Best Lessons: Eli Roth’s History of Horror (Episodes 1-3)

Eli Roth’s History of Horror doesn’t quite provide the comprehensive overview that its title suggests, but the documentary series does offer fine analysis of landmark films within different horror subgenres, as well as compelling contextualization of such films in their cultural moment. The talking heads on the show make for a consistently fascinating listen. Gathered here are my selections of the best insights provided by the show’s various genre luminaries and film scholars.


Episode 1: Zombies

Stephen KingWe’re getting our chance to exercise our most anti-social emotions. You know, that mob impulse that’s like, “Yeah, kill them all and let God sort them out.”

Jason Middleton: We don’t want zombies to come and destroy all our friends and families and institutions, but on some level, maybe we do. Like, on some level it provides us a chance to dismantle everything and possibly start over.

Elijah Wood: What are humans like when faced with the end of humanity? What are they like when they’re faced with very few choices in regards to how to survive? That’s the horror of zombie movies. It’s the wrong impulses that come out of people that are far more terrifying than the walking dead.

Tananarive Due: Let’s say you’re a white viewer in the late 1960’s who has a few prejudices, say, and is a little bit worried that the world is ending because of all of the racial legislation of the 60’s–the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act–and here’s this zombie film [Night of the Living Deadwhere the dead are coming back to life and a black man is in charge. I will contend that that might have been as frightening to some viewers as the child eating her mother in the basement.

Edgar Wright: When we thought up Shaun of the Dead, one of the impulses for it was because there hadn’t been a zombie film for like fifteen years. We always had this theory that  […] John Landis’s video for [Michael Jackson’s] “Thriller” had sort of killed off zombies for the second half of the 80’s and the early 90’s.

Eli Roth: This [George Romero’s Dawn of the Deadwas the first depiction of a full-scale zombie apocalypse, a nightmare vision of social collapse that became the template for virtually every end of the world story we see today.

Leonard Maltin: 28 Days Later is a perfect horror movie because it’s based on a premise you can completely believe. I don’t know what it’s like to be bitten by a vampire. I don’t know what it’s like to be threatened by a werewolf. But I can imagine what it’s like to have a plague spread like wildfire because it’s just too close to the headlines of today’s news. It could happen.

Max Brooks: Zombies that are slow are infinitely more terrifying. It’s the difference between getting shot and getting cancer. You get killed by, say, a fast zombie in the World War Z movie or 28 Days Later, You’re dead before you know it. Happens too fast. But the slow zombie, the zombie that gives you time to think, allows you to visualize your own death, and that is one of the darker elements of the human mind.

Stuart Gordon: My father passed away when I was fourteen years old, and I think that was the hook for me. People always say, “if you could bring anybody back to life, who would it be?” in my case, it’s a no-brainer. It would be my father. When you look at most horror movies, I think, they’re about an impossible dream.

John Landis: Zombies are representative of Alzheimer’s, a just terrifying disease. And zombies are representative of cancer. to me what’s happened to the zombie is now they’re representatives of anarchy and the collapse of government, the collapse of order.


Episode 2: Slashers, Part 1

Mick Garris: So much of horror is about mood, atmosphere, and cinematic style. John Carpenter using the wide screen and the Panaglide camera, starting with Halloweenit’s something that makes the film that much more effective.

David J Skal: Starting with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in 1960, we started seeing a new approach to horror. It was the horror that didn’t come out of some grotesque radioactive anomaly, but it could be lurking next door. A nice young man like Norman Bates could be the new Frankenstein, the new Dracula.

Rob Zombie: Out of every movie that we’ve talked about, [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is] the one that defined me. Like, that’s everything I ever wanted in a movie, and everything I ever wanted to do in movies. It was just disgusting and nasty, and that redneck thing. That movie changed the way I thought about movies. Instantly.

Kane Hodder: There’s a lot more to playing a character like Jason than throwing a mask on and, you know, walking around threateningly, because two of the major tools an actor uses are their facial expressions and their voices. So now, you take away both of those by making him silent and putting a mask on him. So I was always conscious of Jason never looking awkward or off-balance or weak. I would never look down to see where I was walking, because I thought that weakened the character.

