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Horror Film Documentaries

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema kicked off Halloween season with a look at documentaries about horror films. Recent years have seen a cornucopia of these films, some emphasizing nostalgia and others taking a critical look at eras and genres of films and still more taking a deep look at a particular title or franchise.

Terror in the Aisles

Terror in the Aisles was a 1984 compilation video hosted by Nancy Allen and Donald Pleasence. The film consisted of a series of clips from various horror films including The Bride of Frankenstein, Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Jaws and Halloween among many others. Terror in the Aisles was released theatrically and did decent business and it has endured as a cult title. 

Room 237

Stanley Kubrick’s movies have inspired intense devotion and dissection which has led to some wild theories about the meanings of his movies. Room 237, directed by Rodney Ascher, examines Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining. This is not a making-of documentary. Instead, Room 237 consists of several vignettes explaining different interpretations of the film. Some of the conclusions are academic but others are wild conspiracy theories, with one of the interpreters claiming that Kubrick helped fake the moon landing and that The Shining was the filmmaker’s coded confession. Room 237 is ultimately less about The Shining and much more about how people read into and project onto pieces of art.

1980s Nostalgia Documentaries

Over the past few years there’s been a great deal of nostalgia for the 1980s. One of the ways that nostalgia has expressed itself has been in making-of documentaries about some of the popular horror titles and cult films of that decade. 1985’s Fright Night is the story of a teenager who discovers that a vampire has moved in next door. This movie was a hit that inspired a sequel and a remake. The history of the franchise was covered in You’re So Cool, Brewster! which is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the films.

Released the same year as the original Fright Night, Return of the Living Dead was a zombie movie that was as funny as it was scary. It was also the movie that originated the idea of zombies eating brains. The making of Return of the Living Dead was documented in More Brains! Return of the Living Dead inspired several sequels but the documentary feature is limited to the original film. However, the standalone disc release of More Brains! includes significant bonus segments on the making of the second and third Return of the Living Dead films.

Filmmaker George A. Romero, writer Stephen King, and special effects artist Tom Savini collaborated on 1982’s Creepshow. This was an anthology movie inspired by the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s and it featured an impressive cast that included Hal Holbrook, Leslie Neilsen, E.G. Marshall, Adrienne Barbeau, and Ed Harris. The making of Creepshow was told in the 2007 documentary Just Deserts.

One of the more interesting of these retro documentaries is Wolfman’s Got Nards about the making of The Monster Squad. The 1987 picture is about a group of teenagers who face off against versions of the Universal monsters including Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Gillman, and Frankenstein’s Monster. The Monster Squad financially failed in its original release but found an audience on home video. The documentary Wolfman’s Got Nards covers the behind-the-scenes stories but also spends a lot of time exploring The Monster Squad’s afterlife and its devoted cult audience.

In Search of Darkness is a lengthy survey of horror movies of the 1980s with a special appreciation for the practical gore effects in movies of the time. This is a marathon of a documentary. There are two volumes of In Search of Darkness with each installment running over four hours. What is especially unique about In Search of Darkness is the way it highlights underappreciated titles. These kinds of documentaries tend to revisit the most popular films but In Search of Darkness gives viewers a look at movies they may not have heard of. 

Another 1980s retrospective documentary is Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film. Based on the book by Adam Rockoff, Going to Pieces surveys the slasher genre of the 1970s and 80s and it’s a concise history that documents the evolution of that subgenre and what it meant to the culture of the 1980s. 

A Nightmare on Elm Street

One of the most impressive and important titles in this present surge of horror documentaries is 2010’s Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy. This documentary is a retrospective about the Nightmare on Elm Street series, covering the franchise from the 1984 original film through 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason. Never Sleep Again is important for a variety of reasons, among them it was one of the first independently produced documentaries of its kind. Previous to Never Sleep Again, a lot of these sorts of documentaries were produced on behalf of the studio or distributor and intended as promotional pieces. As such they avoided discussing flaws or controversies. Never Sleep Again was freed of that restriction and it possessed a frankness that was unusual. It was also significant because of its length and style. Never Sleep Again runs four hours, allowing the documentary to explore its subject in depth and cover all sorts of behind-the-scenes stories through interviews with the stars as well as below the line crew members. It also includes dramatic lighting, creative animated transitions, and a playful tone. Never Sleep Again set the standard for a lot of subsequent horror documentaries and it remains one of the best of its kind.

