Much has been written about the film revolution that took place during the 1970’s – when the studio system crumbled in inconceivable ways and a brood of bold young filmmakers, most of them wily, many of them bearded, forever changed the landscape of the film industry. But far less has been written about the seismic shift in genre films during the same period. Thankfully, Jason Zinoman, a crack film writer for the New York Times (he did last weekend’s great John Carpenter profile), has come forward to present a compelling and well researched look at those films in “Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.”
Zinoman looks at the genre revolution through a prism of films and filmmakers, with all the biggies present and accounted for, weaving intriguing micro-narratives into a larger, big picture thematic context. He also seems to know the stories that have been told before, so he steers clear of, say, extensive behind-the-scenes details on 1973’s “The Exorcist,” instead focusing on the much more involving personal struggle between director William Friedkin and screenwriter and author William Peter Blatty over the movie’s ending, which both saw as severely affecting the overall tone of the film. It was a creative tug-of-war that wouldn’t finally be resolved until the theatrical re-release of the film in 2000, and it’s just the kind of incisive, vividly told entry point that Zinoman often finds.
Take, for instance, the section of the book on Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie.” Although not “Carrie”-specific, the section opens with an amazing, you-are-there account of a young De Palma dealing with charges of his father’s infidelity. In order to protect his mother (who could only be granted a divorce if evidence was produced of her husband’s affair), De Palma sought to catch his father in the act. So he went about trying to snag his dad, first bugging phone conversations and then sneaking into his father’s office and catching him with his mistress – a nurse. The evidence compiled by the young De Palma won his mother her divorce and his father ended up marrying the nurse.
Not only is it a fascinating anecdote, a testament to the technologically obsessed and morally outraged young De Palma, but it seems to disprove, in one swoop, the frequently-leveled criticisms that De Palma is a “cold” and “impersonal” director. Zinoman suggests that this single act of voyeuristic reconnaissance can be felt virtually throughout the filmmaker’s entire career – from those hazy opening moments in the girls’ locker room in “Carrie” to the more autobiographical aspects of “Dressed to Kill” and beyond – influencing him visually and thematically ever since.
But the most surprising part of “Shock Value” may be the unlikely protagonist Zinoman finds in Dan O’Bannon, most famous for his role as co-writer of Ridley Scott’s intergalactic spook show “Alien.” O’Bannon is first introduced as a squirrelly classmate of John Carpenter’s at USC, where the two worked on the short version of “Dark Star” before expanding it for theatrical distribution. The dynamics of the Carpenter/O’Bannon friendship were complicated, and after “Dark Star” was finished, the two distanced themselves from each other, with Carpenter becoming more spiteful and boastful when “Halloween” proved to be an indie smash several years later, regularly calling O’Bannon to brag. (O’Bannon hadn’t had as much luck, spending several years designing the infamous Alejandro Jodorowsky version of “Dune.”) According to Zinoman, O’Bannon was a socially awkward genius, plagued by a fiery temper and felled by increasing health problems related to living with Crohn’s disease. It’s a compelling, and ultimately, tragic narrative, with O’Bannon coming off like a visionary who was integral in shaping this period of genre film but never fully awarded the credit he deserves. Well, consider that amended.
Besides a couple of weirdly glaring errors (Vincent Prince didn’t star in John Landis’ short film version of “Thriller” and Nancy Allen’s scream at the end of “Blow Out” wasn’t captured in a studio), the main issue with “Shock Value” is that it’s too damn short. Zinoman’s model seems to have been Mark Harris’ “Pictures at a Revolution,” but he shies away from ever getting too deep into the ramifications of this cluster of films, devoting just a few sentences to the decades-long debate over who directed “Poltergeist” – “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” auteur Tobe Hooper or the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg – a subject that could have easily been given its own chapter. Also odd is that Zinoman doesn’t mention O’Bannon’s under-seen masterpiece, 1981’s “Dead and Buried” or go into the relationship between O’Bannon and Hooper, which is just as interesting and fraught with drama as the Carpenter/O’Bannon saga. But maybe Zinoman was worried that more casual film fans wouldn’t want to commit to a book any larger than the one he compiled here, fearful that everyday folk aren’t all that interested in geysers of gore and the social, cultural and political ramifications of said gore geyser.
But these are minor quibbles. “Shock Value” is an intricately researched, beautifully put together, and compellingly narrative study of this period in genre film. One of Zinoman’s main conceits is that the films produced here were influenced, in a kind of watered down way, by the societal changes happening around the filmmakers (most of whom were shaggy hippies) but that none of the films set out to be outwardly political. It’s an interesting notion, which Zinoman backs up with copious amounts of research and testimony (including great stuff from George Romero, who says he cast a black actor as the lead of “Night of the Living Dead” because he was simply the best), and frames the book nicely. These bunch of weirdos weren’t out to change the face of cinema, they were just out to scare people senseless, and the revolutionary films they produced were just as influential for what they weren’t, as for what they were. Casting aside the dusty conventions of the genre, they brought new blood to an ailing genre. They never thought they could (and would) do both. After you finish reading you’ll probably think to yourself, “Man, they just don’t make horror movies like they used to,” because, well, they don’t. [A]
“Shock Value” is out July 7th and from July 11–19th, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will present “Shock Value – Dan O’Bannon Film Series,” which includes screenings of “Alien,” “Invaders from Mars,” “Dark Star,” “Blue Thunder” and a personal favorite “Return of the Living Dead.” You can get tickets here.