Horror Documentaries and Non-Fiction Macabre
By Kristin Battestella
Real world horrors and mayhem are often just as demented and certainly no less interesting than their fictional counterparts, are they not? Here’s a brief guide of ghoulish documentaries, morbid memoirs, and non-fiction frights to spice up your creepy classroom or Fall viewings.
Anne Rice: Biography – This 2000 television hour focusing on the Interview with a Vampire author is nothing new. Ironically, it is actually dated and somewhat inaccurate thanks to Rice’s more recent life and literary changes and thus this feels somewhat incomplete. A one-minute add-on to encompass the new millennium doesn’t cut it. That aside, it’s still great to see photos from Rice’s early life, hear friends and family recount her childhood and road to publication greatness, and listen to Rice herself talk of religion and the personal tragedies that inspired her writing. In fact, Anne’s familial losses and literary struggles may even be more poignant thanks to the conversations with her late husband, the poet Stan Rice. I’d like to see A&E revisit Rice with an updated two-hour special, but until then, scholarly studies and Rice aficionados can always enjoy this quick profile.
A Cemetery Special – PBS’s 2005 hour-long spotlight doesn’t have enough time to explore this exhaustive subject matter- and it bemusing admits that along with a respectful dedication to those buried in the featured cemeteries. From Pittsburgh to Vermont and Key West to Alaska, lovely footage of graveyards and gardens accents the bent but thought provoking discussion on death, remembrance, art, and the monuments we leave behind. Perhaps lesser-known graveyards are featured, but interesting tales from the Civil War and sleeping place origins are recounted in an almost heartwarming manner. This is the perfect little video for classrooms studying the specific locations and history or macabre scholars researching burial customs. I wish there had been a whole series like this!
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film – In covering a hundred years of scary cinema, this 2009 documentary was bound to miss a few things. However, this hour and half also provides extensive clips from early silent films, Universal monsters, the Roger Corman era, seventies zombies, eighties slashers, and more. Interviewees like George Romero, John Carpenter, and more experts on the genre examine how the social and political statements onscreen, both overt and veiled, influenced film making and audiences thru the decades. Horror has gone from early B-movie child’s play to red scare allusions and now a blockbuster industry- who knew? Some of the more recent conversation and post 9/11 thoughts are perhaps nothing new or could have been dealt with more deeply, for today’s viewer is familiar with these sociopolitical cinema influences, after all. But seeing the paces of vintage horror film thru the years is a real treat for both new and veteran fans. This one’s a great starter for younger folks just getting into horror films or a good accompaniment to a sociology discussion.
Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story – New horror audiences today may not necessarily recognize the name of the director of such fun fright fests as House on Haunted Hill, but William Castle’s hokey contributions to film tricks and entertainment showmanship are highlighted in this 2007 80-minute documentary. Archive footage of Castle and video of classic stars like Vincent Price, Cary Grant, and Orson Welles accent the lighthearted and insightful commentary from Castle’s daughter Terry, Leonard Maltin, Roger Corman, John Waters, and more genre luminaries. Are Castle’s low budget films on the fly high art? No. Are they any less unforgettable and entertaining? Nope. Often called a Poor Man’s Hitchcock, horror historians and film students can learn a thing or two about how to make a movie here thanks to Castle’s shtick success- flying skeletons and tingling Percepto theater seats notwithstanding. Although it’s ironic, we look at Castle with such corny delight. However, what are today’s 3D movies, CGI special effects, found footage films, and viral promotions if not gimmicks to sell cinema tickets?
Witches: Biography – A little too much time is spent on recent controversies in this 2008 documentary, and the would be dispelling of negative connotations and misconceptions suffers a touch from the devil worship stereotypes in the presentation. Though care was taken in chronicling the history of witchcraft, from the infamous trials all the way thru to contemporary practices and profiles, the topic is simply too big for just one hour. I’d rather this be at least a 2-hour special or even a three part serial. A&E and History documentaries have solely focused on the Salem Witch Trials previously, and if the networks are pushing all things paranormal, there’s no reason to stifle the content here. The hodgepodge, conflicted vision meanders between past persecutions and today’s practices, but it doesn’t do either justice. Hokey reenactments just don’t seem right juxtaposed with modern coven footage, and this episode seems better piecemeal. If you need Salem studies in the classroom or if you want to see the interviews discussing recent witchcraft for your circle, this is the minimal introduction to a much bigger subject.
Bram Stoker: Biography – Indicative of the degrading quality of this A&E series, this 2004 forty five minutes feels too in the vein (no pun intended) of entertainment gossip before historical profile. Precious time is spent on the sensuality of Dracula and the Goth subculture in an attempt to relate Stoker to this highly unfortunate glitter vampire swing. If you wanted to focus on Dracula and vampires, then make a Biography episode on Dracula or vampires. The first fifteen minutes feels more like “Where’s Bram?” Rhetorically asking if he would be shocked by vampire clubs or astounded by Halloween costumes do not tell the viewer much about Stoker, nor do poor reenactments and readings with bad Irish accents. More sensational than informative, this presentation is brimming with unsubstantiated suggestions, much less anything new. Stoker’s sources for and the sexual discussions of Dracula are indeed intriguing, but making a scandal out of it with homo-eroticism and hatred of women makes for a poor presentation. Did they really need to find something juicy about the man who wrote one of the most widely published books ever? Serious scholars might enjoy a point/counterpoint viewing, but there aren’t many worthwhile literary aspects here. Very disappointing.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the Witches or Bram Stoker episodes of Biography are currently available on video, either. Typical!