In the process of making Never Sleep Again, the documentarians connected with cast and crew members who had not been heard from since those films were released. Among the interviewees was A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 star Mark Patton. In the mid-1980s his career had been on the incline but Patton was a closeted gay man and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was very homoerotic. Homophobia and paranoia about the AIDS crisis derailed Patton’s acting career. But after he resurfaced in Never Sleep Again, Patton fashioned his own documentary. Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street looked at Patton’s life and homophobia in entertainment and the cult following of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. It’s a unique entry in the horror-documentary field that fans of A Nightmare on Elm Street and queer cinema should check out.

Friday the 13th

Many of the individuals who were involved in the making of Never Sleep Again, namely director Daniel Farrands, had previously worked on His Name Was Jason, a ninety-minute documentary about the Friday the 13th series. Hosted by special effects guru Tom Savini, His Name Was Jason is an enjoyable but limited survey of the series that was produced to coincide with the release of the 2009 Friday the 13th remake. After the success of the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary Never Sleep Again, those filmmakers returned to Friday the 13th with 2013’s Crystal Lake Memories. Adapted from the book by Peter Bracke, Crystal Lake Memories repurposed some of the interviews from His Name Was Jason and combined them with new material, expanding the documentary to over six hours. Like Never Sleep Again, Crystal Lake Memories is a frank and in-depth look at the series and it’s the definitive documentary about the first twelve Friday the 13th films. 

Jaws

There have been several documentaries about the making of Jaws. The essential Jaws documentary is Universal’s official making-of piece which was directed by Laurent Bouzereau and originally released on the 1995 laserdisc edition. It’s now available on the blu-ray release of the film. Two other notable Jaws documentaries include Jaws: The Inside Story which was made for television and includes some additional information and behind-the-scenes stories not found in other documentaries and The Shark is Still Working which is a fan-produced documentary that includes footage from 2005’s Jaws-Fest on Martha’s Vineyard. The Shark is Still Working is also included on the blu-ray editions of Jaws.

Alexandre O. Philippe

Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe has directed several documentaries about motion pictures and his movies are distinguished by their glossy production values and sociological approach. Philippe made a name for himself with The People vs. George Lucas which examined the complicated relationship between the creator of Star Wars and the fans. He followed that with Doc of the Dead which was about the zombie genre and its relationship to popular culture. Philippe’s later films have taken a more specific focus starting with 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene. This is a feature length documentary focusing solely on the infamous murder sequence in the original Psycho. It’s a technical but also aesthetic appreciation of one of the most famous scenes in all of cinema. Philippe next directed Leap of Faith which is a contemplative documentary with director William Friedkin postulating about the meaning of The Exorcist. Philippe also directed Memory: The Origins of Alien which takes a close look at the various influences on Ridley Scott’s 1979 film.

Horror and American Culture

There are several horror documentaries examining how horror films reflect American culture and what they reveal about society. One of these is Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue. Based on the book by Joseph Maddrey, this documentary is a broad survey of American horror films from the early years of cinema to the first decade of the twenty-first century, connecting the frights on the screen with historical anxieties. The 2019 documentary Horror Noire was based on the book by Robin R. Means Coleman and focused specifically on the representation of black characters in American horror films and the stories that black filmmakers tell through the genre.

One of the most interesting and one of the most artful of these sociological horror documentaries is The American Nightmare. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a tumultuous period in American history but it was also the most interesting period in American moviemaking. This era produced groundbreaking horror films many of which reflected the instability and anxiety of the time. The documentary The American Nightmare concentrates on a handful of films including Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Shivers, and Halloween. This documentary is about what those films represent and what they reveal about the times in which they were made but also deeper psychological issues and how horror cinema uniquely stitches it all together.

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