Terror Tuesday: The Scary World Of Horror Franchise Docs

Want to know more about the production of your favorite horror franchise? A slew of docs have been spilling behind the scenes secrets, and Brian’s seen em all. He’s even been in some.

Until fairly recently, it was hard/impossible to get any good “dirt” or even non-promotional based information on the horror movies I spent so much of my formative years watching over and over again. Beyond Fangoria articles that were designed to inspire the reader to buy a ticket, you’d never know what went on during the production of various Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th sequels – even when they finally hit DVD, most of the films were lacking any substantial extra features. But kicking off with Halloween: 25 Years of Terror in 2006, nearly every major horror franchise has been given a mega retrospective documentary, all of which can be enjoyed (and should be appreciated) even if you aren’t the biggest fan of the series.

If you know me, obviously you’d know that Halloween would be the one I was most interested in, and 25 Years Of Terror did not disappoint for the most part. Sure, it would have been nice to have new material with John Carpenter or Jamie Lee Curtis (they only appear in archive footage), but I mean, how much more can they possibly say on the subject? Having new interviews with them saying the same old shit might be too tempting for an editor to include, and thus in a way it’s sort of a blessing, as we get more time with the other, less-often-interviewed actors and crew members from the films. Plenty of great stories are shared, many with the candid approach that only time can allow – no one is of the opinion that the 6th or 8th films are up to par (on the former, it is a shame that Paul Rudd does not appear – he was apparently never even asked!).

The film also set the precedent for having plenty of bonus material, with a second disc jam-packed with extended interviews, random bits that didn’t really fit into the overall narrative of the documentary itself (such as touring the shooting locations of the original film 25 years later), and other stuff that fans like me will devour. Not everything is a must-watch, but you can’t fault the filmmakers for throwing everything they had in there – it’s not like there’s room in the marketplace for TWO documentaries about the same franchise (or double-dipping the original one; it’s bad enough for regular movies, but doing so on a film aimed directly at the fanbase just seems like taking advantage of their collector nature).

2009 gave us His Name Was Jason, made by some of the same folks as the Halloween one but with a slightly different approach. Rather than go film by film in order, they sort of quickly race through the general approach/plot of each entry and then spend the rest of the running time on themes, such as the series’ Final Girls or the various incarnations of Jason. They also spend far too much time on interview subjects that have nothing to do with the series; nothing against Seth Green or Felissa Rose, but I don’t care what they have to say about these movies that they probably don’t even really care about, especially when it comes at the expense of screentime with someone like Danny Steinmann, director of the 5th entry and one of the most reclusive Friday veterans (he hasn’t made a single film since). Luckily, as with Halloween, there’s a second disc of material, some of which is better than the film itself. There’s around an hour of extended interviews with the directors, who obviously have some of the best stories, plus some fun asides like “Shelly Lives”, which must be seen to be believed.

Next up was Never Sleep Again, which covered the Nightmare On Elm Street series and assembled the most impressive cast/crew participation yet, with only a few of the actors (no Patricia Arquette or Laurence Fishburne) missing. Every director, most of the writers, plus Robert Englund and Heather Langenkamp (who also narrates) are present, and with a four hour (!) running time, you’d be hard-pressed to complain about the lack of screentime or information on a particular film. Each of the eight original entries (the remake is ignored) are covered in about equal detail (roughly a half hour each), and unlike His Name Was Jason, there’s only one person in the entire film who appears despite not having any direct association with the series (and it’s kind of funny so I let it slide). Given that it too had a 2nd disc of extended material and other goodies, I am unsure why they didn’t edit it down to a more manageable length, but if you don’t care about part 5 or just want to hear about the gay-themed part 2, you can always skip to what you care about or over what you don’t, as they return to 25 Years Of Terror‘s approach of going through one film at a time.

The same year brought us The Psycho Legacy, a look at the series from director Robert Galluzzo. Interestingly, he focuses more on the sequels than the original, correctly assuming that most fans have already heard most of those stories by now, unlike the less-covered sequels (plus, most of the folks from the original are dead, or like John Gavin, long since retired and thus not going to come out of their shell for an independent documentary). So you get a bunch of terrific stories about the excellent second film, the sleazy third film directed by Anthony Perkins himself, and the… well-meaning fourth, which went straight to cable. Impressively, without previous documentary work under his belt like the Elm Street guys, he managed to get pretty much every living member of the series, with the few exceptions being understandable (Dennis Franz hasn’t appeared in much of anything in the past 6 years). As with His Name Was Jason, there’s a bit too much time given to fans (filmmakers) who had nothing do with it, but as the 2nd and (to some extent) 3rd films are vastly under-appreciated, any accolades they can get are always a plus.

