‘Shock Value’ from ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ to ‘Alien’

Jason Zinoman has written a very smart and very entertaining look at the radical changes in the horror movie genre from the late 1960s through the early 1980s, “Shock Value” (The Penguin Press).

The book carries an apropos quote from Mark Harris, who wrote “Pictures at a Revolution,” one of the very best accounts of the transition from Old Hollywood to New Hollywood in 1967. What Zinoman does with horror is in the same spirit — a combination of solid reporting and astute analysis.

Zinoman starts with “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968.

The novel by Ira Levin was purchased by schlock horror producer William Castle who wanted to direct it himself.

He saw it as a ticket of the B-movie wilderness (where he had made “The Tingler” and “Homicidal”) but Paramount studio boss Robert Evans had other ideas.

Evans thought the satanic property would be the perfect American debut film for the Polish art house favorite Roman Polanski who had just done “Repulsion” in England.

Castle had to settle for a producer’s credit and Polanski changed horror filmmaking by presenting supernatural material realistically and avoiding many of the cliches of the B-filmmakers (i.e. he never showed the little monster in the final sequence).

The smash success of “Rosemary’s Baby” with adult audiences who didn’t ordinarily patronize shockers demonstrated to Hollywood that lurid material could be mainstreamed. The movie paved the way to “The Exorcist” (1973), “Jaws” (1975), “The Omen” (1976) and “The Shining” (1980) — all big-budget “prestige” projects from Hollywood studios, most of them featuring major stars.

Zinoman doesn’t just explore the Hollywood approach to horror, however. He also shows how independent filmmakers all over the country — George Romero in Pittsburgh, Tobe Hooper in Austin — pushed the envelope during the late 1960s and early 1970s with low-budget fare such as “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974).

Because of the unusually high level of the craft in these B-movies they were taken seriously by critics and gave mainstream filmmakers the courage to go farther out in studio productions in the vein of Brian DePalma’s 1976 hit “Carrie.” The ‘70s ended with the big-budget sc-fi shocker “Alien” that embodied all of the changes that had taken place since “Rosemary’s Baby” opened a decade earlier — graphic, sexually tinged violence and a willingness to test taboos in order to scare audiences.

Zinoman has made a major contribution to modern movie history with “Shock Value” — he clearly loves the genre he is writing about, but he sees its weaknesses as well as strengths.

Joe Meyers