By Jason Zinoman
Penguin Press, 2011
Jason Zinoman’s new book attempts to examine the cultural foundation of modern horror films. Zinoman, a theatre critic for The New York Times, acquits himself nicely in this slender volume, and his knowledge and obvious passion about his topic is on display in each chapter of the book.
As stated, the book is rather small (less than 280 pages) given the complexity and sprawl of the topic (tracing the roots of modern horror tropes by way of analysis and interviews with genre-cinema stalwarts such as the late, lamented Dan O’Bannon [Alien, Return of the Living Dead], John Carpenter [Halloween, They Live], Tobe Hooper [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist] and several other key figures). Therein lies its chief strength and its greatest demerit: with a lean style and even hand, Zinoman leads the reader through several interesting ideas and insights (from himself and others), but some of these notions do not get enough detail. Another (key) issue with the book is that there is not really enough time spent delving into the brilliant careers of David Cronenberg (Videodrome, Eastern Promises) or George A. Romero (Martin, Dawn of the Dead), and perhaps a bit too much time spent on the oeuvres of Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Cruising).
Full disclosure: I know and like Jason, and I feel that he does an outstanding job covering the O’Bannon/Carpenter axis, as well as the various behind-the-scenes exploits surrounding Texas Chainsaw, The Exorcist and much of Brian De Palma’s output. It would have been interesting to see Zinoman’s in-depth thoughts on Cronenberg, and even John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Twilight Zone: The Movie). If you love the genre, grab this book; many of these anecdotes are covered in (very) old issues of Fangoria and Cinefantastique, but having them put together and ruminated upon is indeed a refreshing experience. It is also a bit sad to realize how great these filmmakers were, and that they were really interested in covering new ground, especially when contrasted with the “remake virus” infecting Hollywood these days.
Shock Value: Recommended.
(On a side note, another few books that may interest those regarding this subject are the outstanding early analysis [if one can find it] of Cronenberg’s works, The Shape of Rage edited by Piers Handling [New York Zoetrope, 1983; ISBN 978-0773611375]; the new mega-tome Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film edited by Vince Liaguno [Dark Scribe Press, 2011; ISBN 978-0981863221; $19.99]; and the amazing The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead by Christian Sellers and Gary Smart [Plexus Publishing, 2011; ISBN 978-0859654609; $24.95]. These are all great books for reference, and make nice additions to any cinema aficionado’s home library. All are highly recommended.)
- David Cronenberg on A Dangerous Method & the “Parallel Universe” of Oscar (thefilmexperience.net)
- Talking to Jason Zinoman, the New Comedy Critic for the New York Times (theawl.com)
- An American Werewolf in London (1981) (cinemaroll.com)
- Modern Horror Defined By Edgy Realism Of The 1970s (npr.org)