Right around the time Scream 4 hit theaters, Fearnet premiered Still Screaming, which is now on disc but sadly not on its own (it is included on the trilogy blu-ray set, which is pretty cheap – 20 bucks for all three original films plus the documentary). However, that is merely a dumb call on Lionsgate’s part and not reflective of the quality of the film itself. Dimension/Weinstein wouldn’t let Scream 4 be discussed in any great detail since the film was still in production when director Ryan Rotten was getting all of the interviews, but in some ways this is the most candid of all the docs. The myriad issues with Scream 3 are discussed with delightful honesty, and there are terrific anecdotes about each film that are revealed for the first time even though each film had special edition releases when they originally hit disc (unlike the other franchises). Duane Martin’s explanation of his character’s exit from Scream 2 is worth the price alone. Sadly, Kevin Williamson is absent (not a surprise, he didn’t even participate in another doc that was just about the first film), but he is given his due respect.

Even the Return of the Living Dead series has been given the treatment, with More Brains (narrated by Brian Peck, the guy who played Scuz in the first film and appeared as different characters in the 2nd and 3rd entries) hitting stores this week, covering the first three films in the series (the 4th and 5th are pretty much ignored, but who can blame them? They were soulless DTV entries made in Romania and bearing no relation to the other films). I just got my copy and plan to watch it this week, but based on the “cast”, director Bill Philputt has assembled a terrific lineup of series vets, including late director Dan O’Bannon, who was interviewed shortly before he passed away in late 2009.

Shockingly, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series has yet to receive the treatment. While the first film has been covered in a few documentaries (mostly for DVDs), there’s nothing covering all four original entries and/or the Platinum Dunes remakes. There IS a book called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, which does indeed cover the first four films in oral history format, but the movies are always more fun, seeing the clips as they are discussed and seeing how well those starlets who were so fetching to us in our formative years look today (Friday the 13th Part 4‘s Judie Aronson, for example, is STILL a knockout). Ditto the Evil Dead trilogy – there’s a great book about it, but no one has taken the time to get all of those folks in front of a camera to tell their stories.

And there’s NOTHING about the Leprechaun franchise! How can this be?!?!?

Obviously there are still plenty of franchises to cover, although the ones that remained relatively respectable (save the aforementioned) have all been done. Yes, there are a lot of Hellraiser and Howling movies (not to mention DTV stuff like the Puppet Master series), but with all the DTV entries, it might be too tempting to just focus on the “legit” sequels and ignore the others (like More Brains has done), which might anger those poor souls who genuinely love every entry, or might just like to hear its own cast and crew tear it apart – can the folks behind Hellraiser: Hellworld (in which Pinhead went “online”) really think they made a good movie? Hopefully someday we’ll know (a Hellraiser doc WAS in the works last year, unsure of its current status).

At any rate, ’tis the season for all things horror, and these feature films should make a terrific viewing alternative, especially if your copies of the films they cover have been worn out over time. They can also provide a new way of looking at the films; I know I won’t ever be able to watch Joel the cameraman’s final scene in Scream 2 again without laughing. As these were all independent productions with minimal advertising, it’s possible that you didn’t even know they existed, I wanted to give them their due – as a franchise nerd (I hope they call on me for expert advice when it comes time to do one on the Saw series), I relished nearly every minute of these movies, hearing the stories and seeing “old friends” again. So if you were unaware of these gifts to the fans, I am glad I could be of service to you. Pick your favorite franchise of the bunch and check it out!

And Happy Halloween! This will be my last column before the big day. Be safe, have fun, and most importantly, if you turn on the TV and see Halloween III, do not dismiss it. It’s actually one of the best movies in the series, and if you disagree, you’re wrong. Ask yourself – would you rather a Halloween movie without Michael Myers, or a Halloween movie where Michael Myers is a pawn for a Druid cult? Or one where Busta Rhymes beats him with kung fu? Or one where Rob Zombie is calling the shots? Yeah, suddenly the crazy toymaker killing kids with masks that can produce snakes and insects doesn’t sound so bad, does it?