I’ve covered a horror themed documentary before here on The Film Dump, that one being Video Nasties. That was a very British focused doc about the era in the early 80s when horror films were getting banned left, right and centre. Today’s film is focused on the history of the US horror genre and how it reflected the tastes of the times. An interesting history it is too. Click the jump to read my views on the documentary Nightmares In Red, White and Blue.
Like Video Nasties, Nightmares In Red, White and Blue is very much a talking heads style documentary. That means exactly what it sounds like in case you’re unsure. Lots of people talking via their heads. I actually think it’s a harder style of documentary to pull off than the traditional cataloguing/following of events style. With the latter the story is either there already or is unfolding as the film makers go along. With a talking heads style film you really need to make sure that the people you’re interviewing are saying some interesting stuff because you don’t want to have to fill in the gaps with too much narration. Nightmares manages a good job of avoiding that though.
Narrated by perennial horror star Lance Henriksen, Nightmares manages to move through the complete history of American horror movies all the way from 1920’s Frankenstein all the way to modern horrors such as Saw, Hostel and the spate of remakes addressing each of those and everything in-between with enough, if occasionally minimal, focus to allow you to understand their relevance. It helps that the talking heads in this film are genuinely some of the best in the industry. We have John Carpenter, Roger Corman, George A Romero and one of my favourite Brian Yuzna. The film is lacking input from a few obvious masters of horror to be fair (no Sam Raimi or Wes Craven) but that doesn’t mean their films are ignored.
The various shifts in horror from monsters, to science fiction horror and to the horrors of the real world are all covered and you can see a definite pattern to the way trends have shifted over the years. Shifting from monsters during peace time to a more human face to fear during times of war is a shift we can see now as films such as the aforementioned Saw and Hostel franchises have crept up in popularity over the last 10 years. I’d note that of all the remakes on 70s and 80s horrors in recent years it has been the less supernatural of them that has had the most success in terms of quality and even in Box Office takings. For example I wasn’t too impressed by either the Friday The 13th or Nightmare On Elm Street remakes, and neither were audiences, but I quite liked The Hills Have Eyes and Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s remake. At least on a gritty horror level at least.
Being a bit of a fan of horror films there wasn’t much that I wasn’t already aware of but it was still an interesting recount of the transformations the genre has undergone. They even touch on the culture and influence of British and foreign horror films. I’d quite like a follow up to this based around Asian horror films seeing as they’ve really come into popularity over the last 10 years and the history of that style isn’t so clear to the average viewer. Plus the influence of Asian horror is clear on a lot of modern western horror film and film makers. Gore Verbinski does a damn fine job impersonating Hideo Nakata’s style with the US remake of Ringu for instance. Possibly better than Nakata did with his sequel to that remake. That sequel was pants.
Most issues that can be taken with this documentary are clearly down to budget and time constraints. A few of the interviewees have been filmed on a low quality digital camera that results in a washed out and unstable image for their segments. It would have been helpful if there was a few more horror legends providing their input but that is likely another issue down to budgetary constraints. The lack of Tobe Hooper, Raimi or Craven is really obvious though. John Carpenter proves to be the most insightful of the ones we do get though. He’s a director that has moved between multiple genres, not just in horror, and can always be relied on for creative, intelligent input.
With a longer running time the film could have benefited from being able to delve into the various films it focuses on with a little more depth. Each era gets a fairly equal amount of time but I really think more could have been made of the transitions horror went through from the 1940s through to the 60s. There were so many cultural shifts during that time in America and whilst they’re all touched on there is a lot more that could have been said. Also no mention is made of the impact the dropping of the Hayes production code had to the genre in the 60s. Suddenly film makers were allowed to be a lot more daring with what they actually put on screen. It’s also what I consider to be the starting point of the loss of subtlety in modern films. The loss of the need to infer rather than show has caused the film medium to lose some of it’s thoughtfulness over the years. Quite a few people these days would struggle to “read” the films of the Hayes Production Code era fully if they’ve only experienced the more modern style of film makers putting everything on show.
Nightmares In Red White and Blue is a very solid documentary and manages to provide a nice, swiftly paced, history of horror. Fans of horror will get a lot out of seeing where modern tropes have come from and film fans in general will enjoy seeing how cinema has developed and shifted over the years. A documentary like this could easily be made for almost any genre but horror is a fine choice for this particular one. If you’re looking for a really in-depth study of film though, not just horror, I suggest you keep an eye out for Mark Cousin’s The Story Of Film which is getting a DVD release later this year. Put a weekend aside though because it’s 15 hours long. Also it doesn’t have the gravelly tones of Lance Henriksen, which is obviously a loss.