Eli Roth’s History of Horror

Perhaps one of the earliest forms of fantastic literature and certainly one of the most enduring, adapting itself to new formats of storytelling across theatre, cinema, television, graphic novels, games and podcasts, like the varied creatures, killers, monsters, spirits and demonic forces it depicts, horror it seems will never die, endlessly reinventing itself and being reborn from the grave over and over again.

Following from the screenwriter, producer and director James Cameron’s six part Story of Science Fiction, AMC have now turned to the similarly multi-tasking Eli Roth of Hostel and The Green Inferno to present his History of Horror across seven episodes, entitled Zombies, Slashers parts one and two, the extended coverage perhaps indicating Roth’s personal preferences, The Demons Inside, Killer Creatures, Vampires and Ghost Stories.

As indicated by the titles, each week covers a different sub-genre within a subject so huge and culturally ubiquitous, not to mention diverse, that to attempt a more chronological approach of telling the history would be hopelessly obscure and complicated in its cross-references as it moved from antiquity to modern times; instead, each week offers a selection of classic and recent titles for examination by Roth and his broad variety of guests.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, while it is only in the past two decades that Zombies have become a dominant, if not overwhelming, presence in the horror landscape, from the same network who produce the ongoing smash hit of household horror The Walking Dead it is perhaps understandable that they would wish to promote their own production as soon as possible.

“They are the monster of the twenty first century,” suggests An American Werewolf in London director John Landis, and the current popularity of the phenomenon cannot be denied, but despite acting as a showcase for The Walking Dead it is the films of the late George A Romero which shaped the genre, Stephen King recalling his first viewing of Night of the Living Dead at a Saturday matinee: “You’re not prepared for what you’re looking at.”

Roth gleefully considering the “horror, satire and outrageous special effects” of “the first full-scale zombie apocalypse” in Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller concurs on the importance of the sequence which critiqued the race and class system in America, consumerism and the military, while Vietnam combat photographer turned makeup effects specialist Tom Savini offers memories from the set.

Roth’s studio guests Greg Nicotero and Rob Zombie present every week, the double bill of Slashers opens with Zombie observing “that’s when the killer became the star” before a more technical analysis of Psycho and Halloween, the shooting style, the editing decisions and the score of Hermann and Carpenter, emphasising that despite popular conceit that horror is throwaway trash it can on occasion be a carefully crafted artform.

The first segment also covering The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre and the Friday the 13th series, the second considers A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream as well as the “torture porn” of Saw and Hostel, Roth explaining how his own work reflected the post 9/11 world of “white American men out in the world, being victims,” while Fuller describes The Silence of the Lambs as “a perfect film.”

Touching briefly on the controversy surrounding on horror as a genre and its effect on audiences, potentially impressionable, there is insufficient given to the important subject covered more comprehensively in the feature documentary Video Nasties: Draconian Days, a missed opportunity as this would be the perfect vehicle for these influential creators to present their own informed views on the topic.

Focusing on some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed horror films of all time, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen, while it is appreciated that The Demon Inside acknowledges the early Danish film Häxan, one of the few non-American or monochrome features discussed, ignoring The Devil Rides Out is a significant oversight, particularly when the Paranormal Activity sequence is given considerably more attention than warranted.

The emphasis remaining on American cinema of the colour era in Killer Creatures, Joe Dante is his customary gregarious self discussing Gremlins while Dee Wallace recalls the tough conditions on the film of which she is most proud, Cujo, and Roth describes The Thing as “the Holy Grail of horror movies,” The Shape of Water‘s Doug Jones reflecting the other side of the equation by stating “horror movies give voices to the voiceless.”

Only surpassed by zombies in recent years, Vampires at last brings the Univeral and Hammer to the party with Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee as Dracula, alongside Gary Oldman and the often-overlooked Frank Langella before linking F W Murnau’s Nosferatu with Mr Barlow from Tobe Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot and discussing the importance of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and its adaptation by Neil Jordan.

One of the strongest episodes, featuring classic after classic, all of which have something to say about the time they were made, Alex Winter recalls making The Lost Boys, “the best teen vampire movie… that’s ever been made,” one of many vampire films made during the AIDS epidemic of the eighties, while True Blood‘s Kristin Bauer states “to be the top of the food chain was so refreshing.”

One of the few episodes to feature a non-English film, the original Swedish version of Låt den rätte komma in, Fuller considering how “a monster comes to the rescue when humanity fails,” with Ghost Stories prevalent in every culture the final episode touches on the wave of ghost influenced Japanese horror but only those which were remade by America, Ring, The Grudge, Pulse and Dark Water.

With much of the focus on Poltergeist and the undeserving Insidious and Crimson Peak, fortunately attention is also given to the genuine classics of The Shining, Stephen King given the chance to air his valid criticism of Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation, The Haunting (“the ultimate horror movie” according to Winter) and The Changeling (“It’s not as famous as Poltergeist or The Shining but it deserves to be,” says Roth).

Horror cinema a particularly visual genre, even excerpts can express the achievement of these works, stirring memories and evoking strong and immediate responses, particularly in the case of the major works discussed, but there is no attempt to create a throughline or a summation and despite the enthusiasm and insight of Roth and his many contributors this History of Horror too often presents inferior examples for commercial reasons rather than offering a more critical appraisal of their merit when superior but perhaps less known works are ignored completely.

Eli Roth’s History of Horror broadcasts on Wednesdays on AMC from 14th November