Almost 2000 words on Horror

In preperation for his annual Halloween Horrorfest, Tron’s been watching horror… documentaries.

With Halloween (the greatest holiday ever) quickly approaching, my hovel has been a Hive (get it?) of activity centered around the upcoming weekend.  See, I am off for the first time in a couple of years which means the return of my huge Halloween weekend horror film fest where I cull the best and worst from the entire body of Horror and run them all for anyone who wants to stop over.  I like to get a good mix in; leave the morning/afternoons for the classics from the 1930s through the 1960s (gotta include the Hammer films) and then, in the cold, dank evening, switch to more modern fare.  The past few years have had a theme – werewolves, vampires, killers in the woods – but I believe this year I’ll just be trying to run as much of everything as possible, with an added emphasis on the slasher film.  Why?  Well, this week has already been pretty horror-centered with episodes of Monster Quest occurring almost nightly but I managed to also locate and devour several good documentaries on the genre that have managed to get my mind moving in about fifty different directions at once.  This, I figured, is as good a time as any to assist you in getting excited about the weekend and they may remind you about some forgotten gems.

The Starz network (a pay network much like HBO or Cinemax) had been running their own 60-90 minute documentaries on the Horror genre since about 2006, sitting down with some of the top talents in the field to discuss what makes things scary.  Now, I do not have Starz but every one of these docs are available at fine rental joints everywhere (if any left) and, of course, Netflix, so this isn’t some unavailable material Tron winkled out from somewhere that you’ll never be able to find, nosir.  Readily available and every one of them is worth the view, just for the words of wisdom gleaned from perennial interviewees and make-up legends Tom Savini and Greg Nicotero.

First up was 2008’s Fantastic Flesh, which takes the viewer inside the “movie magic” of making practical special effects for a wide variety of films; the emphasis is on horror, of course, but K.N.B. EFX has done work on everything from Planet of the Apes (2001) to The Chronicles of Narnia (2005) so the documentary covers every aspect of what these craftsmen do.  Lest you think that it’s all about Mr.’s Savini, Nicotero, Rob Bottin, Dick Smith, Howard Berger, etc, they also sit down with the likes of Simon Pegg, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, John Landis, George Romero, Joe Dante, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Eli Roth and many others to find out what the director’s vision and needs were and how the effects team accomplished the task, even the impossible.  Tarantino talks about tricking K.N.B. into doing the Reservoir Dogs (1992) effects for free if he assisted them on a script re-write and Frank Darabont takes the viewer inside The Mist (2007) and how the practical met CGI to create the necessary monster effects.  Not only a great documentary on make-up but on the film process.

Next was 2009’s His Name Was Jason, an exploration of the Friday the 13th films for the 30th anniversary.  Considerably different than the bonus disc from the box set but still manages to cover the same territory, His Name Was Jason sits down with Sean S. Cunningham and discusses the series from inception through 2003’s Freddy vs Jason.  They’re very up-front about it following Halloween (1978), what they did to make it different and how to keep following it up.  Make no mistake, Joseph Zito was ending the series for real as of Friday the 13th, The Final Chapter (1984) but the franchise had legs – still does in fact.  Not only does the documentary sit down with many of the creators and actors like Adrianne King, Betsy Palmer (who was not real happy to be in it at first), Amy Steele, Kane Hodder and Mr. Savini to give you personal insight to the makings of this fine series but it features modern Horror directors Adam Green (Hatchet) and pal Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2) being truly hysterical while admitting their love of the series.  Mr. Lynch’s comment “Jason was the best contraceptive for a guy like me” is both funny and poignant.  The documentary also traces the popularity of the franchise through the toys, comics, books, games and other merchandise – none of the cast could believe there would be Jason dolls and teddy bears with hockey masks on.  Unfortunately, no Cory Feldman like on the box set bonus and no Crispin Glover either but both are mentioned, Feldman at length, but this should not deter you from this excellent overview of the legacy.  It’s worth it alone to hear all of the surviving women (and a couple of dudes) all say they would come back to do a “survivors try to get Jason” flick.  Couple this with Mr. Feldman on the box set bonus saying he’d come back in a second and wipe out number 5 onward to continue the Tommy Jarvis storyline for real and you’ve got an idea, my friends.  Someone in Hollywood better be listening.

