This article was last modified on October 8, 2020.


NIGHTSTREAM review: SHOCK VALUE

As described in the brochure: “In a fascinating feature-length horror anthology, ‘Shock Value: The Movie—How Dan O’Bannon and Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror,’ archivist Dino Everett proves that USC students O’Bannon, John Carpenter and others began redefining the horror genre while at the School of Cinematic Arts in the 1970s.”

This is a good overview, but a tad misleading. SHOCK VALUE isn’t so much a film as it is merely a series of short films grouped together without any interior context. Film lovers will know who John Carpenter (HALLOWEEN) is, and should know who Dan O’Bannon (ALIEN) was, but for those who don’t, this film isn’t going to tell them. There is no narrator actually explaining “how” O’Bannon helped invent modern horror as the title claims.

This is the fundamental weakness of this package. Unless the viewer already knows who these folks are ahead of time, seeing their student films will not mean very much. Even JUDSON’s RELEASE, the most important of the group, may not be obviously influential to someone not well-versed in film or horror history. A shame, because an extra minute of narration here and there could transform this into a very important documentary. This major caveat aside, for those of us who do know who the people involved were, this collection is a real treat – even most Carpenter completists have probably missed CAPTAIN VOYEUR. The shorts included are:

BLOOD BATH(1969), written and directed by Dan O’Bannon. A slovenly young man (Dre Pahich, DARK STAR) commits suicide out of curiosity and boredom.

The story is very simple, but the execution is quite funny in a very dark way. First, the pun of the title – referring to a bathtub full of blood rather than a mass slaughter. But then the main character’s reasoning (boredom) and incoherent mumbling? Suicide should not be funny, but yet this is… and it may be Dre Pahich’s only other film credit.

THE DEMON (1970), written and directed by Charles Adair (BLEEDERS). A woman (Maurishka, STAR TREK) left alone in a desert home begins to feel she is being watched.

This short could very well have been adapted into a full-length film. We have two newlyweds, the wife being somewhat insecure and submissive to the husband. While he is not an outright bad character, the dynamic suggests she is not an equal and when an outside force comes, she is mentally terrorized (and potentially physical threatened, too). This woman would be comparable to the leads in the Polanski films REPULSION or ROSEMARY’S BABY.

GOOD MORNING DAN (1968), written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, camera by John Carpenter. Set in what was then the distant future of 2006, an old man reminisces on his days back at USC.

This film is interesting for its historical value – the pairing of O’Bannon and Carpenter years before they made DARK STAR. But, unfortunately, it is also the weakest of the bunch. This may be because it is the earliest one and the students had not yet found their niche, but quite simply very little happens here. Even by the standards of a student film, there is no indication of future greatness.

CAPTAIN VOYEUR (1969), written and directed by John Carpenter. A dull office worker (Jerry Cox) transforms into a costumed peeping tom at night.

This is the only surviving student film from Carpenter, making it worthy of study. Indeed, the theme of voyeurism does return in his early feature film work, such as SOMEBODY’S WATCHING ME and HALLOWEEN (the opening sequence in particular). But at only seven minutes, it may be hard to say too much about what role it plays in later Carpenter creations.

VOYEUR uses a Beatles song (“Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” released only a year earlier), and almost certainly without permission; interestingly, Carpenter’s lost student film (which involved O’Bannon and Adair) is titled LADY MADONNA, possibly another Beatles reference.

JUDSON’S RELEASE (1971), written by Alec Lorimore, directed by Terence H. Winkless (THE HOWLING). A young man (Dan O’Bannon) returns to a small town and begins to torment a girl (Mary Burkin) who is babysitting a little boy.

The plot is taken from an urban legend, and it predates the seminal horror films BLACK CHRISTMAS and WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. In the credits of SHOCK VALUE, credit for the film idea is given to an extra named Baird Banner. Although it seems unlikely the feature films were in any way inspired by a student short, it does not change the fact that Lorimore, Winkless and O’Bannon got there first.

This is also the best short film in the collection and is wisely placed last. I asked Mary Burkin about her time at USC, and her memories were fond ones. In October 2020 for the NIGHTSTREAM film festival, she told me, “USC is a great place to start if you don’t already have those connections set up. (I remember) not only having a great time filming in the Bay Area, but how Dan was so dedicated to doing a greasy beastly villain, that one of our producers got upset when he was chasing me and got grease on his parents’ walls. Gee, I sure wish I’d had an agent and a few family connections, but I’ve done a lot of theatre work since then, so no regrets.”

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