(disclaimer: I am not a film expert, nor am I a non-fiction expert. I just have strong opinons. So there.)
SHOCK VALUE: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman is one of my favorite books published this year.
Zinoman details the move away from the goofy, safe horror films of the 50s and 60s to the mix of exploitation, confrontation, and art of the late 60s and 70s. Horror movies where the source of the horror is murky, or cannot be easily explained or rationalized away. Exhaustively researched, the main arc of the book’s argument/definition of the modern horror film are: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Alien. Each film and their filmmakers are dissected and discussed within the framework of what was happening in horror and Hollywood at the time. While I sometimes disagreed with the artistic merit of some of these films, Zinoman does the reader the tremendous service of patiently outlining his hypothesis, his case as it were, then meticulously offering his reasons, evidence, etc, for the argument.
He also wisely leaves room for the reader to disagree. He never speaks down at the reader or authoritatively; he never pulls the don’t-look-behind-the-curtain Oz thing that too many non-fiction writers fall prey to. And the result is an extremely well-written, wildly informative, entertaining book; one that, for me, has put the origins of some of the movies and directors I don’t like (Wes Craven for one) in a new light.
As much as I enjoyed SHOCK VALUE, I was terribly disappointed with BFI’s JAWS by Antonia Quirke. Quirke’s approach was very heavy handed; consistently attributing subtext to the film without giving evidence (for one, insisting that Ellen Brody was contemplating divorce, essentially from scene one of the movie…a plot that was in the Benchley book, but not in the film). Huge swaths of this book was written in a strange, novelization style, voicing strange, tangental thoughts from the characters. And a poorly written novelization at that. There’s some interesting tidbits here, but overall, a huge disappointment.
More successful is Anne Billson’s BFI take on Carpenter’s THE THING. She better places the film in its historical context (why it flopped, why most critics originally panned it), and then goes through a plot synopsis and scene by scene breakdown. I found her defense of Carpenter’s miminalist approach to the characters especially effective, as well as the comparison to the original novella, Who Goes There?