Behind the Masks: Horror Documentaries

Today, we’re going to take a slight detour from our regularly scheduled programming, and step away from the in-universe appeal of horror films. Instead, we’re taking a step back behind the curtain, behind the scenes, and dedicating a bit of time to the cogs and pieces that make these films work so well, even after all this time. Today’s topic: Horror documentaries.

The general rule as far as these things go is that if something is at all popular, be it in the mainstream or with a cult following of some sort, then eventually, inevitably a documentary will follow. In today’s media landscape of YouTube content creators and Kickstarter campaigns, virtually every property you can think of likely has some kind of behind-the-scenes or fan-retrospective content to enjoy. Not all of it is good, and not all of it is deserved, frankly, but it’s out there, in the digital ether, for your viewing pleasure.

Horror has enjoyed both critical and commercial success since the literal dawn of cinema, and as you can imagine, has had quite a few documentarians take a stab at shining a spotlight on one aspect of the genre or another. Some of these films are short, snappy overviews of specific subgenres and flavors of horror, from the silent era to the grindhouse heyday of the 1970s. Others tackle specific fandoms and franchises. Some are brief, YouTube-friendly, bite-sized snippets of critical discussion and production history, while others are gargantuan, hours-long exposés on horror’s best and most beloved icons.

Here are just a few of my own personal recommendations, covering some of my favorite films and eras of filmmaking within the genre:

American Grindhouse

Some of my favorite film documentaries are less about specific films or filmmakers, and more about wider trends in the industry itself. I find the cultural impact of film to be absolutely fascinating, and horror is one that obviously holds particular interest with me. American Grindhouse isn’t, technically speaking, a horror documentary per se, but rather one that explores a lot of the background and wider cultural trends that go hand in hand with horror. The documentary explores the gritty, grimy, often-vilified history of exploitation, from the days of early cinema, through the 1970s ‘grindhouse’ era, and up to the modern age. It discusses censorship, decency, moral panic, and a great deal of other topics that apply to not only horror, but broadly speaking, to the entire filmic landscape as a whole. It also features a whole host of enlightening interview with filmmakers like Joe Dante and John Landis, who are mainstays within the genre. It’s a fun, informative look at the seedier side of movie-making, one that tells a truly captivating story about American puritanism, and the pioneering filmmakers who made it their singular goal in life to push back against it. If you like rebels, weirdos, and underdogs, this is a movie for you.

Memory: Origins of Alien

If I’ve said it before, I’ve said it a thousand times: Alien is the greatest film ever made. Objectively. No, I will not be taking arguments at this time. And finally, there’s a documentary that confirms to that particular bias of mine. Offering an in-depth, bird’s-eye view at the genesis of the sci-fi classic, Memory is concerned less with the technical aspects of the film, and more with its narrative and thematic inspirations. The ideas that went into the film, rather than the brick-and-mortar, physical elements that appear visually onscreen. It posits the thesis that a story is something not birthed from a singular mind, but from the collective consciousness of a wide-reaching group of creators and thinkers. It sound somewhat pretentious (and maybe it is, at times), but it’s a genuinely unique and almost spiritual look into all of the nebulous elements and ethereal bits of creative genius that Alien is the result of. Not a lot of this is new information if you’re as obsessed with the film as some people are (not pointing any fingers), but even if you’re a certified Alien expert (cough cough), there’s still a lot to love here. Plus, unlike a few of the other items on this list, it’s a snappy 90 minutes, so it’s something that you can comfortably view in one sitting. Preferably after watching Alien for the 500th time.

In Search of Darkness

Who doesn’t love the 80s? In Search of Darkness is a massive, two-part documentary that spans nearly 9 hours of epic, sweeping horror movie goodness. It’s perhaps one of the most wide-reaching, comprehensive documentaries I’ve ever seen, horror or otherwise, and features literally hundreds of interviews with actors, writers, directors, critics, and talking heads alike, all on the subject of the horror films of the 1980s. Taken year by year, the film examines all the classics, hits, and guilty pleasures that made the decade a veritable goldmine for horror content. From studio, sanitized slashers, to low-budget, gore-filled monster movies, In Search of Darkness covers all of the great films that you know and love from the era, and some you probably hate, too. It also takes detours into wider discussions of genre tropes, era politics, and all the other factors and themes that went into defining the time period’s horror styles and stereotypes. It’s such a complete discussion of the topic that it even managed to introduce me to a few films and filmmakers that I’d never even heard of before. And because it’s neatly divided into sections, you could easily tackle it chuck by chunk if the massive runtime rightfully intimidates you. It’s available to stream on Shudder, which is a fantastically curated horror streaming service (cheap, too). I highly recommend checking it out, even if it’s only for this documentary alone. It’s well worth your time.

