Creature features, supernatural haunts, slashers, and foreign-language movies: Everyone’s got a favorite. The following 7 documentaries take a look at the inspirations and true accounts of well-known and lesser-known titles in the horror genre. Notable names make appearances, lending their voices to why they were drawn to horror and why their projects left a dark, lasting effect on the psyche of moviegoers. From John Carpenter and George A. Romero to Tony Todd and Betsy Palmer, there are many recognizable faces. Historians and scholars slip in their knowledge, as the past, present, and future all form the many paths horror can take at any given time.
Scary movies can entertain, with a bag of popcorn and a jolt of shock. They can also be fuel for the young and old into experiencing their worst kinds of nightmares. What if a masked killer targeted your friend group? How fast could you run when there’s a sprinting zombie? Just how terrifying was it to live during the Reagan administration? With so many movies out there, it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s so much history attached to them too. Sometimes life imitates art and other times, art imitates life.
Birth of the Living Dead (2013)
The late cinematic horror titan George Romero made many spectacular films over the course of his career. However, it is perhaps his first feature Night of the Living Dead that remains one of the most significant contributions to the form. Not only did it launch his own career, but it helped to give birth to the zombie genre. It was a scrappy and sensational work that still holds up all these decades later. The documentary Birth of the Living Dead explores how the film itself came to be and its lasting legacy. Featuring interviews with Romero himself as well filmmakers, authors, and critics, it is a fascinating film that delves into the history of one of the foundational zombie movies. It looks into not just the background of the production but also into that of the era that inspired Romero to go out to make the film. There are moments where it could have been a little more detailed, but there is still plenty to appreciate even if it is a bit familiar to those who have seen the film. -Chase Hutchinson
Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)
There are few films that have blended science fiction and horror to such magnificent effect. Not only is Ridley Scott’s Alien one such work, but it has endured as one of the best films of all time. Exploring the terror of what would happen if an unknown being infiltrated a vessel traveling through the cold darkness of space, it remains an incredibly striking and inventive work that carved out a place as a must-see for any fan of the genre. The documentary, Memory: The Origins of Alien, delves into all the details of the production and its inspiration in magnificent fashion. Not only does it offer a fascinating behind the scenes look at the film, but it also proves to be a bold work of filmmaking in its own right. Most refreshingly, it isn’t afraid to make the case for how the film was such a dynamic work because of more than just the names we all know. It makes for a tribute to the whole crew and how they drew from a variety of influences from H.P. Lovecraft to Francis Bacon to make something that will stand the test of its time long after all of us are gone. -Chase Hutchinson
Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film (2009)
Each decade seems to produce unique interpretations of American society’s anxieties. The giant ants of Them! (1954) came from the fears of radiation; The Stuff (1985) attacked consumerism. The War on Terror pushed xenophobia and torture porn onto the horror platter with Hostel (2005). Social issues affecting the United States are made more feasible and easier to digest by making monsters out of them. The deep voice of Lance Henriksen narrates, carrying this doc forward, as it passes through the 20th century and into the early 2000s. Filmmakers share their own reflections. Director Larry Cohen’s favorite moment from Phantom of the Opera (1925) is of Lon Chaney’s Phantom and his final act of power. He throws up his hand, scaring a mob before he reveals nothing is even in his grasp. John Carpenter’s view on how people react when things go to hell around them is that he never sees people doing the right thing. Perhaps this is why The Thing ends the way it does.
Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019)
Black representation in the horror genre is the focus of this documentary. Among critiques of classics, it might even introduce new movies (try Ganja & Hess, an experimental vampire-like movie starring Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones). Tananarive Due, an author and film historian, offers her knowledge and passions throughout. Rachel True (The Craft) mentions the racism her character faced, who internalized it so badly she didn’t even realize it was the source of her bullying. The Black characters shifted from monsters to sidekicks and victims, to eventual well-developed protagonists. But progress is still needed, even if Get Out stirred up a different course. Alfre Woodard in Annabelle dives to her death, bringing to mind the stereotype of the Black character sacrificing themselves for a white person.
Then there are the stories from behind the scenes. Blacula was made out of love by director William Crain. He remembers the pushback he received from American International Pictures, which trickled down into the actual technical side. For one scary sequence, he wanted to use a high-speed camera for slow-motion, and he got no clear answer for a week. It wasn’t until the morning of the shoot he was allowed access. He also had an all-white crew, leading to issues when he wanted to mix the Black and white couples during a dance scene. To resolve the pushback he got, the “issue” went all the way to the studio head of AIP.
Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)
At 90-minutes long, like the slasher movies it discusses, this is a breezy watch. It looks at the rapid output of the slasher boom in the 1980s. The many, many films belonging to this decade were creative, made for profit, or sometimes both! Director Amy Holden Jones (Slumber Party Massacre) strolls through a sunny graveyard as she talks about the genre. Actress Betsy Palmer (Friday the 13th) recalls her initial shock at what her little Jason would end up looking like. Director Paul Lynch gives credit to Jamie Lee Curtis for the success of Prom Night. Big franchises boomed; single installments shot out with rapid-fire. Blood and guts got all up in the audiences’ faces.
Soon after a few successful outings, a template was set: A series of killings would begin, committed by a mysterious killer who usually targeted teens. Maybe there’s a mask involved, maybe the killer lets out some quips or is entirely silent. The documentary also looks at the inevitable decline of the slasher, after such a massive surplus. The ‘90s then revitalized horror with The Silence of the Lambs and Scream. Big names got their early acting credits in these pulpy stories: Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter can be seen in The Burning, with Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.
Room 237 (2012)
Almost as enigmatic as The Shining itself is this attempt at piecing together the 1980 Stanley Kubrick puzzle. Nine segments on different elements and conspiracies are presented, such as The Shining being Kubrick’s confession of having filmed the 1969 moon landing. All of these theories, however well-argued, are still interpretations. Rodney Ascher, who directed the sleep paralysis doc The Nightmare (2015), knows how to make things uneasy. To nail an unsettling atmosphere, he includes clips of Eyes Wide Shut, frequently used to help visualize what is being said. The near-unblinking Tom Cruise is very close to being uncanny.
An early European poster for The Shining had the tagline, “The wave of terror that swept across America.” Sure, it could mean Stephen King’s novel or the movie itself. But what if it went deeper into American history? Journalist Bill Blakemore believes this, eyeing one specific visual that is in a frame. When Scatman Crothers uses the Shining to talk to Danny, Calumet cans are behind him. Blakemore started to realize how widespread the Native American imagery was, from the food pantry to the decoration on the Overlook’s walls: For him, Kubrick wanted to talk about the genocide of the Native Americans.
Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019)
Mark Patton’s starring role in Freddy’s Revenge would be a curse and then a blessing. Middle-aged in the present day, he returns to take control over the homophobia and issues of HIV that he’s struggled with since his time with Freddy. The movie is both a celebration of the renewed love queer horror fans have given to Freddy’s Revenge and allows Patton to reclaim the starring status from it that he had long ago rejected. And this is a very queer-laced movie. The leather S&M bar used in the film was in fact a real-life gay bar. Somehow, this was a fact director Jack Sholder didn’t even realize until the reunion in this documentary. Other times, the film even tries to figure out how a Final Boy can be handled, and how it is different from the much more known Final Girl. Directed with pathos by Roman Chimienti and Tyler Jensen, this is for Freddy fans. And yet it’s really all for Mark, offering up a bittersweet portrait of a young actor who had to deal with many real-life boogeymen that could make an encounter with Krueger a piece of cake.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2021)
Before Midsommar, folk horror could be seen in Children of the Corn and Pumpkinhead. Across the pond, The Wicker Man used British history associated with paganism. Directed by Kier-La Janisse, this is over three hours long, so there’s room to go global. British and American folk horror aren’t the only thing brought up. Lake Mungo and Kadaicha of Australia both used the country’s Aboriginal history as sources of horror. Themes on indigenous traditions and colonization extend to South America and elsewhere, with movies from those countries dived into. La Llorona from Guatemala deals with a dictator facing the wrath of his war crimes against the indigenous residents, taking inspiration from the old folklore of a colonizer leading to La Llorona’s demise. In Japan, there’s Noroi: The Curse, and Demon in Poland. But what exactly is defined as being part of the folk horror sub-genre? Scholar Maisha Wester helps simplify the matter, explaining the thought by asking if “the old ways were right.”
In Search of Darkness (2019)
At over four hours long, this is the ’80s horror retrospective that can be watched in increments to fully digest. Or, if one is feeling alert and ready, try to binge the whole thing in one sitting. Icons of the period are brought on as talking heads to discuss the various movies and monsters the decade gave life to. This is truly a love letter for fans, made by fans, directed by David A. Weiner who crowdfunded it on Kickstarter – it met its goal in two days. Never mess with the tenacity of the horror fandom.
Robbi Morgan (Friday the 13th) mentions how Tom Savini worked his magic, creating a fake throat of hers to be sliced. Heather Wixson, managing editor of Daily Dead, and Ryan Turek, VP of Development at Blumhouse Productions, are featured, plus many more in the industry. Of the actors, there’s Alex Winter (The Lost Boys), Doug Bradley (Hellraiser), and Caroline Williams (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part 2), to name a few. It takes horror lovers along a ride, year by year, throughout the 1980s. There is so much content, its four-and-a-half runtime isn’t enough to handle it all: There’s a second part, like any good scary movie.