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Saturday, July 23rd, 2011
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Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror

by Jason Zinoman

(In)Famous Monsters

A review by Gerry Donaghy

Horror movies have had a long a curious history. Early on, there were silent features, such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which used an expressionistic style to convey psychological torment. In the 1930s, Universal's adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein used sound and special effects to scare audiences. When the 1950s arrived, Godzilla, King of the Monsters strode upon the earth as a metaphor for the anxiety of the atomic age.

Sometime after Godzilla, however, horror films lost much of their ability to shock. The classics from Universal were sold to syndication and became weekend fodder for UHF stations, and newer films, with minimal production values, made sure that teenagers weren't missing much while they were busy making out at drive-in theaters.

In the book Shock Value, author Jason Zinoman traces the renaissance of contemporary horror films to Robert Evans and his production of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. The film, featuring Mia Farrow as the mother of the antichrist, spends most of its running time exploring urban angst and the terror of new home ownership, saving the devil for the very end. Where Evans was canny was that he got arthouse director Polanski to direct the film instead of William Castle, who owned the rights to Ira Levin's novel and intended to direct it himself. By eschewing Castle's penchant for cobwebs, fog machines, and cheap gimmicks (like buzzers in the theater seats), Evans was able to release a horror film that was in step with an audience whose tastes were being refined with sophisticated variations on traditional genres (such as Bonnie and Clyde as a take on the gangster genre).

Shock Value takes the same approach as other recent film-history books (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Pictures at a Revolution): find a group of filmmakers, declare year zero to be when a certain picture was released, and follow their trajectory from obscurity to success to artistic mediocrity. And, while it's a predictable formula, it's difficult to argue with Zinoman's thesis, in which Polanski's success with Rosemary's Baby makes horror respectable, paving the way for The Exorcist, and at the same time (and same year) George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead made the world safe for cheap, bloody thrills.

Each of these successes (Polanski and Romero) clears the path for several young filmmakers to make their marks, and Zinoman deftly fleshes out the stories of how Wes Craven, Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, and Sean S. Cunningham (who directed Friday the 13th, but never achieved the name-above-the-title success of his peers) created groundbreaking and influential horror movies through the '70s and early '80s.

However, if there is a hero in Shock Value, it is John Carpenter's USC schoolmate and early collaborator Dan O'Bannon. While O'Bannon may not be a household name, he wrote the screenplay to one of the most influential science-fiction/horror films of the last 30 years, Alien. What is heartbreaking about O'Bannon is that while he was a fascinating and imaginative person, his most famous creation was spawned primarily from his hideously prolonged affliction with Crohn's disease, which affects the intestines and digestive system (and eventually killed O'Bannon in 2009). This chest-busting extraterrestrial is more frequently associated with the various artists who brought it to life on-screen, from creature designer H. R. Giger to directors Ridley Scott and James Cameron, than it is with the man who genuinely suffered from its creation. The amount of attention Zinoman lavishes on O'Bannon is both welcome and long overdue.


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