An Overview of Documentaries about Horror Cinema
When I started watching horror films, two movies paved the way for my addiction. Watching both Night of the Living Dead and The Evil Dead in the early 1990s kick-started my induction into the genre as well as opening my eyes to the desire to make films. Reading interviews with Sam Raimi and George Romero made me want to learn how to play in the blood too.
As I have mentioned before, three horror documentaries were repeat rentals for me from my local mom & pop video shop: Document of the Dead (about the making of Dawn of the Dead), Dario Argento’s World of Horror and Fangoria’s Scream Greats: Tom Savini. I was also gifted by my sister and her husband a VHS copy of the British series “The Incredibly Strange Picture Show” which was a god-send to this newbie to both the genre and filmmaking. Along with back issues of Fango, they all fed my rabid addiction.
Fast forward about twenty-five years and several degrees later. My goals have shifted more towards academic expressions of my love of horror and, finally, the world seems to have woken up to the importance of the films that have been previously looked at as cultural junk food. Thanks to the work of people like Carol Clover, analysis of horror films has become a serious line of study. Along with the written word, documentary filmmakers have followed suit with some excellent pieces that really sink their teeth into some of the best horror films ever made. In this article, I am going to bring you on a tour of some great horror docs and show how fans of the films can appreciate these deep dives into what makes our favorite movies and filmmakers tick.
Let’s Get Started: Where to Begin
Two seminal works in the world of horror analysis are Adam Simon’s The American Nightmare (2000) and Andrew Monument’s Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (2009). Both documentaries focus on the advent of the modern horror film. One looks at how the genre evolved over time, while the other examines American filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s that were affected by the turbulent times they lived in and how their films would then go on to have an impact on American culture. I think both are excellent examples of how documentaries can help us to find something new in films we have seen countless times and have a deeper understanding of what the filmmakers were saying with their work. I recommend these as the perfect place to start if you are new to the horror doc.
The American Nightmare: A Celebration of Films from Horror’s Golden Age of Fright (2000)
The American Nightmare features interviews with some of the heaviest hitters that horror has to offer. Romero, Carpenter, Craven, Hooper, Cronenberg, and Savini all weigh in with their perspectives on how their movies reflected the true horrors of America in the ‘60s. The makers of the movie beautifully open the documentary by counter-cutting images from movies with newsreel footage of the Vietnam war, the civil rights struggle, and politicians while blending the soundbites from both so that they seem to be telling the same story. Tobe Hooper sums it up best by saying, “I think we shoot a lot of stuff and then twenty years later we find out what it really meant.”
Throughout the documentary, we hear also from scholars to get their perspective on historic understandings of the time period of when the movies were being released and how the generation of film-goers interpreted what they were experiencing. The movies that are examined within the context of the documentary are a check-list of what became modern horror classics: Night of the Living Dead, Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Shivers, and Halloween. Hearing from Wes Craven that, “I feel like I am a veteran of a war, and I think we all do that from that generation, whether you went to the war or not,” gives incredible perspective to those of us who didn’t see these films till decades later.
The documentary has an amazing ability to connect the dots between the very real world of war, assassination and riots to these fictional horror movies that both scarred and changed the world forever. At the same time the documentary proves that American society inflicted the movie makers of the age with trauma that they in turn made the rest of the country experience through some of the greatest genre films ever made. American Nightmare really concentrates on how one generation of horror filmmakers could interpret a particular point in American history in a way that no one else could either before or after them. The ability to zoom in on this handful of important films and correlate them to moments in a 20 year span pinpoints a collective impact on viewers all over the world. This film is a must see for all horror fans.
Nightmares in Red, White & Blue: Evolution of the American Horror Film (2009)
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue, on the other hand, takes a broader approach by starting from the beginning of film in the silent era and going all the way up to the modern times of when the documentary was produced. Again we get a list of horror’s who’s who coming out to explain and chronologize the genre’s offerings through the decades. Narrated by genre legend Lance Henriksen and featuring Larry Cohen, Joe Dante, John Carpenter, George Romero, Mick Garris, Brian Yuzna, Roger Coreman, Tom McLaughlin and a few newer movie makers, the cast of talking heads is rounded out with the voice of Fangoria Magazine himself, Tony Timpone.
The film starts in the silent era with Edison’s Frankenstein and follows the genre through the torture porn of the 2000s with Hostel and Saw. We wind through the gothic Universal horrors to the ‘50s sci-fi themed horrors to Psycho and the advent of the modern horror film. There is a significant focus on the late ‘60s and early ‘70s gruesome, post-hippie world with Last House, TCM, and The Hills Have Eyes. Milestones like The Exorcist, Jaws, The Stepford Wives, Halloween and Dawn of the Dead are used to guide us through the ‘70s. The ‘80s are shown through discussion of Stephen King, the Friday the 13th films, Carpenter’s work, Romero’s Day of the Dead, Evil Dead 2, Re-Animatortrong>, the Nightmare on Elm Street films and more.
