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Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror

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Product DescriptionMuch has been written about the storied New Hollywood of the 1970s, but at the same time that Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese were producing their first classic movies, a parallel universe of directors gave birth to the modern horror film. Shock Value tells the unlikely story of how directors like Wes Craven, Roman Polanski, and John Carpenter revolutionized the genre in the 1970s, plumbing their deepest anxieties to bring a gritty realism and political edge to their craft. From Rosemary’s Baby to Halloween, the films they unleashed on the world created a template for horror that has been relentlessly imitated but rarely matched. Based on unprecedented access to the genre’s major players, this is an enormously entertaining account of a hugely influential golden age in American film.

Amazon.com ReviewAn 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.

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