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Looking at ‘Eli Roth’s History of Horror’ Documentary Series

Something that I have always wholeheartedly embraced in the realm of film criticism and the work of film preservation in the guise of documentary filmmaking, is the ability of some writers and documentarians to give a voice to both those who worked on the films discussed (actors, directors, cinematographers, screenwriters et al) as well as feature analytical insight from those who have dedicated their lives to keeping certain movies “alive” in the ever changing world of cinema studies.

It is completely essential for film historians to embrace production history as much as possible, and therefore grant a platform for incredibly talented artists to talk about the craft of filmmaking in such outlets as a documentary about movies, and it is equally important to have academic and idiosyncratic views from scholars and critics who can bring something fresh, insightful and dynamic in the reading of these works to help generate a passionate love for a genre like horror that continually gets misunderstood (along with its relatives the Western and the musical).  

This is where Eli Roth’s History of Horror series absolutely succeeds. It is a true testament to the importance of both production history – serving the great tradition of the “making-of” document – as well as being a nicely paced case study on social, political and psychological readings into horror cinema. Here is a series that takes its time with the films it examines and provides just the right amount of balance between anecdotal memoirs from the shoot, critical responses the films garnered at the time of their release, analytical scrutiny from varied perspectives and how these movies influenced or affected a number of high profile people working in the “horror biz”.

The series is broken up into subdivisions which I welcome with wide, open, loving arms.

Something that always “gets my goat” when people talk about horror is that they tend to use the term as a universal blanket and for the most part are truly only discussing one or two “kinds of horror film”. The magic and beauty of this genre is that there are so many subgenres that stem from such a vitally important artistic construct. As author, programmer and head of Spectacular Optical Kier-La Janisse points out in one of the episodes devoted to slasher movies, a lot of people (unenlightened and uninformed folk – but also scarily people who consider themselves to be “fans”) tend to rope all horror under the bracket of the slasher model; and this is completely wrong. I bring this up because one thing that this documentary series does so well is champion the fact that horror is incredibly diverse in its depictions of varied outlets of movie macabre.

In saying that however, the two episodes devoted to slasher movies are the strongest. A few major highlights consist of author and historian Amanda Reyes discuss the popularity of slasher movies amongst teenage girls (the subgenre’s biggest audience), legendary author Stephen King fondly talking about the magnificent character study that is Maniac, the magnitude of importance and influence spawned by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jamie Lee Curtis talking about the beautiful legacy and imprint her mother has left in the genre as well as her own, the terrific footage of suburban mothers going crazy for Cabbage Patch dolls and how Child’s Play responds to this and much more. However, what seemed lacking in both episodes is the fact that slasher movies and body count films predate Psycho, so it would have been a nice touch to have someone perhaps refer to something like the pre-code horror masterwork Thirteen Women starring Myrna Loy from 1932 or quick references to films like The Lodger or Hangover Square which generated such a trend, which of course would become insanely popular in the wake of Halloween.

The episode chronicling demonic-themed cinema has brilliant director and equally brilliant film historian Joe Dante discussing the much lauded The Exorcist, but with a very surprising take on it. Also, the Swedish 1922 silent film Haxan gets a mention which is fantastic and in the episode covering ghosts and hauntings, masterpieces such as The Uninvited and The Innocents are featured – with Eli Roth excitedly talking about the banging and bending of the door in Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting. It was also lovely to see Craig T. Nelson talking about Poltergeist, which was a surprise in that most people associated with that film seem to not want to discuss it.

In the episode covering “creatures”, three eco-horror movies are discussed – The Birds, Jaws and Cujo – and this is wonderful (with writer/producer Ryan Turek’s look at adultery in Lewis Teague’s rabid St. Bernard outing being a highlight), but it would be pure bliss if fellow natural horror films were given the same treatment, or at least quickly rattled off in a loving way. Orca, The Pack, Nightwing, Night of the Lepus, Dogs, The Killer Bees, Frogs, Tentacles, Willard, Jennifer, Pigs et al – it would be amazing to hear about these with precursors to them such as The Naked Jungle and Black Zoo given equal attention…well perhaps that could be an entirely different documentary series!

In that same episode only two werewolf movies are examined – An American Werewolf in London and The Howling – but thankfully they are given equal love (and even better, they are not compared!). Side note: this guy here strongly believes they are two very different movies! And most of the commentators on both films seem to agree – it was highly refreshing to hear about the self-help craze of the 70s and early 80s in regards to Joe Dante’s The Howling and heart-warming to hear An American Werewolf in London referred to as a tragic love story, which it is.

