Dead List: 20 Great Contemporary Horror Movie Documentaries

Scary DVDs! Woo!
If you listen to our podcast or read our posts, you are already somebody looking to know more about horror. If you really have an appetite for horror knowledge, check out these documentaries, all of them hugely entertaining. Welcome to the world where all the movies have a colon in the title: Horror Documentaries.

Some people think that documentaries are boring and dry. Those people have not seen horror movie documentaries. These films are inspiring, either filling in all the background for your favorite directors and movies or will direct you to films you hadn’t considered before. More than anything, these are celebrations of the genre that fans of horror can immediately identify with.

One way of thinking about these documentaries is that they are full-length bonus features that bring you behind the scenes. They fill in the blanks, connect the dots, and make references to what you love about genre film. Many of these documentaries are love letters by fans for fans. In some cases, they are thank you letters by cast or crew back to the fans for their efforts to elevate their little films from obscure to cult classics.

Note that this list does not include documentaries about crypto sightings, real hauntings, or true crime. That’s a subject all of its own. The selections here (with one notable exception) are about the creation of horror film, and looking at the trends, creators, and themes that make the genre what it is today. Chronologically, here are some fantastic contemporary offerings, all of which are available streaming online.

The Thing: Terror Takes Shape (1998)

Directed by Michael Mantessino

When a movie becomes a classic, movie distributors would sometimes include a documentary featurette about the movie to encourage fans to buy the DVD for the extra content. The Thing: Terror Takes Shape is perhaps the best inclusion of a featurette in any horror collection.

The Thing, after all, was not initially well-received by critics or the box office. This documentary brings most of the cast and crew together as they get to share their recollections of the production. The cast were all acclaimed stage actors, and for many of them this was going to be their big break, but it wasn’t meant to be for many of them, and yet, decades later, they are allowed to soak in the achievement. For fans of The Thing, this is the ultimate behind the scenes look, and makes you appreciate the movie from a whole new light.

Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006)

Directed by Jeff McQueen

The slasher film was given birth in the early ’60s, rose to prominence in the ’70s, was prolific in the ’80s, became exhausted in the ’90s, and now is but a minor part of the horror genre as of now. What made it so popular, and what happened to largely end the trend?

Going to Pieces embraces the time where a straightforward story of a maniac stalking teenagers was a surefire way to get butts in theater seats. It’s always hard to keep a good trope down, but Scream was perhaps prophetic in its understanding that the slasher genre had been condensed into simple component parts, and the slasher film had lost its edge.

Still, fans long for the era where a recognizable recurring villain was available to haunt your dreams. There’s something oddly comforting about a known quantity. But if you get too comfortable with something that is meant to terrify you, that’s probably a sign that adjustments need to be made. Stay tuned, though. What goes around comes around. Can a slasher movie succeed in an era of horror featuring strong narrative structures? Sure! Psycho, anyone?

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008)

Directed by Frank H. Woodward

H.P. Lovecraft was a complicated character. He is undoubtedly one of the primary influencers of filmmakers in the 20th Century, with his tales of lurking dread and cosmic doom. His hyper-literate short stories touched on deep concepts, plumbing the depths of dreams and seeding the idea of a mythology built prior to human existance.

He was also a strange cat, no doubt. And, sadly, an unambiguous racist. Yet he remains a potent source of material to this day, and the reclusive author gets a good scrubbing in this biographical documentary, with interviews with John Carpenter, Guillermo Del Toro, Stuart Gordon, and many of the authors who followed in his wake. Also, Andy Miglore, the creator of our beloved H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival is prominently featured! The documentary does not skip over Lovecraft’s flaws, and it provides a terrific analysis of all his writings and muses about what could have become of a man who died relatively young.

Best Worst Movie (2009)

Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson

Best Worst Movie is a labor of love that reflects upon the trashy side of horror, which allows even awful movies to have their day in the sun. This follows the fall and rise and then fall again of the movie Troll 2 (1990), often described as one of the worst movies ever made. Best Worst Movie is both a celebration of the trashy, but also a clear-eyed look at the limitation of the fan’s embrace of truly amateurish movie fare.

