Friday, November 6, 2020

ELI ROTH'S HISTORY OF HORROR (2019) Blu-ray Review

Eli Roth’s History of Horror (2018) d. Kurt Sayenga (USA) (294 min)

“Award-winning horror film director, writer, producer, and actor Eli Roth brings together the masters of horror – the storytellers and stars who define the genre – to explore its biggest themes and reveal the inspirations and struggles behind its past and present. Each one-hour episode will take viewers on a chilling exploration of how horror has evolved through the years and examine the genre's impact on society as well as delving into how horror maintains its fan base and why audiences are addicted to fear. Interviewees include Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Linda Blair, and many others.”

That’s the marketing materials on the back of the Blu-ray packaging from AMC Studios. Sounds pretty good, right? In the spirit of how so many great horror movies begin, let’s take a look inside, shall we, and see what’s hiding in the basement, the attic, and under the bed.

It probably bears mentioning that I’ve not always been the biggest fan of Mr. Roth on a personal or professional level. As a director, I’ve enjoyed exactly one of his movies on first viewing (Hostel) and have developed a grudging admiration for his debut effort Cabin Fever (as documented here in our Kitley’s Krypt round table discussion). That’s about it. And his history of homophobic and sexist bro comments is not so sterling. So I was always a little bewildered by the fact that this young upstart was suddenly everybody’s favorite talking head regarding all things horror, especially when he was constantly revealing how little he knew. (“Whoa! Italian horror is so cool! A zombie bites a shark! My friend Quentin just introduced me to it – does anyone else know about this?”)

Now that both of us have gotten a little older and a little more experienced, I find his presence slightly less offensive because what’s become clear is that, despite his flaws, he is an enthusiastic fan who cares deeply about the genre and its followers. (Did he deserve to become the “new face of horror” over so many others? Probably not, but that’s a biggest discussion for another time.) Whatever complaints I or anyone else might have had, there was never any denying his passion and his desire to share it with others. So it seems fitting, nearly two decades after entering our consciousness, that he should be hosting a show that celebrates the legacy of the fright flick.

It’s somehow telling that the title of the program is called “Eli Roth’s History of Horror,” in that he’s still very interested in playing the celebrity fan whose name is equally important to the subject. It’s not just “The History of Horror,” it’s “ELI ROTH’S History of Horror.” However, that is not just his ego talking. Upon closer examination, this is not an unbiased examination of the genre from beginning to end – this is Eli celebrating the stuff that he likes and the stuff he likes starts... right around 1968 with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Sure, he acknowledges Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and The Birds (because how can you not) and he also pays lip service to Universal’s classic monsters of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man, but if you look at where he focuses his attentions, 85% of the movies he discusses were released in the latter half of the horror genre’s century-long run. So, yeah, there’s that.

That said, this is a handsomely produced overview of those 50 years, broken out into seven episodes (“Zombies,” “Slashers Part 1,” “Slashers Part 2,” “The Demons Inside,” “Killer Creatures,” “Vampires,” and “Ghost Stories”) with Roth as an engaging host who has surrounded himself (literally at times) with an impressive array of genre players to weigh in on the subjects at hand, the heaviest hitters of which include Stephen King, Greg Nicotero, Rob Zombie (who sits there for all seven episodes and barely says anything), Quentin Tarantino, John Landis, Robert Englund, Joe Dante, Jack Black, Mick Garris (who also served as consulting producer), Leonard Maltin, Edgar Wright, Elijah Wood, former Fangoria editor Tony Timpone, and Blumhouse’s Ryan Turek.

However, it is to Roth and AMC’s credit that the predominantly white male viewpoint associated with horror (and illustrated by the headliners listed above) is balanced out to some degree with an assortment of women and people of color, including Jen and Sylvia Soska, Tony Todd, Ernest R. Dickerson, Tananarive Due, Linda Blair, Jordan Peele, Jamie Lee Curtis, Mary Harron, Diablo Cody, Karen Kusama, Catherine Hardwicke, Marcus Henderson, and Lil Rel Howery.

Due to the brevity of the episodes (a mere 42 minutes), it’s unsurprising that we only get the briefest of overviews for each subject (and the most mainstream of representative films) and as with any of these “clips shows,” there are going to be opportunities aplenty for nitpicking. For example, it’s a little puzzling how Roth & Co. attribute the resurgence of zombie movies in the new millennium to 28 Days Later and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, but only offer a cursory mention to the launch of the Resident Evil franchise which generated six films and nearly a billion dollars worth of box office receipts and CAME OUT BEFORE EITHER OF THEM. This seems like a curious (deliberate?) oversight. Similarly, the “Vampires” segment spends exponentially more time talking about a single modern vampire film, 30 Days of Night, than it does the entire Hammer Dracula series (1958-1973). (And don’t even get me started on the lengthy True Blood TV show segment.)

"I like the boobs." "Me too!"

I acknowledge that covering the “History of Horror” is an overwhelmingly large task and, to be fair, this is only Season 1. However, Roth’s show certainly makes its preferences and priorities known and feels sorely lacking in terms of genuine context. This is less an exploration of the rich history of the genre and more a joyous and thoughtful celebration of the past four decades. If that is where your passion lies, you will find much to enjoy here. If not, you can hopefully enjoy this segment of the late-night horror convention/film festival conversation while waiting for someone to eventually name-drop William Castle or Paul Naschy or Jess Franco or Jack Arnold or Dwight Frye or Michael Ripper. Fingers crossed for Season 2 (filming now).

On the third disc in the set, there are nearly two hours of extended interviews with Stephen King, Diablo Cody, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, John Landis, Edgar Wright, and Quentin Tarantino, and these are well worth your time as there is very little repeated information from the segments. (In particular, Corman is articulate and self-effacing as always and King is wonderfully quirky and well-spoken.) There are also a number of 2-3 minute featurettes, including “How Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein influenced Tarantino” and “Is Horror Sexist or Feminist?” that are interesting conversation starters even if they don’t dig very deep.

In closing, this is a worthwhile and well-produced primer for fans who are newer to the genre and looking for the shallower end of the pool (which is NOT a knock – we all have to start somewhere) or for horror veterans seeking some solid comfort-food viewing with their horror pals talking about the films we all know and love.


Extended Interviews:
Stephen King (15 min)
Roger Corman (19 min)
Quentin Tarantino (24 min)
Joe Dante (20 min)
Edgar Wright (23 min)
Diablo Cody (12 min)
John Landis (24 min)

How Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein influenced Tarantino (2 min)
How Video Games Resurrected Zombie Movies (2 min)
Is Horror Sexist or Feminist? (3 min)
Making a Monster (3 min)
Scarred for Life (3 min)

Eli Roth’s History of Horror is available now on Blu-ray from RLJE Entertainment and can be ordered HERE:'s-History-of-Horror:-Season-1


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