The ‘90s of course begins with Silence of the Lambs and even Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer as part of the advent of the killer/hero along with Candyman, Seven, American Psycho, and more. The 2000s are shown through the lens of a post-9/11 world with films like Land of the Dead, the rash of remakes (Dawn of the Dead, TCM, Hills Have Eye’s, etc.), the Saw films, Hostel and Pan’s Labyrinth.
All of these films are used to not just show what movies had an impact, but how American society has influenced the changes of the genre decade by decade. We see how the definition of horror and what is terrifying to audiences’ twists and turns with changes in politics, urban/suburban life and cultural sensibilities.
As the “American Dream” adjusts with the times, so does the horror film to better serve the current worldview of our society. The vast amount of films discussed and the number of trusted names in the industry that are involved helps the documentary work as an inclusive and intelligent overview. This feels like an excellent place for any fans of horror cinema to begin their dive into the world of deeper understanding in what makes not just the filmmakers tick, but what makes the American audience tick as well.
Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)
While American Nightmare focuses on an era, Going to Pieces looks extremely closely at a sub-genre, its origins, and how it changed the idea of horror. The sub-genre in question is the slasher, one of the most controversial sub-genres because of the negative name it gave horror both within (the advent of the cookie-cutter formula, sequel –itis and imitators galore) and from the outside world (in the form of damning reviews, feminist outrage, and right-wing protest).
Based on the excellent book of the same name by Adam Rockoff, the documentary creates a timeline of where the slasher has its roots and guides us through year by year to show an exhaustive list of the films that fit the category from the ‘60s (with Psycho and Peeping Tom) to the ‘90s (with the post-Scream resurgence). Again we hear from the big guns like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tom Savini, Tony Timpone, Stan Winston, and Sean Cunningham, but this film dives deep on so many films that we hear from writers, directors, producers, and actors that are rarely given a voice. That alone can make this film stand out as not just exhaustive in its inclusion but also taking the subject matter seriously even in discussing movies that usually get a passing glance in these types of genre overviews.
Some of the films discussed in Going to Pieces include Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine, He Knows You’re Alone, Happy Birthday to Me, Graduation Day, Sleepaway Camp, Slumber Party Massacre, Silent Night Deadly Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, April Fool’s Day and more. Aside from just creating a timeline of films important to the sub-genre, the documentary also does a fair amount of analysis of not just the origins, but the tropes that came to make up the calling card of the slashers – “knowing the rules” as they say in Scream (things like final girls, masked killers, childhood trauma/revenge, event or holiday based themes, etc.).
I also appreciated the explorations of what was going on in American culture at this time (of the ‘70s and ‘80s) that would add to the understanding of our fears when watching slasher films. Discussions of politics in the age of Ronald Regan and how white flight from cities into the suburbs as well as epidemics like AIDs changed what scared us and can inform our viewings of these movies with a new lens.
On top of all of these important themes are very frank discussions of two dangers that faced the slasher: 1) dealing with controversy and hate from parents and critics (with Siskel & Ebert calling slashers pornography followed by news clips about the parent groups that tried to get movies like Silent Night, Deadly Night removed from theaters and their ads pulled from tv and newspapers shows just how crazy things got) as well as 2) how a sub-genre can implode on itself (degradation of quality and originality in a slew of copycats and sequels, flooding the market and becoming their own competition, etc.).
All of this adds up to an excellent examination of the history of the slasher that all horror fans can enjoy and learn from. They say history can repeat itself if we don’t remember what has happened in the past, so this doc should become required viewing for the horror filmmakers of today!
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape (2010)
Now here is a documentary that is about something that I thought I knew about and thought I understood but realized as I watched this movie that my understanding of this incident/period in British history barely scratched the surface. If you are an American who heard about the video nasty epidemic from magazines and jokes in British television than you would also do yourself a service by watching this extensive and complete look at what happened, how, and why.
You will be floored as I was at just how ridiculous and misled the British government and law enforcement were, at the same time that American audiences were experiencing the biggest boom of video horror at every mom and pop shop in the country. You too will shed a tear for our UK brethren who waited years to easily buy films that we could easily get access to on a daily basis with no threat of a fine or jail time.
Jake West and Mark Morris’ Video Nasties is the most complete examination of what happened and how it affected the horror community in the UK. There is discussion of the politicians and community watchdogs who kicked off a wave a fear and panic that infected British culture when VHS tapes, horror and otherwise, became available to rent all around the country at not just video shops, but corner stores and any retailer who wanted to invest a little money and shelf space. There was a widespread concept that through watching horror films on tape, children all over the country would be infected with pornography and violence that would make them into evil perpetrators.
Lobbyers and politicians spoke out and got the courts and Scotland Yard on their side. In an insane push of censorship and power, a list of films was banned and confiscated copies were destroyed while business owners and distributors were fined and in some cases jailed for smuggling censored material to citizens. To make matters even more confusing, actual lists of the offending films were considered confidential and seemed to be constantly changing. For years, British society was held captive under these absurd and confusing laws leaving horror-loving citizens to either go without forbidden fruit or pay large sums for bootlegs and put themselves at risk of fines. Eventually, the Internet would come along and rid the British world of this fascist plague.
