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Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

01/03/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Shock Value in the USA - or Buy Shock Value in the UK

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pub: Duckworth Overlook. 274 page illustrated indexed small hardback. Price: GBP 18.99 (US). ISBN: 978-0-7156-4298-6).

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This book, ‘Shock Value’ by Jason Zinoman, is an examination of the films and horror directors who literally put the blood and guts into their films, aiming to out-gross you than purely scare you. Not only would you be scared of whatever is lurking in the dark but what would be left if they got you. His comments of where it’s leading into comedy and less scary because the current generation glorify the creatures is also very telling.

Interestingly, Zinoman does not devote a chapter to each director but intersperses them by the history of the exploitive development as the new wave, late 1960s-early 1970s that is, came to the fore. Interestingly, it was Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ that was deemed the turning point for many of them and ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Jaws’ which turned the American MPAA ratings board on its head simply because their studios, Warner Bros and Universal Studios respectively, had more clout to getting their own way.

The brand of director, from John Carpenter to Wes Craven, were taken by Polanski explaining to the class that they would learn more in a fortnight on the street than in the classroom. Interestingly, it’s Carpenter who turns out to be the more technical director and there is a close examination of how he had a friendship with Dan O’Bannon, who couldn’t be more diverse.

There is also a lot of insight into Brian DePalma’s ‘Carrie’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ just in case you thought this book was all about the more gorier than Science Fiction films. Zinoman is puzzled why the chest-burster just didn’t turn around and kill the Nostromo crew but surely if it did that then what would it use to incubate eggs in?

Reading this book, I can understand Zinoman’s presence as a film critic as he knows and likes his subject without losing his objectivity over it. This is characterised by the opening of chapter eleven that the reason we like horror films is that we like to be terrified. I would also like to add to that that when the film is over, you’re back in a safe environment. That is, I presume, if you want a horror film on television than at a cinema and have to walk home afterwards.

I can understand his distain with current horror film directors who are using the directors he examines here as their template to creating their own films when they themselves would look to other sources first. This is made worse that even in re-makes they focus on what makes the creatures tick than just go with the flow of them being there. That made me wonder if this is the fault of the film schools themselves who teach upcoming directors to be too analytical than to tell stories. Zinoman doesn’t really fall into that trap himself because examining the second wave of horror directors, it’s pretty obvious that several of them chose horror films because they could make them cheaply and could make a profit. The only problem was them being very good at it and getting pigeon-holed. With the higher budgets available these days, perhaps now is the time to prove ingenuity still exists and produce successful films on smaller budgets. Trends can come and go but they have to start somewhere.

Things I discovered. Did you know that Dan O’Bannon designed the computer graphics showing how to plant the bomb in the Deathstar of ‘Star Wars’ to destroy it? It was Stephen Spielberg who pushed Alan Ladd Jr. at 20th Century Fox to get ‘Alien’ made and would have offered to have directed it himself except he was filming ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’. Ridley Scott saw ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ before filming a particular scene in ‘Alien’. Do I have to tell you which scene?

Zinoman’s writing is easy to read and better, doesn’t talk down at you but makes you think. There’s a lot more here than the points I’ve raised above so you’ll have to read the book for yourself for further enlightenment. An interesting study.

GF Willmetts

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