Horror tends to be equated with narrative, regardless of the medium. We could be talking about written work, films/tv, video games or even contemporary studio art. Talk of horror tends to be relegated to the fictional material(s) that we consume, which is unfortunate. Last year was not the greatest year for narrative horror films, in my humble opinion, but what really stood out was the abundance of documentary films either about horror films, the horror community or even horific real life subjects. Whatever the topic(s) may be, there is a wealth of similar documentaries out there that tend to be overlooked when it comes to discussions on horror and, especially, in year end “best of” lists which keeps many of these films from getting the attention they deserve.
This list is comprised of documentary films that were released in the United States in 2010. Some of these may have had festival screenings prior to that but they are now available on DVD and should be fairly easy to access.
Note that a few of these did appear on my year end list which was published on this site about a month ago. I have copied my comments for those respective films for this list and added additional comments where necessary.
American Grindhouse (Dir. Elijah Drenner, USA) – Exploitation cinema has been getting a lot of attention lately, especially in the form of documentaries. Though this does not have the scope of the excellent ozploitation opus Not Quite Hollywood, it is a very welcome primer to the history of American exploitation cinema. Most of the information presented here is going to be pretty old to anyone who has read any book on the subject (especially Sleazoid Express or Nightmare U.S.A) but the revealing interviews with various filmmakers and scholars make it worthwhile regardless. Not to mention the wealth of film footage included, much of which is from films that have never received official home video releases. As rudimentary as it may be, this is the best doc of its kind that I’ve seen thus far.
Best Worst Movie (Dir. Michael Stephenson, USA) – Odds are most have heard of this. If you have not, this is a documentary about Troll 2. Yes, that, Troll 2. Being a fan of that film, I was greatly looking forward to this. I expected a fairly rudimentary document of fan culture and maybe even a mocking one at that. I was surprised to find a rather heartfelt film that does not only document fervent fandom but embraces it and in the most unexpected ways at that. This may be the best representation of what being a fan is all about. Not just fans of horror or film but the true nature of fanaticism in itself. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
Catfish (Dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, USA) – Ok, I need to make this very clear: this is NOT a horror film. I even questioned whether I should include it on this list as it as far from the genre as anything else on here is. Yes, the advertising would lead people to believe that it is such a film, but it is not. You’ve been warned. With that out of the way, you should still see this. Basically, the film regards social network communication gone wrong. A group of friends take it upon themselves to document their trip to discover if a social networking “friend” is who she claims to be. This is a documentary, it is not the Facebook version of Paranormal Activity that many claimed it to be. I have it on this list beause I found it to be more unsettling than almost any horror film I saw in theaters this year. If you adjust your expectations accordingly (and avoid watching all of the misleading trailers) perhaps you will feel the same way too.
Graphic Sexual Horror (Dir. Barbara Bell, USA) This is a disturbing one. This documentary investigates the world of Insex.com, a rather morbid bondage website which was shut down by the Department of Homeland Security. This is not traditional horror fare, and I’m not even sure this is necessarily something the horror community would find interest in, but it is certainly provocative and is quite difficult to watch at times. It is also another documentary that explores, though not blatantly, issues of censorship which is a topic prevalent in quite a few films on this list (American Grindhouse and Video Nasties especially). I personally found myself more uneasy watching this than any narrative horror film I saw this year and some of the imagery will stick with you for a long time.
It Came from Kuchar (Dir. Jennifer M. Kroot, USA) – This is a film about the Kuchar brothers. If you don’t know who they are, than that is all the more reason to see this. This film celebrates low budget horror filmmaking, not much differently than American Movie, only rather than being a document of a struggling production it is a profile of filmmakers who already have dozens of film credits to their names yet are somehow shrouded in obscurity despite having a dedicated cult following. If you don’t know who these guys are already than I can guarantee you’ll be seeking out their films after seeing this.
Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (Dir. Daniel Farrands, Andrew Kasch, USA) This four hour long, mammoth documentary covers every aspect of the Nightmare on Elm Street series that one could ask for. There are interviews with pretty much anyone there possibly could be and some really welcome behind the scenes footage. Even with how long it is, it never drags. In fact, it really just builds up to the additional four hours of material that is found on the second disc of the DVD set. The breadth of this film, and its supplemental DVD package, is a testament to the commitment of the horror community and those who support it. I personally do not know of any other film series that has gotten this type of documentary treatment, especially when not even funded or produced by the studio attached to the films themselves.
Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (Dir. Andrew Monument, USA) I personally was not the biggest advocate of this documentary but it is still hard to ignore. Monument attempts to both establish a history of American horror cinema and uncover why audiences appreciate the genre. It is really enough material for two seperate films and never truly digs deep enough to please avid horror fans but it is a really solid primer for those who are new to the genre and there is some great interview footage with well known horror film makers and scholars.
S&Man (Dir. J.T. Petty, USA) This is a weird one. First off, it is not entirely real. There are portions of this, particularly interviews with noted scholars or “real” filmmakers like Fred Vogel, that are legitimate but much of it is fabricated. Though, figuring out what is real and what is not is most of the fun of watching the film in the first place. It is basically set up with Petty setting out to make a documentary about extreme underground horror – you know, films that attempt to appear to be “snuff” films ala August Underground – but it turns into a blurring of reality and fiction and a rather potent, albeit not entirely successful, mediation on the nature of voyeurism. It is pretty damn disturbing at times, especially some of the more violent (staged or not) scenes directed at women (this is NOT standard slasher fare, you’ve been warned) but it never feels gratuitous or intended as mere shock value.
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (Dir. Jake West, UK) – I can’t imagine any horror fan worth their weight that is not familiar with video nasties. However, I doubt many can name all of the films off of the top of their heads or have any idea the extent to which the British government was involved in their censoring. This documentary explores every facet of what happened at the time of the branding of films as “video nasties” and is indispensable as an educational tool on the nature of censorship as well as an entirely entertaining document of a period of horror film history. That Nucleus Films have included it in their essential Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide DVD set makes it easily accessible and well worth a purchase.