A Macabre Documentary or Two
By Kristin Battestella
Looking for some non-fiction programming to spice up this festive, macabre season? Here’s a round up of informative and spooky documentaries, biographies, and shows for demented minds young and old!
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!
Flesh and Blood: Hammer Heritage of Horror – It took forever for this elusive 1994 documentary to arrive from Netflix! Nonetheless, this hour and forty minutes narrated by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is chock full of great photos, retro posters, archive footage, and film trailers illustrating the behind the scenes stories and production highs and lows of the famed Hammer Film Studios. Lovely reflections by Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds help recount the earliest Hammer films- from struggles in the thirties and World War II to The Quatermass Xperiment and budding science fiction success. Interviewees such as Hazel Court, Freddie Francis, Ingrid Pitt, Caroline Munroe, Joe Dante, Rachel Welch, and our dear narrators seemingly touch upon nearly every Hammer picture- the Frankenstein series, assorted gothic monsters, the Dracula disagreements, blood, bosoms, and the studio’s eventual seventies downfall. Understandably, some of the footage is lower in quality, the sound remixing is tough, and there’s an obviously dry, British style to the presentation. This documentary also shouldn’t be confused with The Horror of Hammer trailer compilation companion or several other similarly themed documentaries. However, this treat is essential for die-hard Hammer fans, horror enthusiasts, and film historians.
His Name Was Jason – Everything you’d ever want to know about the Friday the 13th series, with clips from all the films and extensive behind the scenes interviews with every one who was ever involved with Jason-plus his or her grandma!
In Search of Dracula – Christopher Lee hosts this old school look at the history of Dracula and vampire lore. Young folks might not like the old styles and footage, but vintage vampire fans will delight. You don’t catch classics like this on television anymore!
Karloff: The Gentle Monster – This 2006 38 minute documentary is not the hour long Biography episode of the same name but rather a lovely little retrospective found on the Frankenstein blu-ray releases. Although the beginning briefly mentions Karloff’s pre-Universal film appearances, the focus here is with the subtle, silent sympathy of Karloff’s monstrous characters and his long lasting horror appeal. From Frankenstein to later stage work beyond horror such as Arsenic and Old Lace, film scholars and historians discuss early comparisons to Lon Chaney, difficulties with horror make up’s infancy, and more scary film glory with classics such as The Mummy and The Black Cat. Attention is given to Karloff’s quiet success as a character actor thanks to his physicality and ability to be both frightening and sensual at the same time along with his spooky television series and his tireless work across mediums and generations. This is the voice of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, people! It’s also interesting to see movie buffs theorizing on the over reaching and decreasing quality of the studio’s Frankenstein series, beating it into the ground as the franchises, sequels, and remakes do today. Boris fans and horror lovers can eat up the clips and nostalgia here, for sure.
Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask – Rare, unseen silent film footage, vintage photos and clips, charming family home movies, and archive interviews with co-stars and crew anchor this 76 minute 1995 documentary illuminating the Man of a Thousand Faces. From early bit parts to his iconic horror heights, the pain, emotion, and melodramatic catharsis of his tragic portrayals is examined against Chaney’s stanch need for privacy amid the fame orchestrated Hollywood system. Collaborations with director Tod Browning are highlighted, and quotes on the craft from the man himself are smartly reiterated – wisdoms on how to utilize makeup or character flaws to accentuate the performance and create redemption in villainous roles. Of course, the presentation focuses on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera but ends somewhat suddenly with Chaney’s death rather than any retrospective summation or legacy. Fortunately, there are lots of behind the scenes snippets, photographs, and factoids, for it’s really quite sad to realize how much of Chaney’s work is gone – over 30% of his films have vanished. 56 lost pictures – that’s more movies than some people today make in their entire lifetimes! The dated nineties design, uneven editing, jumping back and forth timeline, and a very dry narration don’t quite hit home here. However, this informative presentation remains classroom ready and will delight new film enthusiasts, longtime Chaney fans, and horror historians.
Lugosi: The Dark Prince – Like Karloff, Bela Lugosi’s early life and acting career before Dracula go unnoticed in this 36 minute documentary accompanying the 1931 Dracula blu-ray video. Interviews with genre directors Joe Dante, Jimmy Sangster, and other film scholars and authors instead spend the majority of time here on Lugosi’s quintessential appearance in the budding horror cinema and discuss how his phonetic learning of lines accentuated his hypnotic, handsome, somewhat scandalous and always sensual acting style. This masterful paranormal charisma of course unfortunately typecast him, but clips and analysis on Murders in the Rue Morgue, White Zombie, Son of Frankenstein, and The Raven will be a treat for those interested in the irony of Lugosi’s long lasting iconography but relatively short-lived success and underatedness as an actor. Even if the talk isn’t about the man’s personal life per se, there are great insights into the craft here, making for a lovely little bittersweet study on the quick rise and fall of a horror icon.
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.
Tales from the Crypt: Comics to Television – Very insightful special about the ups and downs of the naughty in naughty comic books and how the guts and glory survived in serial television. Maybe not for mainstream fans, but horror and comic enthusiasts will love this.