Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 6, 2020)
For a sibling to James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, we get another AMC series. To the surprise of no one, Eli Roth’s History of Horror takes a look at scary movies from over the decades.
A seven-part documentary series, History covers a mix of topics. All seven episodes appear in broadcast order on this Blu-ray set, and the synopses come from the AMC website. Host Eli Roth appears across each program.
Zombies: “Zombies are the monsters of the 21st century, and America's major contribution to horror. What set off zombie fever? All roads lead to George Romero, who made zombies a metaphor for social ills.”
“Zombies” features comments from filmmakers John Landis, Greg Nicotero, Rob Zombie, Ernest R. Dickerson, George Romero (archival), Edgar Wright, Quentin Tarantino, Stuart Gordon, Mick Garris, and Ryan Turek, writers Stephen King, Max Brooks, Diablo Cody, Victor LaValle, Joe Hill, Amanda Reyes and Bryan Fuller, podcast host Chris Hardwick, film scholars Tananarive Due, Jason Middleton and Chris Dumas, former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, special makeup effects artist Tom Savini, critic Leonard Maltin, and actors Jack Black, Norman Reedus, Elijah Wood, Lil Rel Howery and Josh Hartnett.
Slashers Part 1: “Slasher films killed in the '80s, but their violence, perceived misogyny, and endless sequels almost ended the genre. ‘Part 1’ focuses on how supernatural killers like Chucky and Freddy saved them from extinction.”
This episode features Zombie, King, Tarantino, Maltin, Turek, Wright, Howery, Garris, Hill, Landis, Wood, Nicotero, Middleton, Black, Reyes, Savini, Fuller, Timpone, Moorman, filmmakers Jen Soska, Tom McLoughlin, Tom Holland, Karyn Kusama, Tobe Hooper (archival), Sean S. Cunningham, Steve Miner, and Leigh Whannell, author Kier-La Janisse, screenwriter Scott Kosar, film scholars David J. Skal and Jen Moorman, editors Bob Murawski and Bill Neil, director of photography Dean Cundey, composers Harry Manfredini and Christopher Young, and actors Jamie Lee Curtis, Bruce Campbell, Sara Paxton, Kane Hodder, and Marcus Henderson.
Slashers, Part 2: “Slashers got sophisticated in the '90s, evolving from Freddy Kreuger to Candyman to the terrifying Hannibal Lecter. The 2000s brought ‘torture porn’, a response to post-9/11 panic.”
For this show, we hear from Tarantino, Neil, Nicotero, Zombie, Reyes, Hill, Wood, Due, Cody, LaValle, Whanell, Turek, Fuller, Garris, Dickerson, Brooks, Middleton, Soska, Timpone, filmmakers Wes Craven (archival), Jordan Peele, and Sylvia Soska, screenwriter Kevin Williamson, composer Howard Shore, author Aaron Michael Kerner, and actors Heather Langenkamp, Lin Shaye, Robert Englund, Tony Todd, Skeet Ulrich, David Arquette, Tobin Bell, and Rutina Wesley.
The Demons Inside: “The fear that demons will enter our bodies and make us do terrible things has inspired some of the most frightening films ever made. ‘Inside’ discusses masterpieces such as Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist.”
During this episode, we locate info from Peele, Timpone, Whannell, Cody, Fuller, Campbell, Tarantino, Black, Reyes, Garris, Skal, Middleton, Curtis, Paxton, Wood, Kusama, Nicotero, Zombie, Fuller, Murawski, Janisse, McLoughlin, Dumas, Due, Howery, filmmakers Joe Dante, Alex Winter, Oren Peli, Richard Donner and Mary Harron, Rector Rev. Canon Ian Elliott Davies, producer Jason Blum, musician Slash, film scholar Ben Raphael Sher, and actor Linda Blair.
Killer Creatures: “Monsters hold a special place in the history of horror. ‘Creatures’ weighs in on the killer predators in nature, the nightmare creatures of the fantastic, and the monsters inside us, waiting to escape.”
In this piece, we find material with Landis, King, Nicotero, Henderson, Garris, Zombie, Turek, Cody, Middleton, Arquette, Dante, LaValle, Timpone, Dumas, Harron, Dickerson, Wood, Maltin, Slash, Hill, Wright, Whannell, Skal, filmmakers Michael Dougherty, Barbara Muschietti, Andy Muschietti, and Catherine Hardwicke, author Steve Niles, and actors Tippi Hedren, Dee Walllace, and Doug Jones.
