Doc Talk is a biweekly column devoted to documentary cinema, typically featuring an essay concentrated on a currently relevant topic for discussion followed by critic picks for new theatrical and home video releases. This week’s focus is on two documentaries to watch on Halloween.
Halloween may be best associated with the horror film genre, but there is an increasing amount of documentaries suited for viewing on the holiday too. Classic nonfiction works with related subject matter include Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 history of demon and witch superstition Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, and Peter Watkins’s Oscar-winning 1965 nuclear war hypothesis The War Game.
More recently, doom-and-gloom films like Lucy Walker’s doc on current nuclear weapon threats, Countdown to Zero, and others with promise of potential dark futures for humanity such as Surviving Progress, will easily give you nightmares worse than any fictional scary movie.
But real and potential horrors, from human rights atrocities to the effects of climate change and other environmental problems, are obviously not fun horror like the kind we enjoy watching on Halloween. We don’t want to see actual death and misery and catastrophe today any more than we want that guy in a monster costume to actually be a monster or for that haunted house attraction to have actual ghosts and goblins.
Fortunately, speaking of such attractions, there are already two interesting documentaries on the subject, and while one of them might indeed frighten some folks with its content, it’s not necessarily the aim of either to give us legitimate chills.
The more recent of these is The American Scream, which debuted last month at Fantastic Fest before its TV premiere this past Sunday on the Chiller network. Director Michael Stephenson is quickly becoming the filmmaker for Halloween-appropriate documentaries, this being the follow-up to his very popular debut, Best Worst Movie, which is about the making of and cult fandom of the awful horror movie Troll 2 (Stephenson is currently working on a fiction horror comedy called Destroy, so we’ll see if he continues with docs in the future, but genre fans in particular love his nonfiction stuff, so it would be a shame if he didn’t churn out more).
American Scream is hardly more than a made-for-television special on amateur attractions, spotlighting three families in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in the days leading up to Halloween and the opening of their annual neighborhood haunts. The best I can really say about it is that it’s a neat look at the hobby and tradition, especially for someone like me who has never visited a haunted house attraction, pro or non-pro.
But there isn’t much to it. It’s not about anything, really, although at the very end one of the three stories gets into significant and timely territory when a character is laid off and has the opportunity to go pro by turning his labor of love into a small business. Maybe Stephenson can give us a sequel that follows that endeavor further and more deeply.
The other haunted house documentary, Hell House, doesn’t have much in the way of a thesis or point either, but it does cover a more fascinating kind of attraction by focusing on a fundamentalist Christian operation in which the scares are rooted more in religious propaganda and biblical sins. The 11-year-old film is directed by George Ratliff (also now working primarily in narrative rather than nonfiction), who takes a relatively objective verite approach to recording the development and then execution of one Pentecostal mega-church’s skit-based haunt just outside of Dallas.
If you like the more well-known doc Jesus Camp, this is pretty similar territory, only the individual characters aren’t as illuminated or (as a result) memorable. This is understandable and to an extent respectful with the fly-on-the-wall approach. We’re never prompted to laugh at or even silently judge the members of the Trinity Assembly of God Church and their amateur community theater-esque show, partly because the film never puts any one figure into too much of a spotlight, either positively or negatively.
While there are a lot of controversial moments in the doc, such as a bit involving the hell house’s depiction of a man dying of AIDS and then going to hell for being homosexual and other acted-out scenes involving rape, abortion, drunk driving, adultery, incest school shootings (one of which directly dramatizes the Columbine incident), these are all the church’s doing while the camera just records the production. This too can always be both a blessing and a blunder on the part of the observational style. However, the viewer disappointed with a lack of provocation might be an issue in and of itself.
But then there is also the matter of there being very little real drama to keep us captivated. Outside of one single sequence in which a group of disapproving teenagers get into a weak debate with a Trinity official about the offensiveness of the attraction, we don’t even see any protesting of the hell house. Again, this film is mostly just a neat -- though possibly also disturbing -- look into something you might not be familiar with. And you may wind up wishing for a more substantial exploration of the church’s appropriation of a holiday they tend to see as too paganistic or of some other kind of commentary on the annual event.
While both The American Scream and Hell House are most appropriately watched around Halloween, the holiday occasion shouldn’t be too limiting given that the theatrical elements of both kinds of haunts make the films play like any sort of documentary highlighting the creative and production process, whether it be with a movie, a play or a one-time-a-year attraction. For tonight, though, you can find The American Scream re-airing on Chiller and Hell House streaming on Netflix.
Two of my favorite documentaries from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival are now hitting DVD and other formats. First up, available on disc and Netflix streaming as of yesterday, is Bess Kargman's audience favorite First Position. Here is what I wrote of the film from my TIFF dispatch over a year ago: "Filled with astonishingly cute and talented young ballet dancers, the Cadillac People’s Choice award runner-up is magically upbeat and exhilarating in spirit. Particularly noteworthy is the way first-time director Bess Kargman manages to address a few world issues, with great hopefulness, by way of some of the subjects she follows."
And hitting DVD next Tuesday is Jessica Yu's Last Call at the Oasis, a film I expected to do much better on account of it being from the producers of An Inconvenient Truth and Waiting for Superman. I was even blurbed on marketing materials calling it a shoo-in for the Oscar (it's still possible...). Here's what I wrote last year of this must-see issue film, which you have to know can't be too daunting a cause doc since it features Jack Black (see the clip below): "Jam-packed with information-filled narratives concerning water crises and a continuation of the Erin Brockovich story, the doc is commended for circumventing fearmongering in favor of engagement and encouragement."
I'll be back with another Doc Talk column in two weeks. Until then you can follow me on Twitter @thefilmcynic and at the DOC Channel Blog.