STRANGER THAN FICTION
If you take a look at my Netflix queue, you will see a lot of horror on there. Dark fantasy, thriller, slasher films, a good third of it is taken up with various horror sub-genres. But another third is taken up by my other cinematic love: documentaries.
I am an admitted documentary junkie. Whether a human interest flick like Grey Gardens or something about the social structure of the naked mole rat, I cannot get enough. So I was thrilled to come across a documentary called UnConventional.
UnConventional was filmed at the 13th ChillerCon. While I haven’t been to that one, I have been to a huge number of horror conventions. The cover made it look like it would be an examination of the convention, how it came to be, and perhaps a look at its attendees. That, to me, would be fascinating. Instead, it watched like an hour and a half commercial for a freak show. Sure, you will get attendees at any con that are over-the-top obsessive, obnoxious, or socially inept. But if UnConventional is to be believed, every male at a horror convention lives in their parents’ basement, has no job, and has never seen a woman in person before. Every female is drunk, bisexual, and with an IQ smaller than their bra size. One telling moment is when they were profiling this man with Down Syndrome who has a tendency to grope female convention-goers. The narrator states, “This being a horror con, however, many of the females enjoy it.” As a female con-goer, I think I can honestly say that, no, no we do not enjoy it.
The reality of horror convention attendees is that we have jobs, families, and a healthy appreciation of the genre. Yet, UnConventional treats this normalcy as the exception. They pointed out a normal-looking couple as an example of an oddity of the con. Now and then, between clips of actress guest Tiffany Shepis (of Troma fame) getting drunk and flirting, they compare it to the ‘oddity’ of Gunnar Hanson (the Leatherface actor) doing things like taking a nap or having a submarine sandwich instead of a drink. That sounds more like the convention experiences I’ve had rather than performing drunken lesbian exhibitions for men’s amusement in the middle of the hotel bar. And that is what killed UnConventional for me. It presents a reality that is so different than my own personal experiences that I can’t sit back and accept it as true. And what it is that separates documentaries from fictional films is that level of truth.
However, I did pick up another horror-related documentary that I loved immensely. The American Nightmare traces ten years in American history, from 1969 to 1979, and six movies produced in that time, starting with Night of the Living Dead and ending with Halloween. If you’ve seen any DVD extras or other nonfiction pieces about horror movies, you’ve heard about how Romero’s Dead flicks are about conformity and consumerism. The American Nightmare touches on these topics, but goes even deeper, putting landmark flicks like Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre into context with the current events going on at the time, and the news events that helped inspire them. Then it goes even deeper, looking at things like the use of black and white in Living Dead to imitate news broadcasts, thus adding a level of reality, or the use of doors in Chainsaw to keep up the pacing and add to the feeling of there being no escape for the horror. One thing I find interesting is the inclusion of David Cronenberg’s Shivers in the list, considering this documentary traces American history and Cronenberg is very much a Canadian. However, they do show how it fits into the timeline of shifting American values and fears, so in context with the list it makes perfect sense. The only complaint I have is that, for a 70 minute documentary, they spend too much time talking about Romero’s symbolism, something I’ve heard many times before in various articles and other featurettes. Then again, as I’ve said before I am a documentary junkie and it’s entirely possible that a lot of this stuff is new to much of The American Nightmare’s audience.
(The link above leads to the first of a four part link for the complete The American Nightmare documentary, directed by Adam Simon)
The American Nightmare covers ten years in the US horror boon. Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! covers both the 70s and 80s when Australian genre filmmaking exploded. Social mores were loosening, and there was both money to be made and fun to be had in making quick genre flicks. While The American Nightmare explored a darker side of the US, Not Quite Hollywood is playful. The times were morally relaxed, and the movie censored followed public opinion. For the first time in Australian history, movies were free to explore the sexy and the scary. In the US, we act as if we have the trademark in independent, low-budget filmmaking. Compared to the Aussies, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez seem like James Cameron and Michael Bay. When a tiny werewolf was needed, they couldn’t afford puppetry, so the filmmakers put tiny costumes on mice. Stuntmen did things that would make Jackie Chan proud, and if they couldn’t afford stunt doubles, the actors had to quickly learn to ride horses or handle being swarmed with feral rats. Horror only comprises a third of Not Quite Hollywood, but in the age of the drive-in, horror went hand in hand with both action and nudies (the other two genres explored). And there certainly are enough horror movies profiled to fill its own film—fan favorites like Howling 3: The Marsupials, Razorback and Patrick are three, and countless others lesser-known to foreign audiences. I found myself making a checklist of weird, creepy flicks I’d never heard of but sure as Hell want to see now.
(WARNING: The above link if NOT WORK SAFE)
While watching these directors talk about rounding up their friends and various folks they knew to make a movie, you know there must be hundreds of others making their own backyard movies with less stellar results. American Movie follows Mark Borchardt, one of those filmmakers. For years, Mark works tirelessly to get his movie, Coven, made. It costs him relationships, family, and a good chunk of his sanity. In the beginning, he seems like a delusional slacker exploiting his elderly Uncle Bill to get funding for what looks to ultimately be a crappy movie. By the end, though, you see him as a loving, albeit extremely flawed, father to his four kids, as one of the only family members to show kindness to Uncle Bill. And even when the evidence is stacked so far against it, you do want him to succeed and produce a watchable film. The more the movie progresses, the more horror movie fans can relate to Mark. He loves the genre and wants to be a part of it. American Movie is also helped by the people in Mark’s life and the fact they are so fascinating to watch. Uncle Bill isn’t just a dotty old man, but a sarcastic, slightly morbid guy who enjoys his part in Mark’s dream. His best friend, Mike, appears at first as a burnout who replaced his drug and alcohol fix with lotto scratchers, but is really a thoughtful, loyal friend who serves as a strange stability to Mark’s dreaming. You may or may not end up liking Mark as a person, but I do think you will enjoy watching the ride he goes on in his desperate attempt to just get Coven finished.
Documentaries are a lot like nonfiction books in they got an undeserved bad rap. Many people think all documentaries are like the fruit fly movies they had to sit through in biology class. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction could ever be, or at least as interesting. Next time you’re looking for movies don’t be afraid to give the documentary section a try, because if done right, even a naked mole rat documentary can be fun.
WHERE TO FIND THESE MOVIES: All four are available to buy at Amazon or rent at Netflix.
SIDE NOTE: There are two movies I have to mention here, although they don’t quite fit with “Horror Documentaries”. One is Terror in the Aisles. Not as much a documentary as it is a collection of horror movie clips, this one covers a surprising array of frights, and can serve as a checklist of must-see movies pre-1984. Unfortunately, the last time this thing saw print was videotape, so your viewing options are finding a used VHS or scouring various online video sources (YouTube, etc). The second, The Red Chapel, (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1546653/) doesn’t have a US release date yet, but I was lucky to be able to see at the Dallas Film Festival. Two Danish comedians and a journalist sneak into North Korea under the guise of “cultural exchange” and come back with a rare glimpse of what life is really like behind the red curtain. If the opportunity arises, check this one out. Even though you laugh through most of it, The Red Chapel is more disturb