Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Review of "Shock Value" [Jason Zinoman]

Earlier this summer, New York Times critic/reporter Jason Zinoman published a book called Shock Value, the subtitle of which is as follows: "How A Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, And Invented Modern Horror."

The book is, ostensibly, the behind-the-scenes story of how a new breed of horror film emerged out of the New Hollywood movement of the late '60s and the 1970s. This environment is a big part of what enabled Stephen King's rise to mass popularity.  I thought it might be useful to write a review of the book from the standpoint of a King fan, examining the book's worth as a document of part of the King story.

Let me cut to the chase and answer that question right up front: though King is a peripheral figure in a few of these stories, Shock Value is essentially worthless as a book about King himself. And that's fine, because the book does not purport to be a book about King. (It does deal with DePalma's Carrie, though, and also very briefly with Kubrick's The Shining.)

Here's a more interesting question: given the fact that King owes his ascendance to the status of household name in no small measure to the commercial success of the movie version of Carrie, is Shock Value worthwhile as an exploration of the climate within popular culture that allowed Carrie to become as big a success as it became?

The answer to that question is trickier, but I can settle for saying this as a short version: as an exploration of the rise in popularity of horror cinema in the 1970s, Shock Value is a misfire ... but an entertaining and occasionally illuminating one.

My biggest problem with the book is that it is not really about much of anything. In part it wants to be an Easy Riders, Raging Bulls-like tell-all; in part it wants to be a serious socio-cultural commentary piece; in part it wants to be a compendium of biographies. Any one of those things would have been a great idea for a book centered on horror films from roughly 1968-1979, and a much longer book could have melded all of those things together and ended up as a classic. It's a great topic. And Zinoman is a pretty good writer, so he might have even been the right person for the job.

However, Shock Value is scarcely more than 200 pages in length, which is simply too slender a page count to properly deal with a topic as expansive as this one. Zinoman barely scratches the surface; I got the feeling while reading it that 200 pages could have been given to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre alone, or to The Exorcist, or to any one of several other films which Zinoman touches upon here.

Here is an example of what's going on in this book. An excerpt from the Introduction:

“The publishing industry has long relied on that indestructible commercial artist Stephen King, but now Twilight helps drive the business, and the undead have brought a new generation to the stories of Jane Austen in the bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Some of the most popular shows on television include serial killers (Dexter), demons (Supernatural), zombies (The Walking Dead), and vampires (True Blood). A-list actresses such as Jennifer Connelly and Naomi Watts are now scream queens. Pop stars like Lady Gaga are just as likely to dress in gothic style and strike zombie poses as to project a bubble-gum image. Horror has become a billion-dollar industry.”
Well, I've got a few problems of viewpoint with this paragraph. First of all, I doubt that Supernatural would make a list of the Top 100 most popular shows on television, much less rank alongside heavy-hitters like The Walking Dead and True Blood (which themselves are nowhere near the top of the popularity list if we are talking all of television into consideration). Also, I'd have to be convinced by someone that either Jennifer Connelly or Naomi Watts are A-list actresses, and while you might eventually be able to convince me that they are, you'd have to do a heck of a lot more convincing before I counted them as scream queens. As for Lady Gaga posing like a zombie ... I honestly don't even know what relevance that could possibly have.

These are good examples of Zinoman's occasional tendency to overreach in his goals. It might be possible to draw a direct line from the New Hollywood movement to Lady Gaga to the supposed status of horror as a billion-dollar industry ... but Zinoman doesn't really try to do so, and if you're not going to try, then why bring it up at all?

No, the book isn't about that. What's it's about is exactly what its subtitle indicates: a few eccentric outsiders. Roman Polanski, George Romero, Peter Bogdanovich, John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Wes Craven, William Friedkin, Tobe Hooper, and Brian DePalma, to be specific. All of these men made interesting horror films during the period chronicled in this book, and all of them were -- arguably -- Hollywood outsiders. You could make the same argument, though, about Steven Spielberg, who directed a decent amount of horror for television (including the very successful movie-of-the-week Duel) before making THE biggest horror-movie hit of the decade, Jaws. These movies are mentioned, but only in passing; the only rationale I can see as to why Spielberg didn't get a larger part in Zinoman's story is simply that Zinoman didn't feel like including him. Also ignored almost entirely: David Cronenberg, possibly for no better reason than that it would have extended the book's scope further into the '80s than Zinoman felt comfortable with.

The book also totally ignores several of the genre's biggest hits of the decade, including The Omen and The Amityville Horror; the former is at least mentioned, but the latter may as well never have even existed as far as Shock Value is concerned. Say what you want about the quality of those films, but they were undeniably popular, and deserved consideration.