Crystal Lake Memories/Never Sleep Again

I’m lumping these two together because they functionally do the exact same thing with two different franchises, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, respectively. Crystal Lake Memories and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy are perhaps two of the most impressive documentaries I’ve ever encountered on any topic. Made by fans, for fans, these two behemoths (both clocking in between 4 and 7 hours each) cover the entire history of these two iconic franchises, from inception to decline to eventual remake. They feature hundreds of interviews with the cast, crew, and critics responsible for bringing each respective series into the mainstream, and offer up a completely in-depth, refreshingly candid look into what makes Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger work so well (or not so well, from time to time) on the big screen. They’re funny, they’re informative, and they’re so clearly made with genuine and passion for these franchises that even if they aren’t your particular cup of tea, you’ll still likely find yourself fascinated with the culture around them. I also highly recommend the companion book to Crystal Lake Memories, which is perhaps the coolest (and most macabre) coffee-table book I’ll ever own.

30 Days in Hell

I’ve been very, very vocal about my dislike of Rob Zombie’s filmography. They’re sleazy, nasty, mean-spirited movies with terrible characters and even worse plots. That being said, I still find them fascinating on a technical level, and have a great deal of respect for Zombie himself and the cast of regulars he uses in the majority of his films, many of whom are horror icons in their own rights. And in fairness, out of his entire repertoire of modern-age grindhouse flicks, The Devil’s Rejects is probably the most unique and well-made of the bunch. It’s a pastiche of a lot of induvial influences and homages to films that I truly love, so it’s interesting to see what all went into the making of his most critically well-received cinematic experiment. 30 Days in Hell is a fun, surprisingly in-depth documentary following the entire production of Rejects, from script to screen, and features a wide range of behind-the-scenes looks at the sets, the effects, and all the other little physical details that went into the film. Plus, if you’re like me and found yourself hating the actors at a certain point because of their characters in the film, it shows just how delightful and friendly they all were once the cameras stopped rolling. So in a way, it actually made me appreciate Zombie and his work a little bit more, which is frankly a minor miracle.

Horror Noire

Another Shudder streaming exclusive (I’m not being paid by them, I swear), Horror Noire is probably the most topical and culturally-significant horror documentary around right now. Horror has never been known for it’s fair an equal treatment of minorities (there’s a reason that “the black guy dies first” has become a trope: Because it’s generally true), and as with most circles of filmmaking, black voices have never really had a chance to really shine through within the genre. Even most of what is often problematically labeled as “Urban Horror,” like Candyman or The People Under the Stairs, while featuring black protagonists, are helmed by white directors and writers. Horror Noire chronicles the history of black representation in horror, from the silent era all the way to contemporary examples like Get Out, and analyses both the on-screen thematic elements that defines black horror as well as the behind-the-scenes struggles by black filmmakers and actors to have themselves accurately represented in this allegedly all-inclusive genre. This is easily the most profound and moving entry on this list, proving that while cinema, horror or otherwise, has certainly come a long way since the early twentieth century, it still has a long, long way to go.

Honorable Mention: Dead Meat

This is basically just an excuse to plug one of my favorite YouTube channels: Dead Meat, run by James A. Janisse, is an incredibly entertaining little slice of the online horror community. Most famous for his “Kill Count” videos, where he analyzes famous horror films and tallies up all of the gruesome deaths contained within (basically Cliff Notes for horror movies), Dead Meat also features a lot of really great, in-depth content about the genre itself, including interviews with filmmakers and horror stars like Tony Todd and Heather Langenkamp, as well as a truly impressive and incredibly informative podcast that tackles wider trends and thematic topics that have popped up in horror throughout the decades. It also helps that James, as well as his fiancé Chelsea, who runs the podcast, are excellent hosts, and overall delightful human beings. It’s one of the few YouTube channels I’m actually subscribed to, and I eagerly await a new podcast from these guys every week. Definitely give them a look if you’re even moderately into horror if you want some manageable, bite-sized pieces of education on the subject from time to time.

Again, if it exists, there’s probably a documentary about it somewhere, and there are likely dozens of others that I could have mentioned here. Room 237 is another great choice if you’re especially obsessed with The Shining, for instance. If you have a film or a particular subgenre you love, look it up! Odds are, there’s something about it out there, especially if it has a cult following of any kind.

Hell, if Troll 2 can get a documentary made about it, anything can

Anyway, Happy Halloween!

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