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A scene from The Exorcist, with Max Von Sydow and Linda Blair in1973.

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It isn't so shocking that Shock Value, the new book by Jason Zinoman, gets a ringing endorsement on its jacket from Mark Harris, author of Pictures of a Revolution. Like that excellent book, Shock Value tells the intricate story of several landmark films, and indicates through an eminently readable blend of anecdote, interview and analysis how they changed the course of film history.

Zinoman reaches back to a key moment in American cultural history, and suggests that there were several films that pushed the genre from a stodgy, campy collection of silly clichés, taking them beyond the caricatures of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff and into the frontier of the New Horror. He singles out Rosemary's Baby, Night of the Living Dead and Targets as some of the pivotal leaps forward, films that would greatly influence later landmarks of the seventies, including Alien and The Shining. This period, from the late 1960s to early '80s, is "the greatest golden age of horror." Fans of the genre will appreciate Zinoman's tone as much as his exhaustive research; he has an intense, obvious admiration for horror that is both cerebral and visceral.

He also fully understands that the films of this period were either class acts with studio budgets that were attempting to yank the genre's reputation from the gutter ( Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist), or exploitation films that wallowed in the trashy excesses the genre allowed for, precisely because it was so often marginalized ( Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Indeed, Zinoman makes it clear that many of the directors creating these genre-busting films had great disdain for horror. Peter Bogdanovich ( Targets) calls the genre "dumb"; Wes Craven (whose first film was Last House on the Left) says, "I didn't even know what horror film was"; Roman Polanski was holding his nose throughout the creation of Rosemary's Baby, while to this day, William Friedkin maintains his rather absurd claim that The Exorcist isn't a horror movie: "It won 10 Academy Award nominations," he tells Zinoman. "How can that be horror?"

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The author does take a stab at conventional wisdom when he argues that "the notion that Hitchcock is the inventor of the modern horror genre is overstated." In a chapter titled The Problem with Psycho, he points out that many of the filmmakers are not beholden to Hitchcock's 1960 sensation – widely regarded as a crucial turning point for horror and suspense – but rather, were actually put off by the film. In particular, a number of the directors, including Friedkin, believe that the final scene in Psycho, in which a doctor explains what made Norman Bates a psychotic serial killer, is the masterpiece's major flaw. Inexplicable, ambiguous evil is far scarier, Hitchcock's detractors contend. (The only trouble with this theory is, it could be convincingly argued that Hitchcock was intentionally undermining the ludicrously earnest Freudian sermon that punctuates Psycho; Hitch called the film his "funniest comedy" and had a notorious disdain for Freud; anyone who's sat through Psycho with an audience knows the final scene always elicits laughter.)

While tackling larger issues surrounding the genre, Zinoman also packs in fascinating trivia and personal tales regarding the men behind the New Horror. Jane Fonda turned down the role Mia Farrow would make legendary in Rosemary's Baby; Brian De Palma's fascination with voyeurism grew out of the fact that he followed his father around with a camera so he could prove his father's infidelity, helping his mother to sue for divorce; and Dan O'Bannon, the screenwriter behind Alien, suffered from Crohn's disease, which meant severe stomach pains and trouble digesting – part of the inspiration for having the alien monster blasting out of John Hurt's stomach in one of that film's signature sequences.

Zinoman's main gig is covering theatre for The New York Times, and that background supplies one of his most intriguing reflections on New Horror. Many of the directors he discusses were greatly influenced by the minimalism of such theatre existentialists as Beckett, Bond, Albee and, especially, Pinter. The idea of having no understanding of where the evil comes from became a staple of the New Horror, which replaced with ambiguity the tidy explanations that often haunted old horror films. Friedkin excised most of the religious-themed explanation in his original cut of The Exorcist; Romero never wanted to include the extraterrestrial reason for the zombie epidemic in Night of the Living Dead; and Carpenter's Halloween slasher, Mike Myers, was so scary precisely because his slaying spree seemed entirely unmotivated (that is, until the dreary sequels required an explanation).

Shock Value presents a nostalgic look back at a time when horror movies dared to be truly horrifying. It's a forcefully argued, well-written and passionate love letter to the inner child of all horror buffs, those who long for the primal scares we experienced while watching great, terrifying movies for the first time, and crucial reading for any serious horror aficionado.

Highlighting horror

Some recommended reading about horror films.

The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder , by David Thomson (Basic Books, 2009)

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Thomson's passion for Hitch's 1960 landmark can be felt throughout this exhaustive book-length love letter to the film and its legacy.

Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe , edited by Steven Jay Schneider (FAB Press, 2003)

An excellent overview that indicates the global reach of horror, including chapters on Turkish, South Korean and Indian entries.

Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture , by Eric Greene (Wesleyan University Press, 1998)

While horror movies often reflect political upheavals of their times, this 1968 sci-fi classic packed in commentary on racism, genocide, McCarthyism (co-screenwriter Michael Wilson was one of the Hollywood Ten) and the evolution-versus-creationism

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based journalist who teaches courses in film studies, including one in horror cinema, at Concordia University. He is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers.

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