It almost seems to be covering a tad bit of the same ground yet has a much broader topic but 2006’s Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film covers the entirety of the “guy with knife” subgenre from it’s classic roots in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Halloween (father of the modern slasher) through today’s fare.  Now, Rise and Fall should have read “Rises and Falls” because the genre continues to ebb and flow.  Take the heyday of the 1980’s with Halloween and Friday the 13th completely blowing up and dominating cinema box offices;  as always, when Hollywood makes a hit, even unintentional, the idea is to crank out as much like it as possible and there was a golden period with Slumber Party Massacre (1982), The Prowler (1981), Terror Train (1980), Prom Night (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981)and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) but the cinema became clogged with increasingly worse and worse films until it seemed the genre had died…until Scream (1996) pumped some new blood into the ailing genre.  Then, another dip until today’s current crop of re-makes and re-imaginings.  It is wisely pointed out at the end that as long as there are teenagers there will always be a slasher genre.  Every decade has someone rediscover low-budget horror and run with it and each set of new kids introduced to it grow up to produce the next batch.  This was one of the best of the documentaries because it brings up so many forgotten and much-loved classics and is singly responsible for me revising my Halloween weekend.  Of course, it’s hosted by Mr. Savini and features Mr. Carpenter, Wes Craven, Rob Zombie, Melissa Sue Anderson, Priscilla Barnes, Kevin Bacon and Jamie Lee Curtis, among others, and is chock-full of anecdotes and analysis about why we love these films.  Plus, it’s real neat hearing John Carpenter talk about Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street just to hear his perspective.  Definitely worth tracking down.

Though seemingly Tom Savini free, Bloodsucking Cinema (2007) traces the vampire film from the seminal Nosferatu (1922) and 1931’s tour-de-force Bela Lugosi performance in Dracula through the Hammer films right up to today’s embarrassing fare such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).  Luminaries such as John Landis, Stan Winston, Joel Shumacher, Corey Haim, Cheech Marin, Leonard Maltin, Kristanna Loken, John Carpenter, Uwe Boll and Harry Knowles (really?) all share personal experiences from the set and discuss the lore of the vampire.  Is it the immortality that attracts us to the vampire or is it the image of humanity on the outside that lures us in; is it the implied sexuality inherent to the legend or is it the power they command?  There is a lot of love directed to the classic films from the interviewees but many of the recent films like Interview with the Vampire (1994), From Dusk ‘Till Dawn (1996), Bloodrayne (2005),  John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998) and Lost Boys (1987) are given much of the 57 minute run time.  Worth the watch to hear Cheech discuss the Spanish Dracula (1931) and the Mexican vampire legends which informed much of From Dusk ‘Till Dawn and John Carpenter talking about anything, really.  My only complaint is, of course, the relative skimming over of the influential Universal and Hammer films, though when brought up both are spoken of with the proper reverence.  Oh, and Mr. Knowles absolutely loving everything ever put on film, a disturbing pattern carried on to this day in real life.  Not a bad look at the vampire and, lacking a better recommendation, worth the view.  John Carpenter, by the way, is the only one who would choose to be a vampire while everyone else said immortality was a curse, which makes me respect Mr. Carpenter even more!

We ended the Horror documentary festival (I guess) with one of my favorite subjects: the zombie.  Lest you worry, 2008’s Zombie Mania is chock full of Tom Savini and rightly so, since he was instrumental in helping the godfather of the modern zombie film, George Romero, achieve the success his films have had.  Another overview of the movement, this begins with the voodoo-oriented zombie classics I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and White Zombie (1932) and bringing them up to the current Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake.  Aside from Greg Nicotero, the filmmakers interview Max Brooks, author of World War Z (kinda bad, really) and son of Mel Brooks, as he is spearheading the zombie revival of today in literature, comics and artwork and I guess his books are being filmed so it’s damn topical and as up to the minute as they could make it.  The overview is excellent and the recollections of everyone are entertaining but the film discusses topics ranging from whether every time a new zombie film is released George Romero should get a couple grand right off the top, whether Romero was actually doing zombies (he said he never intended zombies; he called them “flesh eaters, though this was one of the biggest changes to the zombie ever) and slow zombies vs fast zombies (the fast zombie is pretty much an impossibility as well as being universally derided).  The filmmakers did the best they could with 57 minutes but this does leave out a lot of influential films from around the world such as Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell (1980) and Zombi 2 (1979), Amando de Ossorio’s Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971) and any of the Japanese fare like Biozombie (1998), all of which show unique twists on the zombie genre.  As far as the changes in the form from voodoo to flesh eating to fast running, Zombie Mania accomplishes what it sets out to do and will open people up to zombie films they may not be familiar with as well as extolling the virtues of the films we already know and love.  If you like zombies, you’ll like this documentary and it may just save your life.

The above is why I’m extra excited about a holiday that has me excited anyway and has definitely given me a ton more choices (from the ton I already had) about what to run this weekend.  If you are at all interested in Horror films, where they came from and where they’re going, these documentaries are a must view.  The insight from those involved is more than enough reason to check these documentaries out and who knows?  You might even learn something.

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