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Review: Eli Roth’s History of Horror (Season Two)

Call your series a ‘History of Horror’ and there’s always going to be some arsehole telling you what you failed to include. This could easily have been the case here because, unless the series was ongoing – and what a welcome treat that would be – it is genuinely impossible to take a completionist approach to documenting horror in cinema. Maybe documentarians can pitch for encyclopaedic perfection if country or locale-specific but, while the gaze of Eli Roth’s History of Horror centres on the American horror canon, it still accounts for high watermarks in global cinema (e.g. Japan’s Godzilla) and even smaller marvels (e.g. Spain’s Who Can Kill a Child?), which effectively opens up the editorial brief to include everything and anything that may tickle Eli Roth’s fancy.

And therein is the secret to watching, and getting the most out of, this series: Eli Roth. As viewers, we are afforded an appreciation of horror explicitly through the eyes and experiences of Eli Roth. We may not be served up everything in horror cinema across the six episodes of this second season, even when coupled with the content from the first season, but that’s okay because this is a personally curated history as perceived by Roth himself, someone who is the product of the VHS generation and who has used these formative moments to inform his own career working in the genre.

This explanation of the series might seem a no-brainer but it is something I needed to be reminded of. Apart from the title and Roth’s voiceover that links the narrative threads (in which he sounds more like a professional booth announcer and is often unrecognisable when compared to his relaxed interview segments with the likes of Stephen King and Jordan Peele), the series neglects to play up the curatorial angle of its anthology content. The defining characteristic of this series is that it presents the films that have somehow touched on Eli Roth’s consciousness in some important way and, consequently, influenced his own creative output. To have seen these equivalences drawn more markedly would have acted as a reminder of the unique nature of this particular appreciation of horror but, by just being aware of it myself, I felt capable of drawing my own mental parallels. This is my gift to you for a more satisfying way of consuming Eli Roth’s History of Horror, dear reader.

Once you understand that it’s one person’s point of view, then the individual decisions for inclusion in this series become much clearer – although the manner in which the films are sub-divided may not. I’m aware that the makers of the series were keen for a second season but were forced to see how the first season was received before moving forward with the project. Undoubtedly, without the foreknowledge of another season, there are some awkward categorisations that could have been more elegantly organised but, hey, that’s ultimately nit-picking. Having covered Ghost Stories, Vampires, Killers Creatures, The Demons Inside, Slashers (Part 1 & 2) and Zombies in Season One, Season Two encompasses Houses of Hell (think beyond hauntings and incorporate houses/homes that act as prisons too), Monsters (primarily of the big Kaiju variety), Body Horror (yep, cue Cronenberg and a film close to my heart, The Fly), Chilling Children (an excellent episode, which features Diabolique’s own Lee Gambin as Production Consultant), Witches (particularly stunning) and Nine Nightmares (more on this one later).

There is nothing revolutionary about this documentation of horror (it takes the traditional format of multiple talking-head interviews interspersed with clip & tells) but what is exhilarating is the sheer breadth of the content. Through the aforementioned categorisation and a rollcall of films that spans over a century, this extension on Season One successfully continues to demonstrate how horror cannot be pigeon-holed into one type. Frequently, people will shrug off horror as something they find distasteful or ‘just don’t like’, and yet this series pointedly presents the full spectrum of cinematic horror storytelling, even if through a specific lens (i.e Eli Roth’s eyes), juxtaposing brutality and gore against scenes of breathtaking beauty and, I personally feel, dispelling the myth that horror films can all be lumped in together as the ‘one thing’. It does this most impressively through the editing, even more so than the interviews, because the editing creates a visceral response in the viewer – you actually get to see scenes from horror films lined up alongside one another in a way they would never usually consume the films. Everything from the film stock to the acting to the production design to the editing to the mood (and so on) is starkly different from one film to the next. Such a presentation of horror is the most persuasive method for promoting appreciation of the genre in those who may not have appreciated it previously.

That leads to the question of audience, and it seems most likely this series is pitched to fans because, let’s face it, it’s a difficult pitch otherwise. In detailing its films, Eli Roth’s History of Horror offers small appraisals of certain films, sometimes cross-referencing the first season, while jumping in deeper with others. In the deep dives, there is a literal run-through of storyline from start to finish, which suggests the makers were going for a sense of nostalgia recall with more seasoned horror viewers who have already seen the films and are consequently immune to spoilers, rather than attempting to convert a new legion of fans.

Given assumption of the viewers’ knowledge, the series creates something of its own rod to bear; that of giving fans something new (no easy task). I’m not entirely convinced it manages to overcome this hurdle but, regardless, the mix of talking-heads and their varying perspectives comes together as a highly entertaining whole. There is a concerted effort to tackle diversity in the voices – from filmmakers (e.g. Joe Dante, Mick Garris, Bryan Fuller, Rob Zombie, Quentin Tarantino) to actors (e.g. Bill Hader, Megan Fox, Chris Hardwick, Jack Black, Katharine Isabelle) to film commentators and scholars (e.g. Kier-La Janisse, Jordan Chrucchiola, Jennifer Moorman, Tananarive Due, Chris Dumas) and there are plenty more appearances on top of these mentioned. What is notable is the avoidance of gender tokenism, which can be so prevalent in studies of horror and particularly aggravating to female fans, especially given that femininity is intrinsically patterned into horror’s DNA. Of course, the episode on Witches is particularly female-centric in its narrative but, in this series, women speak beyond their assigned expertise of their gender and, instead, get to share their opinion across many topics pertinent to a discussion of horror.

Will there be a third season of Eli Roth’s History of Horror? I’d really like to think so – and to round everything out with a third season feels more complete – but the sixth episode, Nine Nightmares, suggests otherwise. It is the most curious of all the episodes because, rather than presenting another sub-genre division, it focuses on nine standout films that Roth considers are uncategorisable or, let’s be honest, uncategorisable within the categories of these two seasons. So not to spoil the element of surprise, I won’t divulge the nine titles but I will express both my gratitude for their inclusion (they play ‘outside the box’) and my regret that they appear to be the conclusion to the series. If not the conclusion, then such goodies as Cannibalism and Folk Horror could have been further categories to look forward to in a third season… and a fourth… and a fifth. I hope I am proven wrong and that the makers of Eli Roth’s History of Horror are given the opportunity to flex their horror muscle at least one more time. There is plenty more meat on this bone to chew.

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About Emma Westwood

Emma Westwood is a writer from Melbourne, and broadcaster on Triple R FM’s Plato’s Cave film criticism program, with an interest in horror and extreme cinema. She is the author of Monster Movies (Pocket Essentials, UK, 2008) and is currently working on a monograph on David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) for the Devil’s Advocates series.

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