Prominently featured is the erstwhile star of Troll 2, George Hardy, now a dentist in Alabama, becoming something of a cult hero for his wooden delivery of terrible dialogue. He is a wonderfully spirited and endearing man, who embraces his new-found cult status, but eventually comes to the realization that fame can be fleeting. I am glad that the movie also features director Claudio Fragasso, who to this day believes he made a good movie, and becomes livid when he realizes that people are laughing at the movie and not with it. AWKWARD! (and awesome!)

In the end, it dawns on the people who experienced both the extreme lows and extreme highs of being involved in a movie this bad, that they can appreciate the cult status but understand the limits for their fleeting resurgence of fame. Few other movies can honestly claim this mantle, being so awful that they are revered. Plan 9 From Outer Space, The Room, and Showgirls can join Troll 2 in this level of infamy… the Worst Movies of All Time.

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010)

Directed by Daniel Farrands and Andrew Kasch

It’s always up for debate as to who the greatest of the slasher villains is, but in my book, it will always be Freddy Kreuger. Every horror fan has had this debate. Freddy vs. Jason vs. Michael. (And sometimes with Chucky and Candyman tossed in for good measure.)

The venerable franchise has had a roller-coaster existence with some brilliant installments (The original, 3: Dream Warriors, and New Nightmare) and more than a few clunkers. (2: Freddy’s Revenge, 5: The Dream Child, The 2010 Reboot). It’s a mixed bag of quality, to be sure. But there is absolutely no doubt of the level of influence that the series has had on the horror genre.

Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy is an Epic documentary, clocking in at a marathon-level four hours. No stone is left unturned here, and all the main players including Wes Craven, Heather Langenkamp, and Robert Englund are all featured. Never sleep again may be right if you’re going to try and watch this in one sitting!

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship, and Videotape (2010)

Directed by Jake West

Video Nasties were part of the backlash of the morality police in the 1980s that pushed back hard against the horror genre. Consider that R rated material had only been around for a little more than a decade, and now, with video cassettes giving easy access to impressionable youths (Like me!), parents, and Governments pushed back.

Video Nasties were what the British called the gory R-rated fare of the era. 72 films all told were banned from release in Great Britain. Famously The Evil Dead, Cannibal Ferox, Anthropophagus, The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave… all the big boundary-pushing films of the era ended up on this list. It is a veritable “What’s grosser than gross?” list.

This policy raised the uncomfortable specter of censorship, and the quantity of over-the-top exploitation slowed down in favor of the slightly watered down franchise fare that blossomed in the ’80s. It does make you wonder about whether the morality police will ever come back again, or if society has gotten over the sensitivity of horror movies in an age where porn can be downloaded at any computer.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

Directed by Alex Stapleton

If you don’t know Roger Corman, you should, and this is one of the best ways to get to know him. He is one of the most hugely influential men in film history, and yet he never produced a huge blockbuster hit. The master of the B-Movie has 415 production credits and 56 directing credits to his name. He gave Coppolla, Scorcese, Bogdanovich, Dante, and Demme their first big breaks. He was the man who elevated Jack Nicholson to stardom.

He is such a contradiction of terms. Still going strong into his 90’s he is the epitome of a gentleman, yet his reputation was built upon the production of tawdry, provocative, and inexpensive independent films. To emphasize this dichotomy, Joe Dante likes to point out that Roger Corman told him, “If you succeed working for me, you’ll never have to work for me again.” Classic!

Room 237 (2012)

Directed by Rodney Ascher

The Shining as an obsession

In an era that is being defined by conspiracy theories and wild pronouncements, perhaps no documentary captures the obsessiveness of fandom quite like Room 237. Kubrick’s films are legendary for the intellectual rigor, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar! This movie explores the fanatic levels to which fans of Kubrick’s masterpiece will go to try and associate some bizarre hypotheses about the meaning of the film.

Some of the curious assertions:

  • The Shining was a government plot, using the Shining to produce test footage for faking the moon landings.
  • The Shining is an analogy for the holocaust.
  • The Shining is about the assimilation of Native Americans.

Birth of the Living Dead (2013)

Directed by Rod Kuhns

Did you know George Romero learned his movie-making chops, by of all things, working on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood? It’s true! And that the day that George went to New York to promote the movie about a black hero, martyred at the end of the movie, that Martin Luther King was assassinated?