This documentary does a great job of explaining not only what happened, but how it affected real people. All of this is accomplished in a very artful way (through editing and graphic design) and a punk rock aesthetic (especially with the use of the song “Video Nasty” by punk icons The Damned). What was surprising to me about the documentary itself was the filmmaker’s inclusion of all voices possible. Not only do we hear from people that fought against the laws or were victimized by them, but we also hear from the people who worked to pass the law and those who enforced it.
This well-rounded approach gave the doc a thorough and investigative feel while still showing the negative effects of the laws. Hearing journalists discuss how they were harassed and shunned by the public and their peers for questioning the government’s ability to censor our lives was both intense and infuriating. In the end, the filmmakers succeed in setting the record straight for the history books of exactly how bad the video nasty epidemic got and serves as a warning to the horror community to make sure we never let it happen again.
And a quick word on the version of the film that I purchased before we move on to our last feature presentation. I picked up the Severin Films DVD deluxe version entitled Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide. This box set includes the movie and some simple extras on disc one, but the subsequent discs include the trailers for all films that were part of the epidemic. Disc two’s trailers are for the 39 movies that were banned and then successfully prosecuted in UK courts, while disc three includes the trailers for the 33 additional films that were banned but were not prosecuted. This immense trailer collection includes everything from Cannibal Holocaust and The Evil Dead to Zombie Flesh Eaters (i.e. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie 2) and I Spit on Your Grave for a whopping combined running time of 13 hours and 58 minutes of content on all three DVDs! This is a treasure trove indeed. Have at it, gore hounds!
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)
Speaking of well-crafted documentary films that explain something to the horror community that we may not have been aware of, our last and most recent documentary to discuss is Horror Noire. Using the text from 2011 by author and scholar Robin R. Means Coleman of the University of Michigan (Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present), Ashlee Blackwell and Danielle Burrows worked with director Xavier Burgin to create a documentary that analyzed the history of black representation in American horror cinema.
Going from the terrifying, controversial and technologically groundbreaking Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffiths silent Civil War epic that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan) all the way to 2018 break out hit Get Out, the filmmakers assemble an outstanding group of scholars, filmmakers, and actors to discuss how black characters are portrayed and how that impacted black audiences. This documentary will make you re-think many classics for their either omission of African American characters or their diminishment of their importance to re-realizing the importance of strong black characters that have existed. Some of the films discussed include Night of the Living Dead, Blackula, Abby, Sugar Hill, Ganja & Hess, The Shining, franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th, The Craft, People Under the Stairs, Candyman, Def By Temptation, Tales from the Hood, Eve’s Bayou, Demon Knight, Bones, Attack the Block, Girl with All the Gifts and many, many more. In-depth looks at movements such as blacksploitation and the hip hop influenced movies of the ‘90s, define decades and sub-genres. Much like Going to Pieces, Horror Noire defines terms and guides us through stereotypes and tropes used throughout horror films over the years.
Hearing icons of the horror genre like Ken Foree, Keith David and Tony Todd along with actors and actresses we don’t usually get to hear from like Rachel True, Miguel Nunez and Kelly Jo Minter give their first hand interpretations of not just the films they appear in, but how they felt about the films that they watched, gives a real universal weight to the topic. This is such an open and frank discussion where things are laid out plainly, it is eye opening for the viewer of how many things we have come to accept and take for granted within genre movies.
We can see examples of concepts like otherness, invisibility, expendable characters, and the sacrificial and magical negros. We watch how monsters come to represent the African American society through the ‘50s monster films and then see how the lack of black characters can still speak to society. How throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s black characters were friends of the main characters who only exist to support and react to others without any goals or motivation of their own. All of this works together to show a slow evolution towards the strong black characters that can exist today.
Horror Noire was the main reason that I signed up for the horror streaming service Shudder. It was well worth the time and investment and I hope to see it open up the conversation of race and genre to more than just the academic world. I know that I plan to include the documentary in my curriculum for my film classes and I hope many more professors out there will do the same. Everyone should watch this movie.
I hope that you have enjoyed this guide to horror documentaries and will add one or more of these films to your “To-Watch” lists, wish lists, and streaming cues. Understanding why horror films work through deep-dive analysis can only make our experience has horror fans better. There are also many great documentaries that break down just one film or franchise, as well as dozens of amazing books on these topics, so this list should just be a starting off point for you. Enjoy the world of horror academia. You’ll find me in a corner of the library with a stack of books by my side, feverishly taking notes. Be sure to stop by and let me know what you thought of these great horror docs.
Author’s note – I originally wrote this article in July of 2019. Horror Noire (both the documentary film and the academic book) went on to have a huge impact on both my scholarly research projects and the content produced for my YouTube channel. I am so happy to see that the film has gained such international acclaim. If you have not yet watched it, please take advantage of specials that Shudder is currently offering for non-members to view this film for free as their acknowledgement of the #blacklivesmatter movement.