Shock Value, the Essential Book about 70s Horror Films in the U.S.

How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror.

Jason Zinoman‘s Shock Value is a seminal book on modern horror films if ever there was one.

In the same way that I would recommend you to read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls to dip yourself into the U.S. filmmaking world from the end of the 60s until the end of the 70s, I would prescribe Shock Value to get acquainted with how everything happened in the modern U.S. horror film world.

This book tells the unlikely story of how John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Dan O’Bannon, and several other innovative artists over the course of about a dozen years invented the modern horror movie. In the 1960s, going to see a horror movie was barely more respectable than visiting a porn theater. You watched scary movies in cars or in dirty rooms with sticky floors. Critics often ignored the genre, and Hollywood studios saw its box office potential as limited.

These young filmmakers revived the genre, and the results of their work can be seen almost every weekend when a major horror movie opens.

Last House on the Left - Shock Value
The Last House of the Left shocking publicity campaign

Variety of Influences

Their intellectual influences were much more diverse than those of future generations of horror makers. This broadened their visions. While most of the directors did not socialize with one another-this was before horror conventions and film festivals became popular- they kept close track of what the others were doing, borrowing good ideas and generally working in a kind of long-distance collaboration. As a result, a direct line can be drawn from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist, from The Last House on the Left to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and from Night of the Living Dead to every horror movie since.

John Carpenter -  Shock Value
John Carpenter

A Paradigm Shift

In the late sixties, the film industry was changing. Rules about obscenity and violence were in flux. The Midnight Movie was reaching a young audience that embraced underground and cult films. Starting in the second half of 1968, the flesh-eating zombie and the remote serial killer emerged as the new dominant movie monsters, the vampire and werewolf of their day. A new emphasis on realism took hold, vying for attention with the fantastical wing of the genre. Just as important was how the writers of these movies shifted the focus away from narrative and toward deceptively simpler storytelling with a constantly shifting point of view. Movies were more graphic. The relationship with the audience became increasingly confrontational, and that was a result largely of the new class of directors who were making low-budget movies for drive-in theaters and exploitation houses.

The Teaxs Chainsaw Massacre - Shock Value
The most horrifying motion picture that Rex Reed had ever seen.

Outsiders

The key horror movie artists of this era had very different sensibilities but remarkably similar personality types: outsiders, insecure and alienated.

They dipped into the same small pool of menacing literature, theater, and film. Frequently at odds with their parents and other authority figures. The men (and they are exclusively men) are a surprisingly mild-mannered group. They generally dress in rumpled clothes, have broad senses of humour, and rarely seem on the verge of knocking you over the head with a blunt instrument.

Rosemary's Baby - Shock Value
Mia Farrow, as Rosemary, checking out her baby

Halloween + Alien

The year after Halloween opened, inspiring countless imitations with similar masked serial killers prowling outside of houses, Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien, a movie that he had been thinking about since his film school days, revolutionized the monster movie. The success of these two movies, which can be traced back to the USC film school in the early seventies, completed the horror genre’s transition from queasy exploitation fare to the beating heart of popular culture.

Very rich in every aspect, the amount of detail shown in Jason Zinoman’s book is simply astonishing. If you are into modern horror filmmaking, this is for you.

Interested in US 70s films? Check our post Best “Making Of” Books Ever: EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS.

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