REVIEW: ‘Why Horror?’ investigates fascination with horror genre

John Carpenter and Tal Zimerman meet in Why Horror? Photo courtesy of Don Ferguson Productions.
John Carpenter and Tal Zimerman meet in Why Horror? Photo courtesy of Don Ferguson Productions.

Why Horror?, the clever new documentary from co-directors Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay, explores the question of what makes the horror genre so fascinating to so many diehard fans. Using uber-fan Tal Zimerman as the on-screen journeyman into the world of horror, the film investigates several key areas of the genre, including cultural differences and similarities, video games, the evolution of cinematic trends and how one conquers fear.

The findings are interesting and entertaining, and horror fans will find plenty of “a-ha” moments of acceptance and validation. Zimerman proves to be a likable, thoughtful personality who asks many solid questions and tries his best to draw some important answers.

Why Horror?, which is currently airing on Showtime, travels around the world to experience the genre in Japan, Mexico, England and the United States. Several topics come into focus, including the origins of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, the Japanese ghost stories that dominated megaplexes in the 1990s and the foundational literature that kickstarted the genre. There are some interesting asides about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the role and influence of female directors and the artistic horror work that can be found in expensive galleries and museums. There’s one animated sequence that is admittedly sparse on details but proves to be a nice summary of how cinema has adopted the horror genre, essentially starting with the Universal monsters of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy, and evolving into slasher flicks in the 1980s and meta-horror in the 1990s.

Several filmmakers are interviewed along the way, including George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Don Coscarelli and Eli Roth.

Throughout the exploration, Zimerman personalizes the journey, and this is perhaps the most engaging part of the documentary. It doesn’t take much to understand some of the themes that have run throughout the genre, but it does prove quite revealing when the audience is allowed a peek into the life of a horror uber-fan. Viewers will see his impressive VHS collection, his many movie posters on the wall and the possessions he buys on the road. They will hear from his family, learn of his early days experimenting with horror makeup and actually watch an academic experiment that has Zimerman and his mother both experiencing horror films at the same time, all while being hooked up to monitors that gauge their bodies’ responses.

Tal Zimerman loves horror, and this is his horror cave. Photo courtesy of Don Ferguson Productions.
Tal Zimerman loves horror, and this is his horror cave. Photo courtesy of Don Ferguson Productions.

The relatively short 82-minute running time means that the exploration feels more like a sprint than an in-depth investigation. John Carpenter and Halloween receive only a few words. George A. Romero and the original Night of the Living Dead are mentioned but not in full detail. There’s a reference to giallo and Resident Evil, but it all feels like Zimerman and company are name dropping as many genre staples as possible. Slowing down the narrative and focusing on concrete chapters (conventions, video games, cinematic trends, etc.) could have proved his thesis even more resoundingly.

Another missing element from the documentary are the detractors. Throughout history there have been folks who discount and denounce the horror genre, and certainly this has prompted debates about the societal effect of violent video games and the artistic merits of these scary films. These voices are only briefly mentioned, which is fine. After all, Why Horror? is a celebration of the genre, but after a while it becomes difficult to figure out how this community on the cinematic periphery actually became the mainstream. Was it simply the success of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead on AMC? Is it all about humans’ fear of the unknown? Why zombies in 2015? Why Scream in the 1990s? With a documentary that has a question mark in the title, don’t expect any easy, definitive answers.

Why Horror?at its most basic level, is an enjoyable documentary experience. Zimerman knows his stuff, and even though it’s not a “total-package” exploration, there’s enough obvious fandom to quench the interest of genre cheerleaders. Horror, as the audience learns, has been around for many years and will probably be around forever. The reason this documentary is so interesting and engaging in 2015 is because, as Zimerman says, horror is at an all-time high, with conventions, blockbuster films and mainstream acceptance. It’s OK to come out from the shadows, and Why Horror? is a fitting rallying cry for a community that is, well, a community.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Why Horror?
  • 2015
  • Directed by Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay
  • Featuring Tal Zimerman
  • Running time: 82 minutes
  • Rating: ★★★☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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