inRetro: inSide Books, Shock Value by Jason Zinoman
While we’re on vacation, inRetro takes a look back at our most popular articles since launch. The best part about this book review was the exchange in the comments section between the article’s author and the author of the book being reveiwed:
The response to Shock Value–Jason Zinoman’s exploration of the horror films of the 70s–has been decidedly curious. Horror fans are a notoriously booster happy bunch, yet the response to Shock Value from genre fans has been muted at best, hostile at worst. Perhaps Glenn Kenny summed up the prevalent attitude of horror fans best when he dismissively remarked, “It’s a horror primer for Dana Stevens, Dan Kois and a bunch of other Slate writers/readers who otherwise would never have been bothered, and now think they’re onto something because they can say they’ve actually HEARD of Mario Bava….” before amending, “The shame is that Zinoman’s clearly both intelligent and enthusiastic and could have produced something better.”
In the meantime, reviews from the mainstream press, usually not an outlet to praise either books about horror or books of film criticism, have been downright enthusiastic in their admiration, earning raves in such noted horror repositories as Entertainment Weekly and NPR.
This fairly schizoid response is perhaps fitting for a fairly schizoid book. Shock Value is at its core a brisk engaging piece of film history that has the misfortune to be stapled to an ungainly, speciously-reasoned piece of film criticism.
Let’s start with the good. Zinoman’s work as a historian is well researched. He draws nuanced sympathetic portraits of under-explored figures such as Dan O’Bannon and William Peter Blatty. He manages to get most everyone on the record, and never plays softball or crosses over into mere fanboyishness. He writes in a lucid style with an understated, sharp wit. He is also occasionally an insightful critic as well, making connections between horror and the absurdist theater of the sixties, birth imagery, and the influence of surrealist Italian Horror on the more narrative powered American strain that few have bothered to make.
Now for the problems.
Zinoman piles up the critical fallacies, making logical leaps that suggest he has either had every interview on the couch for an extended period of time, or is at the very least a low grade psychic. His anti-auteurist bent crops up as persistently and inappropriately as a case of Tourettes, until his chapter on DePalma, where he somewhat perversely decides to embrace it. He also takes short cuts, such on his disappointingly shallow take on Mario Bava, where he talks about the birth of the gialli movement with The Girl Who Knew Too Much without even mentioning that the film is a light comedy that has much more in common with Charade than The Black Belly Of The Tarantula.
Most damningly (and this is what seems to have pissed off horror fans) is the way that Zinoman overstates his case. In an effort to establish the importance of 70s’ filmmakers, he denigrates the horror that had come before it. He shows no respect for the works of Tod Browning and James Whale and does not even mention the pioneering work of Murnau and the German Expressionists. He dismisses Val Lewton with a left handed compliment and does not even mention significant precursors to the “New Horror” like Michael Reeves. Zinoman plays with a stacked deck and those of us who really love the stuff cannot help but cry foul.
Yet for all my grousing, I must tip my hat to Zinoman. He has written a book that aims to get people to engage horror who otherwise wouldn’t, and in that he has been resoundingly successful. We horror fans can get a pretty good grumble going, but perhaps we should acknowledge that engaging new fans is more important than another round of preaching to the converted.
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Elsewhere inReads: Find out which YA horror novel author Holly Black was reading when we caught up with her and Ellen Kushner in a Whatcha Reading video. Also, which five movies didn’t make the cut for Zinoman’s book.