to think and make movies about death.

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