How do you identify the genesis of genius? From what depths do the most terrifying tales emerge? This is what Shock Value: The Movie—How Dan O’Bannon and Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror, a feature-length compilation by archivist Dino Everett, attempts to explore, tracing nightmares back to their roots. The treasure-trove anthology unearths and compiles together a series of student films that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. While the works skew toward horror and science fiction, each short has its own oddball approach and stamp from its student filmmakers.
Title cards introduce each short, but there is no voiceover narration or interviews to explain the contents or the motivations behind creation. Instead, the works speak for themselves — or, rather, the filmmakers’ names do, for Dan O’Bannon went on to be the screenwriter for Alien and Total Recall, while John Carpenter directed The Fog and Halloween. Carpenter’s Captain Voyeur (1969), in which an office worker dons a costume and becomes a peeping tom, allows viewers to see the stalking and voyeuristic camerawork that would come to define Halloween, and it is fascinating to see a filmmaker start to identify his style.
To be expected from any student film showcase, we get a grab-bag of ideas, some of which are more successfully realized than others: Charles Adair’s The Demon (1970) ventures into the desert where a woman is harangued by lurching and leering zombies, while Alec Lorimore and Terence H. Winkless’s Judson’s Release (1971) takes on the classic urban legend of a babysitter getting terrorized at night by a knife-wielding maniac. Each film is steeped in horror tropes but showcases inventiveness and playfulness, such as Blood Bath (1969), written and directed by O’Bannon, is seen in two different versions as O’Bannon experiments with a blood-red tint. In Good Morning Dan (1968), directed by O’Bannon with camerawork by Carpenter, a self-reflexive tale set in then-futuristic 2006 as an old man looks back on his time at USC. Judson’s Release is the most fully realized and striking of the bunch, and while it utilizes familiar subject matter, it maximizes terror out of a limited budget, and the fear on the babysitter’s traumatized face is palpable in every frame.
Shock Value leaves something to be desired if viewed as a documentary, as the editing can feel somewhat hasty, and there is no additional material or commentary to add historical context or further insight to what we are watching. Instead of an educational approach to how USC was a major breeding ground for emerging talent, establishing new definitions of horror in the 1960s and 1970s, we get a stitched-together Frankenstein’s monster of their piecemeal creations.
This may not be filled entirely with works of genius, and it is certainly evident that we are watching student films from artists who still have plenty to learn about their craft and what they want to say, but the anthology has enough scares to keep viewers exhilarated. By the end, we might not emerge with any more answers about how exactly horror took shape at USC, but at least we are privy to some of these artists’ earliest nightmares.