Birth of the Living Dead captures the sense of the community spirit that was required to get a picture like this done. Independent micro-budget horror films were nothing new (See Corman’s World), but George Romero took the genre seriously, as an artistic piece, and that made it exceedingly rare. Lots of great Romero interview footage, along with Larry Fessenden and Gale Anne Hurd.

Why Horror? (2014)

Directed by Nicholas Kleiman, and Rob Lindsay

When I was in high school, I remember doing a thesis project for my psychology class about the power of horror films. I was a nascent fan at that time in the 80’s and I was trying to put into words why I loved horror movies, and what it meant to be a horror fan. Why Horror? is a documentary narrated by Tal Zimmerman, a writer, collector, and horror super-fan… he is one of us.

Zimmerman takes a bite out of the pop-psychology chunk of meat and attempts to explain the allure and the fascination that those of us who love something that should inherently repel us. This is a very familiar story, well told, and probably will strike a chord with all horror fans. The film bolsters his research and studies with interviews with numerous horror movie luminaries like John Carpenter, George Romero, Eli Roth, Barbara Crampton, Elvis Mitchell, Alexandre Aja, and Don Coscarelli. This is horror comfort food.

24×36: A Movie about Movie Posters (2016)

Directed by Kevin Burke

For those who love movie posters!

This documentary follows the history of the movie poster, from its heyday in the Golden Era, to the campy hyperbolic exclamations of the Atomic Age, and the racy Grindhouse fare… all the way to the world where now movie posters is a bland formula of star head-shots. The classic posters are now treasured, and an underground group, led by Mondo has created a new scene of rethinking the classics into modern art treasures that have caught the collectible market on fire.

As a collector, this was the equivalent of giving me a free crack sample. Hey kid, the first hit is free! My love of movies and my love of movie posters brought me to Mondo and eMovieposter and it was wonderful… my bank account might not recover as a result! There is a return of the art of the movie poster, it will be interesting to see if Hollywood responds to the frenzy that is the collectible movie poster and go back to investing in original artistic marketing content.

Fury of the Demon (2016)

Directed by Fabian Delage

Fury of the Demon is a curious film. It is NOT what it purports to be, a serious documentary that investigates a purportedly newly found short film from the legendary early filmmaker George Méliès. A film that was so outrageous, that it incited a violent reaction from its audience. One of the earliest films in history just happened to be saddled with a curse. Only… it never existed. (Shhh!)

It is more accurately something of a mockumentary, but not like Spinal Tap or What We Do in the Shadows, which are played for pure comedy. This is a counterfactual mash-up and a historical homage to the early days of cinema, heavily influenced by the legendary film Häxan. Add in a touch of Hugo and The Blair Witch Project and you get a fantastical what-if story that roots itself in history and it plays it totally straight with only the most subtle winks and nods.

Beware the Slenderman (2016)

Directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky

The power of horror and myth can make people do horrible things. This was the fear of the Video Nasties push in the ’80s, that violent movies will instigate violent behavior. Beware the Slenderman investigates the unfortunate real story of teenage girls who took the Creepypasta legend of the Slenderman too seriously and ended up attempting to murder one of their own as a result.

This HBO documentary reveals the fear that all parents have about kids on the internet. Boundaries and guardrails in social media being nonexistent, the girls were consumed with the myth and willed it into existence with their own violent actions. It’s a strange cautionary tale, and this film is a powerful piece of shock investigative journalism.

King Cohen (2017)

Directed by Steve Mitchell

The late Larry Cohen was a New York original. He was a guerilla filmmaker of the first order and was a notorious opportunist to improvise with his movies on the shooting location. Permits? Who needs permits? Let’s just inject the movie into the public and see what happens!

In his heart of hearts, he wanted to be a stand up comedian for a living, and for a while, that’s what he was. But eventually, it became exhausting and he turned to directing films, with cult classics like It’s Alive! (1972), God Told Me To (1976), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985), and Special Effects (1984). Cohen is one of those beloved cinema characters who is adored by his peers but could walk into a comic convention and go completely unnoticed.

78/52 Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

You know the scene, but do you REALLY know the scene? Master documentarian Alexandre O. Phillipe (more from him later) does a complete breakdown of the iconic shower scene from Psycho (1960). It’s a moment that changed cinema history, pushed the censor limit, and represented a key snapshot in time for the master storyteller.

