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At the beginning of the 1960s, horror movies were defined by corny rubber monsters, smirking, self-aware Vincent Price appearances and silly gimmicks. They were seen as simple kids' stuff; ignored by audiences and dismissed by critics. By end of the decade, things were starting to change. When the 1970s rolled around, a handful of mad geniuses turned horror into a respected, award-winning genre. Jason Zinoman's book, Shock Value covers a period in time (roughly 1968-1980) when George A. Romero, Roman Polanski, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Dan O'Bannon, Brian De Palma, Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg and Sean S. Cunningham took horror in a much darker direction. They made films that were bleak, nihilistic, shockingly violent and politically radical, turning what was once considered silly kids' stuff into, dare I say, high art before slasher movies turned the genre back into critically reviled trash, albeit trash with a much harder edge.

Since it chronicles roughly the same time period, this book could be seen as a companion piece to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Like his book, it contains all the gossip and entertaining anecdotes regarding the making of some the most memorable movies of the era (the segment on how The Texas Chainsaw Massacre got made is a particular standout). The only real difference is the personalities of the people involved. While Coppola, Scorsese etc. were seen as rebels and misfits deliberately trying to shake up the establishment of the Old Hollywood, these guys were the nerds; almost the misfits among the misfits. Most of them were inspired the old EC horror comic books and the writings of H. P. Lovecraft than any of the revolutionary filmmakers of the era. They weren't trying to make grand political statements (at least no initially); they were just trying to make some truly scary stories and in the process, they ended up making some of the most original and fascinating motion pictures of all time. As a result, they got lumped in with the other radical filmmakers of the New Hollywood, even though most of them didn't fit in there either.

"Shock Value" seems to have borrowed it's cover art from the film "Mortuary".

The New Horror was ultimately killed by the success of formulaic slasher movies. Today, New Horror is defined either by self-aware parody or sickeningly graphic torture porn. However, the spirit of New Horror still survives; not in films like Saw or Hostel, but films like Black Swan and No Country for Old Men, which contain all the bleakness and moral ambiguity of films from that era ... they just aren't considered horror anymore. In the end, I think that is the lesson we can take home from this brief period in horror cinema: that horror is always at the forefront of what will become the next big thing. That today's trash is tomorrow's art. If you want to see what will be raking in the awards ten or twenty years from now, take a look at what is being dismissed today.


★ ★ ★ ★