Since October, Eli Roth and company have been regaling horror fans with reflections on popular horror films. Last Sunday, November 18, marked the last episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, which focused on the most basic of all horror: the ghost story.
It starts with a bang. There weren’t too many convincing ghosts on screen from the inception of film until Poltergeist. Not only are the ghosts convincing, but the movie is set in totally safe suburbia. There’s a quip that the family afflicted by ghosts is Steven Spielberg, but what happens to the family is Tobe Hooper. Everything was “Ke[pt] light until it’s not.”
A lot is made of the practical effects of the film, which remain impressive even now. Craig T. Nelson even casually mentions that real human remains were used in the climactic pool scene–putting to rest debate over the truth of that old rumor. Still, even the effects that were a bit less biological were discussed too, such as the possessed tree and the famous face-pulling scene.
This is linked to Insidious, another film about spirits striking a happy suburban family. While the family in Poltergeist is haunted because of where their home is built, this family is afflicted because their son is haunted. The transition is nice and logical because of this comparison.
After the commercial break, The Haunting (1963), based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining got time in the limelight. Both focus on bad places, where ghosts and other evil spirits are just waiting for someone damaged to enter: “Perfect location[s] for [damaged people] to fall apart.” While The Haunting is praised for its subtlety which allowed the imagination to run wild (Stephen King claims that he thought he had died of a heart attack when he saw it as a child), The Shining gives horror that can’t be ignored or truly explained away.
Incredibly, Stephen King talks about Stanley Kubrick’s take on his second novel. It’s well-known that he wasn’t a fan of it, and he lays things out in a much clearer way than I’ve ever heard before. King likened it to “a beautifully restored Cadillac without a motor in it.” He also spoke of character Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) having no character arc, and said that Kubrick essentially took a suspenseful horror book and turned it into an art film.
The Sixth Sense then has a moment of discussion, because its ghosts, unlike those of The Shining or some others discussed, are not actively trying to harm. In previous weeks, horror films where the classification of “horror” are discussed, and it stands for The Sixth Sense, too. Haley Joel Osment, who played the film’s protagonist, says the fear in the movie isn’t of the ghosts, but really the fear of being unable to communicate with one another.
From here, more horror films that are more like “murder mysteries the dead want you to solve” are looked at. The Changeling gets love, both for its connection to this idea and for being the “first movie that made a bouncing ball absolutely terrifying.” Guillermo del Toro’s films The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak are also discussed, though both of these films differ because you see the spectors, rather than just how they affect the world around them. Even though some of these spirits may terrify, they don’t necessarily mean harm to the protagonist.
As the final alternative to this idea, we get to see The Ring, whose antagonist, Samara, is a “serial killer from beyond the grave.” The protagonist’s desire to save her son, who will be killed by the ghostly girl, reiterates ideas discussed earlier in regards to Poltergeist and Insidious.
Very briefly, The Ring is even compared to its original Japanese source material, Ringu. There are some clips shown side-by-side as the differences between Eastern and Western horror are discussed. Some things had to be adapted to strike more of a chord with American audiences without the same folkloric and pop culture background as a Japanese audience. The imagery that was kept, however, was exotic and appealing to American filmmakers, who began injecting such things into utterly American productions, like the remake of Amityville Horror.
This episode ended up being the perfect send-off for the series, concluding things on a strong note. This episode felt as if not only the movies it focused on were given appropriate amounts of time, but that there was a solid, core idea that guided the choices made for the movies.
The discussions were varied as well. Rather than just focusing on the thematic connections the films had, time was given to other areas of interest like effects, directing choices, and inspirations for film choices. This kept the episode lively and helps it stand out against other episodes in the series. The only idea that felt like needless repetition was the discussion about The Sixth Sense being a horror film that no one wanted to identify as a horror film. Fortunately, it’s not harped upon.
Although this series has ended, all seven episodes are available to stream on AMC’s website, depending on your cable provider.