It’s not just a technical dissertation on the scene, but it also reveals how Alfred Hitchcock negotiated his way through the Hollywood censorship code and went maverick on the industry. Remember, he was no young rebel at this point, he was the most famous director in the world, and his decision making was crucial in the direction of genre film. Historic footage from interviews with Hitchcock is woven in with analysis from Guillermo Del Toro, Eli Roth, Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman, Neil Marshal, Elijah Wood, and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Wolfman’s Got Nards (2018)

Directed by Andre Gower

Wolfman’s Got Nards was produced by Andre Gower, the former child star of Monster Squad, a 1987 film that used the classic Universal Monsters and pitted them against a group of plucky children who stumble into Dracula’s plot for world domination. The movie ended up being a complete dud at the box office and failed to produce the Goonies or Gremlins stature of gateway greatness. Eventually, however, it found its audience. Monster Squad was a film for the underdogs, and decades later, a legion of fans who grew up watching it on VHS and DVD have come out to give it the love it never had in its theatrical run.

Like Best Worst Movie, noted earlier, the actors for the most part never achieved true stardom after its release, and the film reunites some of the cast as they travel to festivals as celebrities well past the expected expiration date. Unlike Troll 2, however, The Monster Squad had some redeeming and endearing qualities that allowed it to earn its cult status. This is no Mystery Science 3000 movie, it was a forgotten horror starter kit that took its time to find the light of day.

Survival of the Film Freaks (2018)

Directed by Bill Fulkerson and Kyle Kuchta

The B Movie for decades had taken up residence at the drive-in theater. In the ’80s, as the post-Jaws post-Star Wars cinema environment changed the way that movie studios approached the box office, the cult movie also migrated to the now dilapidating downtown grande dame urban theaters. But a new movement was also afoot.

VHS tape rentals brought the ability of consumers, particularly young consumers to bring home R-Rated content to the living room. And, premium cable channels were expanding, and looking for cheap content, so channels like HBO, The Movie Channel, and Showtime were gobbling up B-movie content like Deathstalker, Hard Ticket to Hawaii, Maniac, Fright Night, and The Howling that would play late in the evening, “after hours.” Survival of the Film Freaks is a nostalgic look back at a period where legions of young horror fans developed their thirst for the scary and sleazy. Blood, boobs, biker gangs, and exploding helicopters! What more could an impressionable teen ask for?

Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019)

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

Philippe’s getting good at this horror documentary thing, don’t you think? Memory explores the roots of Alien as it pertains to the artistic direction and the timelessness of the story to establish why this movie is such a classic.

Despite this being a science fiction tale from the probably not-too-far future, Philippe argues that Alien taps into ancient and classical tropes that resonate on a deeply cultural level. When Dan O’Bannon’s story, so rooted in the human psyche, collides with the sexual-mechanical artistic vision by Ridley Scott, H.R. Giger, Ron Cobb, and Moebius… you get pure nightmare fuel magic. A must-see documentary for all Alien fans.

Horror Noire: a History of Black Horror (2019)

Directed by Xavier Burgin

Get Out may not be the most important horror movie about the black experience of all time, but the Oscar-winning film set the table nicely for a discussion about the history of black horror films in this Shudder original documentary.

The black community has a special relationship with horror movies. And it gets pointed out throughout this film, that many in the community have been living in their own reflection of a horror movie. The “black guy always gets it first” trope gets analyzed here, and all the major films that paved the way to Get Out are examined, from White Zombie to Night of the Living Dead, Ganja and Hess, Candyman, and Tales from the Hood. (And many others). I hope Shudder continues to make first-rate documentaries like this, as they could become the chronicler of the genre with a few more in-depth thoughtful pieces like this one.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist (2020)

Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

We conclude with the most recent offering from the best horror documentarian in the business, Alexandre O. Philippe’s third entry on to our dead list, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist. Unlike Philippe’s other documentaries on this list, this is exclusively exposition by one man, William Friedkin. No other guests are necessary.

The Exorcist remains, of course, one of the seminal films in cinema history. It elevated the exploitation film to a mass audience while maintaining an extreme level of shock value. Friedkin shares volumes of background information ranging from his casting decisions to the effects, to the extreme shock tricks he would use to keep his cast and crew on the proper level of intensity and anxiety. It’s a master-class in filmmaking on the edge. Now the question remains, what classic horror movie does Philippe need to break down next? I vote for Hereditary or Get Out.

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