It would be fantastic to see a documentary series take on more unsung subgenres and films that continually get overlooked and left out, which would really add another totally necessary dimension to the fantastic fabric that is horror cinema. For instance, could you imagine a series that had a section dedicated to the following: made for TV horror (Bad Ronald, When Michael Calls, The Beasts Are On The Streets), hagsploitation (Strait-Jacket, What’s The Matter With Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?), kept-man syndrome horror (That Cold Day in the Park, The Beguiled, Misery), body horror (The Fly, The Brood, Shivers), genre hybrid horror (Phantom of the Paradise, The Pied Piper, The Hitchhiker), folk horror (The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw), evil children (The Bad Seed, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea) and so forth. As much as there is (and most definitely should be) love for Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and company, the larger mainstream media has to come to realise that for us horror devotees, there is a lot more out there, and there should be a platform for all of this to be dissected and analysed. But that is not to say that this documentary series doesn’t deliver the goods. It most certainly does.

There are a lot of tender moments and candid insights in this documentary series that allow us a glimpse into how vitally crucial this kind of filmmaking is. Heather Langenkamp recollects early interactions with fans who had their own “Freddy” to deal with – primarily young gay men who looked to the unlikely icon of Nancy Thompson as someone who could conquer oppressive fear and alienation, while Tippi Hedren candidly discusses Alfred Hitchcock’s personal life and opinions on women outside of his treasured work.

Robert Englund, Linda Blair, John Landis and many more industry figures provide some wonderful anecdotes as well as critical insight, while outstanding critics and historians such as Tony Timpone, David J. Skal and Leonard Maltin balance out the talking head structure beautifully. It was also great to see a lot of filmmakers discuss their favorite genre works – such as American Psycho director Mary Harron, the Soska sisters, Diablo Cody (who was hilarious in her take on her own children terrifying her if they just stood there by her bed not saying anything!) and many others.

The engaging pace was pitch perfect, and not at all too choppy. The visual cues worked beautifully, the stills and clips chosen were elegantly strung together and most significantly the series had a lot of heart and warmth that hit all the right buttons.

However, as much as I loved this series, there were a number of factors that did not sit well with me in regards to the content of each episode and also in the writing of the narration read by Eli Roth. Firstly, in regards to clips and film coverage, there were way too much involving contemporary films that honestly reminded me never to see them – primarily based on aesthetics alone. Why spend so much time on Twilight and not nearly enough time on Salem’s Lot (a pure master work). And why delve into 30 Days of Night and not look at interesting takes on vampirism such as Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or Martin? A “history of horror” really needs to embrace exactly that – a history; so to have to sit through elongated detailing of multiple films from the 2000s irritated this guy, but I guess I understand why new features must be in there. I also understand that this is most certainly not the fault of Roth and his team whatsoever (who are true devotees to horror cinema in all its beautiful rich and long history – one just has to hear Roth talk about Giallo classic Torso for a tiny slice of his masterful understanding of the complex dynamism of the genre), it is a decision made by the network to ensure that “younger viewers who know these new movies” are engaged. But – in absolute defence of “younger audiences” – what needs to happen is that these said networks and studios learn to put their trust in horror fans of all ages and understand that for the most part, these savvy and intelligent (and most importantly passionate and loving) people watch a lot of incredible films (in and out of horror) and need that fix satisfied. As far as the narration went, there were parts that irked me a little, such as comment about how “older movies” weren’t convincing in regards to SFX and depictions of supernatural entities and the like. I am afraid I will always love the films of William Castle and Bert I. Gordon (a name that needs to be  out there in a series like this) and the charming visual stylings of those pictures much more than whatever something like Industrial Light and Magic delivered come the eighties (but that’s just me). There is a charm to classic horror that is not seen in more contemporary works, so all efforts in SFX should be lauded and embraced. Another side note, it is so good hearing Aussie director Leigh Whannell defend the shark in Jaws – ummmm, who on earth complains about that gorgeous great white? Bruce looks stunning! Glad to hear the anti-CGI banter proceeding that comment also!

As Stephen King points out in the series, “I’m a classicist, man!” and I feel the same, however, hearing about something like Saw and Hostel in response to post-911 paranoia pricked up my ears, and made me keen to read up on some contemporary cinema from a socially aware perspective. See? I’m growing! Haha.

All in all, Eli Roth and his team have done a magnificent job in honouring a certain take on the history of horror; and I am thankful that this wonderful series exists. As a sucker for films about films, this one sits high on the shelf along with other great documents in and outside of horror movie history. Funnily enough, Quentin Tarantino paraphrases a quote made by Jan Oxenberg from a beloved documentary about cinema, The Celluloid Closet; when he refers to lesbian vampire movies (the gorgeous Dracula’s Daughter and lush Daughters of Darkness are in there, which is so great). So there is a lovely connection made between good, honourable and important works, and that is what Roth has done here; he and his team have delivered something vitally important in the annals of film documentation and history.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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