Vampires: “Modern vampires come in many guises, but they all address our fascination with sex and death. From the ghastly Count Orlok to the glam vampires of True Blood, this episode takes a look at why thirsty fiends are endlessly appealing.”
For this show, we locate notes from Landis, King, Tarantino, Winter, Moorman, Harron, Skal, Nicotero, Zombie, Maltin, Hartnett, Dougherty, Black, Wesley, Timpone, Turek. Hill, Fuller, Hardwicke, Moorman, Niles, Fuller, filmmaker Joel Schumacher, film historian John Edgar Browning, authors Stephenie Meyer (archival) and Anne Rice (archival), and actors Candice King, Lina Leandersson and Kristin Bauer Van Straten.
Ghost Stories: “Ghost movies have been with us since the dawn of cinema. Some ghosts are benevolent, some ghosts are malicious, but they all represent the mystery of what happens to us after we die. ‘Stories’ breaks down the appeal of spooky spirits.”
The final chapter features Landis, King, Black, Wood, Shaye, Henderson, Hill, Timpone, Andy Muschietti, Wright, Zombie, Nicotero, Dickerson, Skal, Garris, Whannell, Blum, Winter, Young, Sher, Dougherty, Jones, King, filmmakers Ana Lily Amirpour and Andrew Douglas, composer Joseph Bishara, cinematographer Peter Deming, and actors Haley Joel Osment, Jordan Ladd, Martin Casella, and Craig T. Nelson.
History of Horror and Story of Science Fiction bear so many similarities that I felt tempted to simply cut and paste my review of the latter. For all intents and purposes, both come with the same strengths and weaknesses.
Though I admit the biggest relative positive of Story becomes less of one here. One major draw for Story came from the fact it occasionally paired one legendary director – James Cameron – in direct conversation with other noteworthy filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott.
History echoes this theme, as Roth occasionally chats with Nicotero and Zombie as a pair. He also does solo conversations with King, Tarantino, Peele and Slash.
No offense to those folks, but they don’t offer a sufficient substitute for the directors found in Story. King and Tarantino are the only two who offer the kind of star power we saw during the prior series, and to be honest, Roth provides a weak substitute for Cameron.
That doesn’t act as a judgment on Roth’s talents. Sure, I firmly feel he pales in comparison with the great Cameron, but my comments reflect Roth’s lack of popular credibility compared to Cameron.
Even if I ignore my view that the one-on-one interviews of History don’t bring the same name value as those in Story, this series becomes a disappointment, and for exactly the same reasons I thought its sibling felt lackluster. To a large degree, History often feels more like a compilation of movie clips than a serious examination of its subject matter.
Not that we don’t get some decent insights, as History manages occasional useful thoughts. We certainly get a pretty good roster of participants, and they ensure the shows remain reasonably entertaining.
However, History rushes through so many films that it fails to get into any with real clarity. We find general observations and little more, which means we wind up with a “greatest hits” reel much of the time.
History also tends to seem disjointed, mainly because it runs through the subgenres in a way that doesn’t feel especially logical. For instance, the “Slasher” episode opens with 1978’s Halloween, bops back to 1960’s Psycho and then flies ahead to 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Call me an old stick in the mud, but I’d prefer a purely chronological affair. I think the episodes would fare better if they let us trace the evolution of the sub-genres and didn’t find ourselves stuck with seemingly random shifts from one flick to another.
Speaking of “Slasher”, it seems odd that it lumps 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street into Part 2, an episode about the 90s/00s. Strangely, it covers 1988’s Child’s Play in Part 1 before it zips back to 1984 for Part 2.
This means it presents the first Nightmare as part of a genre rebirth… for a genre it told us didn’t fade until the end of the 1980s. How does this make any sense?
Even without this kind of inconsistency, History of Horror remains no better than mediocre. The series simply blazes through too many movies in too little time. A much longer version of this documentary could become valuable, but the actual product feels moderately enjoyable and not much more.
Odd footnote: although History censors profanity, the movies’ graphic violence remains untouched. I get that the series ran on the freer territory of cable, but it still seems weird that AMC permits blood and guts but not swear words.