I might also have considered the ways in which so many of the science-fiction films of the era -- everything from Planet of the Apes to The Omega Man to Westworld to the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- leaned on horror tropes at least as much as they did on robots and rayguns. In this sense, Alien -- which IS discussed quite a lot (although you might be surprised at how little director Ridley Scott is included in the discussion) -- might be seen as a bit of a culmination. Instead, it's viewed as something of a culmination of birth-horror, as well as the culmination of writer Dan O'Bannon's perfectly understandable fears about an intestinal condition with which he was afflicted. Alien, obviously, was a culmination of those things ... but that wasn't ALL that it was, and Scott's participation should not have been given short shrift.

Another dropped ball: the exclusion of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Zinoman spends a good amount of time making some persuasive arguments about the ways in which New Horror moved away from old monster-movie tropes and gimmicks, especially in Bogdanovich's Targets. However, I'd argue that The Rocky Horror Picture Show did just as much work to move away from those conventions of Old Horror. It just happened to go in a different direction from, say, Rosemary's Baby. But that direction does not figure into Zinoman's narrative, despite the fact that it almost certainly has more by far to do with how we arrive at the goth stylings of Lady Gaga.

Alright, so, I've complained for a while. Let's talk about Zinoman's brief dealings with Stephen King and King-based movies. Here's what he has to say about the novel Carrie:
Carrie was rooted in his” [King’s] “experience teaching high school and his childhood anxieties about sex, puberty, and the popular crowd. The novel follows a fat, ugly outsider, Carrie White, with uncontrollably violent psychic abilities to make objects move through the power of her unease and anger. As it happens, she has cause to get upset. Her mother is a dominating religious scold, and her classmates are impossibly cruel, mocking her for bleeding on herself when she has her first period. After the gym teacher chastises the class for cruelty, one of the girls, Sue Snell, gets her boyfriend, Tommy, to ask Carrie to the prom. Less charitable classmates use this as an excuse for more hazing, fixing the election of prom queen for Carrie and then dumping a bucket of pig’s blood on her head after she accepts the honor onstage. King invites you to identify with Carrie and be vicariously thrilled when she destroys the school and everyone in it. It’s a vigilante revenge fantasy that anyone who felt like an outsider in high school could indulge in.” (from Chapter Eight: He Likes to Watch)
Hmm. Not entirely sure I agree with that. It is arguably true of the DePalma movie (which I continue to feel is vastly overrated); but is the novel a revenge fantasy? I don't think so. I see it more as a tragedy of both personal and cultural proportions: personal in that Carrie seemed destined to end up that way, and cultural because society seems to be helpless to prevent both what happens to her and what she does to others in return. The fact is, King gives us a decent amount of the murderous mayhem from the point-of-view of someone other than Carrie, so that we experience it not as actions "we" (as Carrie) are taking, but as actions which are being done to "us" by Carrie. And during the scenes which are from Carrie's point-of-view, there is evidence aplenty that in some part of her mind, Carrie knows she is committing acts which will lead to the darkness of eternal damnation. There is nothing thrilling about any of this; it is sick-inducing, horrible stuff, all the more awful because we have spent the entirety of the novel identifying with the character who is now committing the atrocities.

I would say that Zinoman has either never read the novel, or that he has allowed his love for DePalma's movie to color his perceptions of it. This is genius insight compared to his treatment of The Shining a few chapters later, however. In Chapter Ten he makes the following statement: "There was perhaps no more striking illustration of the artistic triumph of the New Horror genre than at the end of the decade, when Stanley Kubrick announced that he was going to make what he called 'the ultimate horror film'."

That's a bold statement, and one that you would expect to lead directly into a serious discussion of the making of The Shining. Instead, Zinoman repeats the old saws about Nicholson's performance outshining the rest of the film, and King disliking it, and Kubrick's elimination of the story's themes and background details. And that is where he stops. He has nothing to say about the film's significance, or its lack thereof, and for a movie about which he has just said that there is "no more striking illustration of the artistic triumph of the New Horror genre" than the mere announcement of the movie's impending creation. Love the movie or hate the movie, a statement such as that one must be supported; Zinoman is instead content to make the statement and then proceed from it with no clarification of its significance. That's pretty sloppy.

Lest I sound like I hated the book, let me transition a bit and say that I definitely did NOT hate it. I was disappointed by it in some ways, because of what I perceive to be errors in concept and in scope, but the book itself was entertaining. Anyone who is interested in horror films of the period is almost certain to feel like their money was well-spent, unless they are literally so well-versed in the genre that they could have themselves written such a book. I, for example, knew nothing about Dan O'Bannon, and knowing more about his story actually deepens my relationship to both Dark Star and Alien, and makes me want to check out some of his other films (especially Return of the Living Dead). I also read various things about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which I did not know, and the biographical material about Wes Craven and Brian DePalma was extremely interesting.

So, yes, I was disappointed. But I was also entertained, and you probably will be, too. Maybe some diligent reader will even go on to write a better version of this decade's horror story someday.

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