Joe Hill: I’ve always thought that the slasher films of the 1980’s didn’t really work as horror fiction, but they worked pretty well as slapstick comedies. And the reason for that is, you know, the characters are never allowed to be anything except one-dimensional types. You’ve got a gang of teenagers. You’ve got the jock. You’ve got the stoner. You’ve got the slut. You’ve got the virgin. You never care about them, you never fall in love with them, so when the serial killer starts knocking them off one by one, you laugh instead of recoil in horror, because he’s actually more of a personality than they are.

Amanda Reyes: I don’t feel like the film [Maniac] is misogynistic at all. As a matter of fact, I feel, as a woman, it really represents a realism to me. It’s like a cathartic experience in a way, because women live in that sort of world every day, where we have to be hyper-aware of who’s around us and what could happen.

Eli Roth: But don’t you find that in a really effective horror movie, blood stains the critics’ eyes? Like, once you get blood in your eyes, you can’t wash it out. They can’t see anything else other than the kill, and they also feel like if they like the movie, that they’re endorsing that for real, or that kind of violence. So most often, those reviewers just become a soapbox to be like, “Look, I’m a good person, I’m a good person, I don’t like this sort of thing,” but the truth is we love it. It’s like it’s–it’s like the enjoying fantasy, enjoying a scary story. It’s no different than Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Leigh Whannell: To me, horror is always about violating the sacred. Take a child, something that we look at and coo over and dote on, and make them the most evil —- out there. And a child’s toy is sacred, too. These are things we grow up with, and [in Child’s Play] you basically cast horror’s black shadow over all this sacred, righteous stuff.


Episode 3: Slashers, Part 2

Robert Englund: But when I got the part [of Freddy Krueger] I didn’t know what I was going to do. And the makeup sessions informed a lot of what I did. They were dabbing at me with a crusty brush and basting me like a turkey with Vaseline so I picked up the light better. and in comes Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp, arguably the two most attractive young people in the world at that moment, and it got me angry and envious of their youth and their beauty and the fact that these two kids had their whole careers ahead of them. And I went, “Wait a minute, I can use that.”

Victor LaValle: If you were to explain, “It’s about this black dude who was murdered for having sex with a white lady, and then he comes back and hunts the white lady and lots of other people, too,” you’d be like, “Nah, I don’t think we’re gonna make that movie.” You know what I mean? But somehow, through his level of magnetism and charm, [Tony Todd] manages to make Candyman someone–I don’t know if they love him, but who they love to fear.

Joe Hill: I think that mixture of terror and empathy is very powerful. Every great work of horror fiction is an exercise in extreme empathy. It’s about falling in love with characters and then staying with them as they endure the worst.

Kevin Williamson: My whole goal when writing Scream was, I wanted a horror movie to sort of live and breathe in a time where the other horror movies existed.

Bryan Fuller: The Silence of the Lambs is a perfect film. It kind of shirked the in-your-face occasionally vulgarities of the horror genre and painted them with a much finer brush that made it a story that was about being human, as opposed to a story that was about the horrors of the world.

Greg Nicotero: It’s also coming to grips with our own mortality. Maybe there’s some weird catharsis of, like, “Okay, well, thank God my death could never be nearly as bad as what I just saw.”

Eli Roth: People always ask me, “How do you make a horror film scary?” And I think the only common thread that I’ve found is when the filmmaker, the director, is truly terrified of the subject matter.

Max Brooks: One of the issues with the Saw movies–and you can take it however you want–is the fact that we invented a whole new term, “torture porn.” But we invented it at the very same time America, as a nation, was under world indictment, for actually torturing people.

Aaron Michael Kerner: One of the things about torture porn is that we are no longer afraid of bogeymen. Michael and Jason and those characters lost a certain currency. And what really strikes fear, in the United States in a post-9/11 moment, is other people. Other people are frightening. The Hostel franchise speaks truth to power and presents Americans in the way that the world perceives us.

Tony Timpone: The real world is much scarier than anything that Eli Roth or Stephen King could come up with. It’s a really disturbing, sick, violent world we live in. Horror films reflect that. And horror films are a way of people coming to terms with the violence in society, trying to deal with it, and trying, you know, to escape it in a lot of ways.

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