by Kristin Battestella
Gather round any time of year for these informative documentary scares, monsters of the silver screen, ye olde witches, and retro ghosts. Boo!
Monster Madness: The Golden Age of The Horror Film – Moody scoring, photo stills, archive footage, and black and white clips accent this eighty minute retrospective chronicling the silent horror classics and Universal Horror glory from the famed Stage 28, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Phantom of the Opera to Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. Guest speakers include Carla Laemmle, Bela Lugosi Jr, and Sara Karloff alongside newsreels celebrating The Bride of Frankenstein despite Depression era censorship. The narration moves fast, however – packing in a one and a half speed sentence before the highlights chronologically discuss Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, James Whale, and the continued provocative power, nightmare inducing effectiveness, and good versus evil morality plays of these really nice guys creating monster men. Further success in The Old Dark House and The Black Cat would typecast these favorites amid 1939 Hollywood heights and wartime escapism scares, and MGM competition from Fu Man Chu and Mark of the Vampire, Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Peter Lorre in Mad Love add more than just Universal to the conversation. Brief side chats also mention the growth of horror makeups and effects, SF horrors, Island of Lost Souls, and RKO's King Kong before The Mummy's Hand and The Wolf Man degrade into the more juvenile fluff mash ups such House of Frankenstein and Abott and Costello meet Frankenstein. At times, this seems somewhat unofficial, with Monster Rally panel interviews, repeated trailers, and an uneven focus – some topics are fleeting, others ramble and stray from the comment at hand. Lesser sequels are skipped entirely, and this leg ends on an abrupt down note, unable to stand on its own and forcing viewers to continue with Monster Madness: Mutants, Space Invaders, and Drive Ins. While mostly superficial with nothing new for longtime horror fans, fun anecdotes keep this informative and atmospheric for newer genre audiences.
Monster Madness: The Gothic Revival of Horror – This eighty-two minutes continues recounting the horror history with Hammer Films' early struggles and suspense pictures before edgy SF fare like The Quatermass Experiment and the Technicolor Hammer Horror renaissance with Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. Tossing in Elvis, however, alongside the state of fifties cinema and hammy television horrors meanders, delaying more interesting talk on Christopher Lee's larger than life monster stature and the beloved Peter Cushing as the villainous Dr. Frankenstein. Rambling archive footage with Lee, Jimmy Sangster, Freddie Francis, Ingrid Pitt, and Oliver Reed is also difficult to discern at times while the chronology sputters over The Hound of Baskervilles, The Mummy, and Hammer's increasingly ambitious set design, colorful gore, and saucy skin. Standalone thrillers including Paranoiac, Scream of Fear, and Curse of the Werewolf are discussed alongside the varying success of sequels such as The Revenge of Frankenstein, the polarizing Evil of Frankenstein, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. Other hits like Psycho, Amicus productions such as The Skull and The Creeping Flesh, and anthologies including Dr. Terror's House of Horrors are name dropped, but this session unfortunately wastes more time missing famous horror classics such as The Innocents and The Haunting – and Vincent Price is never even mentioned! Censorship battles and raunchy from The Vampire Lovers or Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde don't hide the lagging mood, and this ostensible presentation ends on The Satanic Rites of Dracula without discussing further Amicus and AIP productions or even more Hammer gems such as Frankenstein Created Woman and Countess Dracula. These Monster Madness documentaries need to go together, yet the series should have been either exhaustive two hour slots or a half hour series with tighter focus per topic. Despite a sentimental and flawed presentation, this video has enough serviceable nostalgia for Hammer lovers and tip of the iceberg information for budding horror fans.
Witches: A Century of Murder – Historian Suzannah Lipscomb hosts this two-part 2015 special chronicling the seventeenth century persecutions and torture run rampant as witchcraft hysteria spread from James I in the late fifteen hundreds through Charles I and the English Civil War. 1589 Europe has burn at the stake fever thanks to the Malleus Maleficarum belief that witches were in league with the devil, and contemporaneous sources, books, and confessions help recount violent techniques and sexual aspects that may not be classroom friendly. Innocent birthmarks or moles on maids and midwives were used and misconstrued until naming names and pointing fingers snowballed into deplorable jail conditions, hangings, and conspiracy. Postulating on why the innocent would confess is addressed alongside the details from the North Berwick Witch Trials – including garroting and even the smell of burning human fat. James I's own Daemonologie becomes a license to hunt witches as the 1645 then-normal rationale that witches have sex with the devil escalates to extreme Puritan paranoia. Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins takes the law into his own hands via body searches, sleep deprivation, and agonizing deaths while unknown medicinal ills or causes were conveniently mistaken as evidence for witchcraft accusations. Names and faces are put to the exorbitant number of accused while on location scenery from Scotland to Oxford, Essex, and Denmark add to the prison tours and suspenseful trial re-enactments. Here specific facts and detailed information happen early and often rather than any hollow paranormal herky jerky in your face design. Community fears, social cleansing frenzy, and things done in the name of good and God against evil and the Devil at work accent the timeline of how and why this prosecution became persecution run amok. Instead of broad, repetitive sensationalism or the same old Salem talk, this is a mature and well presented narrative on the erroneous impetus of the witchcraft hysteria.
The Haunting of Fox Hollow Farm – This sixty-four minute documentary from 2011 opens with a disclaimer on the interviewee testimonies before more inserts explaining the history of the titular Indiana farm and the subsequent paranormal investigation. Archive footage and news reports add drownings and skeletal evidence to the murderous past, lending a bit of authenticity to this obviously low budget and on the fly production pretending to be a paranormal reality show with green night filming and shadowed talking heads. Jerky skeptical men dismiss the fanatical women and numerous psychics, mediums, demonologists, and shamans while rambling, repetitive visuals, graphics, camera pans, and editing cuts make audiences wonder what the heck is happening here. I feel like this never expressly states that it is about heinous serial killer crimes and their subsequent hauntings thanks to double talk on both, and it takes over fifteen meandering minutes before getting into the case details. Instead of actually seeing the investigative action, narrated montages and music video slide shows feign something fantastic but really just waste time on the same minutiae, treading tires in an incoherent attempt to play at Unsolved Mysteries or imitate today's ad nauseam paranormal reality shows. I couldn't take this whole thing, the case has been covered elsewhere, and reading the Wikipedia page was better.