Books

'Shock Value': What Men (and Boys) Really Fear

Jason Zinoman argues that the fantastic, Gothic monsters of the first half of the 20th century were replaced by a New Horror -- the monster right in front of your face.


Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 274 pages
Author: Jason Zinoman
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-07
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Hollywood horror was born out of the Gothic. Universal Studios breakthrough features Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) not only looked to the fantastic novels of the 19th century, they embodied the key Gothic trope in both their plots and sets: terror comes from the past. Frankenstein may be the fist cyborg and modern science the real monster, but the up-to-date laboratory is housed in what looks suspiciously like a medieval dungeon. Dracula may move to a bustling London, but we meet him in the midst of a crumbling castle complete with spiderwebs and howling wolves.

By the end of the '60s, the Gothic vision of cinematic horror with its vampires, werewolves, and mummies didn’t scare anyone, especially in a world defined by the menace of nuclear Armageddon and an escalating war in Vietnam. In his new book, Jason Zinoman argues that the fantastic, Gothic monsters of the first half of the 20th century were replaced by a New Horror. He writes, “What New Horror movies share is a sense that the most frightening thing in the world is the unknown in the everyday, the inability to understand the monster right in front of your face.”

The year 1968 is the annus mirabilis of New Horror, seeing the end of the restrictive Hollywood production code that kept filmmakers on a short leash when they tired to depict sex, violence, or inspire terror in their audiences. With its end, suddenly there appear both big-budget horror from major studios like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and ultra low-budget outsider productions like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Zinoman puts together a complete picture of the New Horror, a style that dominated the genre from 1968 until the mid-'80s. Rejecting the Gothic, these films focus on the everyday, often set on city streets and suburban homes. The killers are thinly motivated, if at all, and the violence is savage. There's no need to go and find such horror—it finds its victims in their own lives.

Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, Targets, makes clear the difference between what Zinoman names Old Horror and New Horror. Indeed, as Zinoman himself characterizes it, Targets is really an essay on the difference between the two.

Bogandovich is not usually thought of as a horror director. Best known for the stunning success of The Last picture Show (1971), he got his start in actual movie making working for Roger Corman on the biker film The Wild Angels (1966). Corman gave Bogdanovich the chance to write and direct his own feature length film, provided that it star Boris Karloff, who had in fact played Frankenstein in 1931. Zinoman writes, “Karloff represented the cobwebs of a spooky castle, cheap advertising, the lurching monster—in other words, the Old Horror.”

In collaboration with his often unacknowledged wife, production designer Polly Platt, and a good deal of advice from Samuel Fuller, Bogdanovich created a film in which Karloff essentially plays himself, an aging horror star conscious that he has become largely irrelevant. This story is juxtaposed to that of a young sniper who kills his own family and then begins a campaign of terror, shooting random people on the freeway and at a drive-in theater. This is the New Horror, “a blond, blue-eyed sniper who kills for no reason. His murders are random and passionless. He buys bullets like other people buy socks. And when he guns down his victims, he doesn’t even smile.”

Zinoman is right that Targets is the New Horror, but his analysis avoids the ending of the film, a brilliant scene at a drive-in, in which Karloff himself confronts the young sniper, looming up before him and striking him with his cane, all brilliantly doubled by his cinematic self lurching forward on the the drive-in screen in the decidedly Old Horror aesthetic of Corman’s The Terror. With that ending, Bogdanovich seems to be suggesting that while we may have to live in a world of New Horror, we secretly long for the simpler, more clearly moral world of the Gothic. Zinoman is so fervent in his admiration for the New Horror, he sometimes forgets the profound nostalgia Old Horror evoked, even in the late '60s.

Most of the films and the directors that Zinoman writes about have been well covered in other books, and almost every director he writes about is the subject of at least one monograph. These books have made the very same distinctions about Hollywood and radical changes the end of the studio system brought about in the late '60s. In the case of Bogdanovich, the making of Targets and the distinction between the Gothic and a New Horror is brilliantly told in great detail by Andrew Yule in Picture Shows: The Life and Times of Peter Bogdanovich. Moreover, the non-genre account of the new Hollywood that emerged in these years is Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, and it tells a very similar story about the shifts in aesthetics and business that took place in these years.

What Zinoman does do, however, is put all of the makers of New Horror into context, showing them in relationship to changes in Hollywood and the culture and, in essence, providing a very readable and engaging synthesis. Particularly good is his map of the network of influences, mutual inspirations, and impact. As he puts it:

“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 link can be drawn from Rosemary’s Baby to The Exorcist, from The last House on the Left to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and from Night of the living Dead to every horror movie since.”

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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