Editor’s Note: I am posting this having just arrived home from St. Lucia and wrote most of this with my laptop awkwardly balanced in airport and a car so please forgive the fact that this is probably shorter and less well researched but honestly I don’t care because I’m still feeling good.
10/25/2017 – Documentary: Universal Horror (1998)
Directed by Kevin Brownlow
Since I spent most of today travelling, I figured I’d go for an easy topic (and a simple film to write up) that I’ve had in mind for a while, if not necessarily the kind of example I was looking for. There’s two real types of horror documentaries. There is the kind that I went with today which is that which documents a subject of horror. Then there’s the most horrifying thing of all, reality.
In the former category you have films such as The Shining conspiracy laden Room 237, the fantastic Freddy doc Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Story which was better than any individual film in the series, a pair for his slasher competitor in His Name Was Jason and the far more extensive Crystal Lake Memories, the Troll 2 doc Best Worst Movie, the quite entertaining Ozploitation chronicle Not Quite Hollywood, the overall look and great horror doc Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, and slasher doc Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film.
More than anything, these documentaries seek to ascribe value to works that have been long derided as trash or not quite art. Horror frequently yearns for respectability, for the mainstream critical and commercial appeals of The Exorcist, Silence of the Lambs, Seven where the genre of horror is used to promote, but the filmmakers seem eager to distance themselves from the genre. You would hear them say things like “It’s not really a horror film” or “It’s really a [insert other type of story here” (which considering why Guillermo del Toro repeated this ad nauseum, sometimes it really is useful for managing expectations) as if it is impossible to make something a real film that is horror. But it’s not just the slow and beautiful indie horror films that have value and say things, even the cheapest and the more cynically produced can be important historical artifacts.
The latter category is far harder to define. In fact, it’s an association you will rarely see despite the genres many similarities. Both are generally low budget and frequently entry points for first time filmmakers. Documentaries also are frequently created to exploit our fears or to generate new ones. What is An Inconvenient Truth if not a glimpse into the horrors that await us in the future. There are also films which more traditionally depict a descent into horror, usually in an investigative capacity such as Cropsey, Capturing the Friedmans, or the fantastic and depressing Dear Zachary where the film adaptation of these works would almost certainly be classified as a horror film.
There’s also the countless lame ghost chasing and haunting shows (which are occasionally then made into movies like A Haunting in Connecticut) but they are about as real and scripted as any other fictional work. It’s the works that are chilling because you know they are real, that stick with you the way good horror should. Films like The Impostor about a con artist insinuating himself into a family as their long-lost son, The Nightmare about sleep paralysis (which as, someone who has experienced it twice is the single most terrifying thing I have even been through), and The Act of Killing and the real life massacres at the heart of it stick in the minds of audiences, haunting them the way a great horror film does.
Universal Horror is well, exactly what it says on the tin. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh (chosen presumably for being the director of the little loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). It is a relatively in-depth discussion of the birth of horror at the studio and features interviews with some of the remaining living people (or relatives of those) involved in its production (well back in 1998) as well as a few fans of the genre (such as Ray Bradbury). I would have liked to have seen more of the post-first wave (admittedly where most of the classics were born). It’s interesting enough and a good primer on the era, but it adds little to the conversation. Too much time is spent on recounting the plot and famous scene and the focus is almost entirely on the big-name films. It’s a glorified DVD extra that looks like it was filmed a decade prior to when it was and hagiographic but that’s not to say it doesn’t have value. It’s films like this that remind us why these films hold up so well and it’s a nice enjoyable watch.
Bonus Episode #B-1 – Psychological: The Turn of the Screw (1898)
Written by Henry James
Time for another book review, or rather novella review. The story has been adapted as a ballet, a play (by Harold Pinter), numerous film adaptations including the absolute classic The Innocents, the prequel The Nightcomers, and the heavily influenced The Others, as well as numerous TV adaptations (including on Star Trek: Voyager) and book reworkings. As for the novella itself, well I hated it. Okay hate is maybe a strong word but I found the style basically impenetrable and the story which in summary is interesting and the ambiguity compelling is tedious to get through.
The novella details a governess tasked with taking care of two children. The children seem wonderful but the boy has been expelled from his school and they also seem to be the only two capable of seeing the ghosts which the governess starts seeing. The mysterious ghosts appear to be that of two former workers on the estate who had a romantic relationship, and there’s quite a bit of sexual tension between the governess and the man. The interactions with the ghosts and beliefs in seeing them gets her driven out of the job and the story ends with her shielding the boy from seeing the ghosts only to find he has died in her hands.
I really wanted to like the story a lot more than I did but the James does not make things easy on the read. I nearly quit during the intro which saw the narrator continually interrupted as he got ready to tell the story at the center of it which takes the form of a firsthand account by the (now dead) governess. The purple prose is overwhelming and while I could absolutely see the main character and her pretty romantic view on things writing it (which doesn’t excuse the purple prose of the intro), it doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. Realistically bad writing is still bad writing.
Next up: No clue, but now I have no excuse for lackluster content besides being really tired.