Documentaries To Watch On Halloween
With October 31st almost upon us, I am officially in full “Halloween Movie Viewing” mode. Now, granted, as a gigantic horror fan, it’s not like I need any excuse to watch a bunch of scary movies. But, still, there’s a special feeling that comes with the marathon viewing that happens in October. It just feels…right.
If you’re like me, you have your standard go-to films for every October (for me, it’s Return of the Living Dead, Bride of Frankenstein, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Monster Squad and, of course, Halloween), and you also try to mix in some fright flicks you haven’t seen before. Now, this can get tough if you tend to spend the other eleven months over-doing it with horror, too. Have you really left yourself any unseen gems by the time Halloween comes around? Don’t worry, if not, I’m here to help. And I do so by suggesting you think a little outside the box. For instance, why not mix it up and throw some documentaries into this year’s Halloween movie fest? But which documentaries actually fit the mold for the season, you ask? Well, allow me to offer a few suggestions:
THE AMERICAN SCREAM
Many of you reading this probably decorate your homes for Halloween. Or, if you don’t, chances are still good that other folks in your neighborhood do. We all know the kinds of discrepancies you can see here. For some, Halloween “decorating” is as simple as throwing a single jack-o-lantern on the porch, while others turn their front yard into a full graveyard set that wouldn’t look out of place in a B-horror movie from the ‘50s. But no matter how elaborate the decorations might get in your neighborhood, it’s a safe bet they don’t hold a candle to what’s going on in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.
For some reason, Fairhaven seems to be a hub for the recent “home haunter” phenomenon – that is, regular folks who use Halloween as an opportunity to turn their homes into incredibly extravagant haunted attractions, similar to the professional “haunted houses” you might pay to visit in October. This fascinating documentary profiles three such families in the town of Fairhaven, all of whom are clearly ultra passionate about this hobby…for better or worse (one father spends nearly the entirety of the other eleven months prepping his next haunted house, sometimes to the detriment of spending quality time with his family). It’s an often funny, but sometimes uncomfortable, look at the power a hobby like this can hold over someone. But for people like me, who love Halloween with all our souls, it’s also hard not to watch and simply feel a little envious of the fine people of Fairhaven, who are given one hell of a Halloween every year thanks to these ultra-dedicated neighbors.
Hell House focuses on a much different kind of haunted attraction than those profiled in The American Scream…those run by Christian church organizations, hoping to scare and save their visitors with terrifying scenes depicting the horror of sinful behavior. This documentary focuses on a large and extremely popular annual Hell House put on by the Cedar Hill Trinity Church youth group, in Cedar Hill, Texas. Here, visitors who come through the doors are not met with pop-out skeletons or actors dressed like vampires and zombies, but instead “realistic” (or at least meant to be realistic) vignettes showing off the dangers of abortion, drug use, suicide, homosexuality, pre-marital sex and worshipping of the occult. Spooky, huh?
Hell House not only shows us the preparation of the event itself, but also gives us a look into the lives of those involved with the production. The film wisely portrays the entire affair objectively, allowing you, the viewer, to make up your mind about the intentions of these people and the attraction they have created. The highlight of the film is the final act, in which we experience the Hell House walk-through in all its Halloween night glory. For those of you perhaps curious about a completely different kind of Halloween experience than you may have ever encountered, give this one a watch.
ZOMBIE GIRL: THE MOVIE
I’ve seen a lot of crappy low-budget zombie movies in my lifetime. I’ll probably see a lot more of them before all is said and done. Partly, this is my issue – my obsessive love for the zombie genre makes it hard to resist watching nearly every new living dead flick that comes my way. But the whole reason I am able to indulge this habit to such an overwhelming degree is because that love of zombie movies seems shared by so many wanna-be filmmakers. No other horror sub-genre seems to attract as many amateur auteurs as the zombie movie. This probably goes without saying, but most of this homemade zombie films are bad. Like, really, really bad. In fact, there have been numerous occasions when I’ve watched one of these movies and remarked that it felt like it was directed by a little kid. That’s usually not a compliment…unless, of course, it’s actually the truth.
Zombie Girl documents the tumultuous production of the low-budget zombie film, Pathogen. Like numerous indie zombie flicks before it, Pathogen’s production was plagued by all kinds of set-backs and headaches. The one main difference? Its director, Emily Hagins, was a twelve year old girl.
Undoubtedly one of the most charming documentaries you will see, Zombie Girl shows us every high and low among Emily’s two-year journey to get her first feature-length horror film made…while at the same time still dealing with the regular pressures of any pre-teen girl. Hagins is an amazing, inspirational figure. Sure, there are times when her immaturity shows through. How could it not? But, overall, she remains amazingly composed and dedicated as she forges ahead with her dream. It’s not only great (for a horror nut like me) to see a young child so in love with horror, but it’s also just heartwarming to see the love of cinema, and the potential future of filmmaking, so embodied in one little girl. Sure enough, in the years since this documentary was made, Hagins – now 22 – has directed two more feature length films, both of which have played film festivals and received their fair share of positive reviews. Zombie Girl, then, might represent a look at the humble beginnings of a future star. And, heck, even if that isn’t the case, do you really want to pass up watching a twelve year old make a zombie movie?
Zombie Girl has occasionally popped up on Netflix streaming, but I’d recommend going the extra mile and picking-up the DVD, which features the feature-length Pathogen as a bonus feature! Sure, maybe it’s not the most polished horror movie you will ever see, but c’mon…a kid directed it! And, like I said, for once that’s not an insult.
“But, Trevor, it’s Halloween! We want to be scared!!” Hey, don’t worry…I got you covered. Just because we’re dealing with documentaries here, doesn’t mean we can’t still get some of the same chills and thrills we come to expect this time of year. Cropsey, a 2009 film from Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio, is at times as white-knuckled, nail-biting an experience as many of the best horror movies out there. Ostensibly beginning as an exploration of the well-known “Cropsey” urban legend – the inspiration for the terrific 1981 slasher film, The Burning – Zeman and Brancaccio’s film eventually transforms into a haunting investigation of the case if Andre Rand, a convicted child kidnapper from Staten Island. As the filmmakers dive deeper into the case and uncover several shocking revelations, they reveal a fascinating connection between real-life horrors and the propagation of urban legends. Oh, and it also features a sequence involving the filmmakers exploring an abandoned mental hospital that gives Session 9 a run for its money in the creepiness department. The truth is often scarier than fiction, and Cropsey is a stunning reminder of that fact.