For the past few weeks, Eli Roth and company (a revolving guest list that has included Stephen King, Joe Hill, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Landis, and many, many more) have been taking viewers through the history of horror movie favorites. They’ve covered zombies, a double-dosage of slashers, and demonic possession; the latest venture was to explore the various creatures that have preyed on protagonists throughout the years.
This episode started off with the line, “[Monsters] represent everything ugly about ourselves,” a sentiment repeated again and again throughout the episode. Appropriately, the first monster discussed closely is the one that can appear as that ugliness and fear, Pennywise. Specifically, the newest incarnation from 2017, although the 1990 Pennywise is addressed.
Interestingly, although his overt monstrosity is discussed, Diablo Cody, writer of Jennifer’s Body, says that the real horror of the book is “the horror of society” that brings racism, misogyny, and child abuse, all of which are things that feed Pennywise’s power.
From here, there’s a quick skip to both Gremlins–which is described as “great gateway horror,” as the movie is difficult to suss out as either comedy or straight horror–to the The Thing (1982). Of course, The Thing plays on a fear that the people around you aren’t what they seem at all. A brief discussion occurs about the alien from The Thing: when trying to figure out how the monster could be portrayed, there was finally a decision to show the monster–but to make it a different monster every time.
Perhaps because The Thing replicates an innocuous sled dog, the topic changes to The Birds, a movie about birds turning on people for no discernible reason. Tippi Hedren, who played the lead role, shed her own interpretations on the movie. No answers made the movie even more frightening, and Alfred Hitchcock’s knowledge of his audience allowed him to work with their fears.
The most intriguing interpretation points out that Hedren’s character starts out as an independent, strong woman who is reduced to near-catatonia and paranoia by the end of the movie. Or, the sort of woman Hitchcock (and many viewers at the time) were more comfortable with.
Next came Cujo, which King cites here as in many other places to be one of his favorite adaptations of one of his books. He says that for him, “horror is always situational” and points to the excruciating part of the movie where a mother and her young son are trapped in a sweltering car by their rabid, formerly loving Saint Bernard.
After that came Jaws. Although everyone knows the story about the killer shark–and how it changed the movie industry forever–this was another one that was given an interesting read. Like It, there was an idea that even though this is a horror movie, it is more about something else. In this case, the bonds between community, family, and the men who go to hunt the shark.
Werewolves are the next big topic, and lore is actually touched upon. Mostly, John Landis (American Werewolf in London) discusses how the things we think are werewolf “fact” such as their susceptibility to silver was invented for The Wolf Man (1941). The silver didn’t borrow from any other legends, either–it was inspired by The Lone Ranger! He also discussed how the 1941 film reflected writer Curt Siodmak’s experience as a disenfranchised Jewish man from Germany. There is then movement to American Werewolf in London and The Howling‘s incredible practical and make-up effects.
The final segment is a sort of (well-deserved!) love fest for Guillermo del Toro: he is constantly questioning what makes a monster and presenting characters that reflect the ideas of normalcy on the outside with monstrosity within, and vice versa. He also presents viewers with the question of what they would rather be.
Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water are cited specifically. The Shape of Water also reaches back into horror history: as a child, del Toro saw The Creature From the Black Lagoon and was stricken by the gracefulness of the Creature swimming. He thought it was going to be a romance. It wasn’t. So he revised it.
The episode ends with Doug Jones (perhaps best known as the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth) summing things up powerfully: Horror movies, “[give] a voice to the voiceless and [empower] the weak.” He goes on to add that everyone has demons, but movies like these–any horror movie really–give us catharsis because they show movie demons getting destroyed.
This wasn’t a bad episode, but it felt unfocused. The topic is broad–perhaps a little too broad for a single 42-minute episode. There were tantalizing glimpses of fascinating topics, genres, and movies that didn’t go far enough. Considering the powerful arguments previous episodes have made for topics I’m not as interested in, I was a little disappointed I wasn’t going to hear a strong case for Gremlins or other similar movies.
The strongest section of the episode is at the end, which features two of Guillermo del Toro’s film. The focus is clear as is the argument that is being made. Before this segment, the ideas discussed are danced around without quite the same commitment, so major ideas aren’t truly established until everything is nearly over. It’s a strange composition.
Episode six of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, “Vampires,” will be airing November 11 at midnight.