Friday, September 20, 2019

Halloween TV: Spooky Documentaries

Well, here we are folks! We're about shin-deep in the Halloween season. I'd say the true kick-off for most enthusiasts is September 1st or so and I know I started dipping my toes in even earlier than that in August, but with only a few days away from the true start of Fall, there's no denying it: Halloween is coming!

One of my favourite traditions around Halloween since I was a little kid was taking in the seasonal fare on television. Now, I don't just mean the usual suspects, like the cartoon specials, or the Halloween episodes of your favourite sitcoms. Channels like A&E or History used to be rife with Halloween or horror-related documentaries and biographies and this stuff was honestly where I cut my teeth on the macabre.

I could've easily just chosen five episodes of Biography for this list, but I tried to vary, and the following is a selection of five spooky documentaries for you to check out this Halloween season. They're guaranteed to overload your nostalgia and give you those creepy vibes you're searching for until October 31st!

Pagan Invasion: Halloween - Trick or Treat?

I might as well get this one out of the way right now, because it's actually a big cheat! You see, to the best of my knowledge, this show has never aired on TV. If you had asked me a few years back, I would've sworn I saw this on Vision TV back in the day, but I can't find any proof of that. It does have a tenuous attachment to another program we'll talk about down the line, though.

Pagan Invasion was a 13-video series produced by Jeremiah Films in the early 1990s, which is a Christian company that intended to (and I quote), "promote patriotism, traditional values, and the Biblical worldview of [the] founding fathers". I presume the "founding fathers" refers to the United States, where Jeremiah Films is based.

The series tackled all sorts of the world's "evils", including evolution, paganism, and the occult, and of course they made sure to highlight one of the most nefarious issues attacking America in their premiere episode: Halloween.

This video is Satanic Panic at its prime, folks. It is an extremist view of how our culture is letting evil and Satan into our lives by practicing a dark and pagan ritual like Halloween. There's a segment on how horror movies is promoting copycat killers across America (I feel like I've heard this one before *cough* video games *cough cough*) and all sorts of footage of neo-paganists performing rituals in the woods, which they try to edit in such a way to make the whole thing look ominous and it just doesn't pan out. They even have an interview with a man who says that he was forced into Satanism as a child and that every Halloween night occultists the world over are out slaying babies and young children right under our noses.

It's a really heavy-handed attempt at taking a holiday that is about kids trick-or-treating, bobbing for apples, dressing up for fun, and having parades and twist its image into devil-worshipping for the purpose of fear-mongering.

So, why do I suggest it?

Well, it is absolutely laden with clips of old video rental shops, film media events with VHS tapes and posters, and awesome Halloween stores, with lavish costumes and amazing decorations, like die cut cardboard cutouts, blow molds, and signs.

You can have a good laugh at the low-rent CG production values and content, but at the same time enjoy the nostalgic ephemera trickled throughout and that checks a lot of boxes in my book!

The Haunted History of Halloween

This one is a must-watch for me each year!

Initially released in 1997 for A&E, The Haunted History of Halloween is a really cool hour long doc that goes back 3000 years to Ireland and walks through the history of Halloween from its very beginnings to (relatively) where it is today.

I come from an Irish background and have studied some Gaelic, so I immediately find all this Celtic history fascinating, but I still think that this is for just about anyone that calls themselves a Halloween fanatic.

It breaks down a lot of the different celebrations of Halloween, like trick-or-treating, carving jack-o-lanterns, and wearing costumes and shows how these traditions were changed by the introduction of Catholicism and how they ultimately found their way to North America.

There's even a blurb where they mention Pagan Invasion! Maybe this is why I was sure I'd seen that special on TV before? It's brief, but you'll see it, and I wouldn't say they mention it in a positive light.

This special is loaded with great imagery, from spooky old paintings of the pagan Samhain, to stock footage of Halloweens past in America and everything in between. You're going to want to set aside some time to watch this one!

The lineage here is a little weird. As you can see by the DVD art above, this show is branded by the History Channel, but I know for fact that it aired on A&E initially. The only thing I can figure is they continued to air it on History or aired it on both channels (they're both owned by the same company). I've heard there is an updated version that came out in 2012, but I'd say just stick with the 97 version, so you get that nostalgic video vibe, to boot.

Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood

This was a new-to-me title this year, but I'm so glad I found it and I just had to share.

You see, every year around this time I get really nostalgic for the old black and white Universal horror films from the 1930s and forward. I mentioned before that my obsession with the horror genre started with a lot of the content that A&E put out in the 1980s and 90s, like biographies on the actors Boris Karloff or Bela Lugosi, and that lead me to their many films beginning with Lugosi's Dracula and Karloff's Frankenstein in 1931.

I get my fix for these films on Turner Classic Movies each October, when they drop a ton of classic horror movie content. The last few years, to spice things up, I've noticed they've been reaching into a different classic horror movie vault: Hammer Film Productions, a company which basically single-handedly revived gothic horror in the late-50s with their takes on the classic monsters Universal made famous 25 years earlier.

This 1987 BBC production titled Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood (oh, don't ya love it!?) takes a deep look into the humble beginnings of Hammer through their heyday and finally to their demise in the late-70s. It goes without saying (and yet here I am) that as this film was produced in '87, there's no mention of the revival of the company in '07.

The show focuses heavily on the biggest stars in Hammer's cadré - Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee - but it does feature a few films outside of their influence and I know I learned a lot about the company I hadn't known before.

So, if you're accustomed to Hammer's films there's some great insight here or if you've never seen a Hammer production here's your gateway! And it's loaded with footage from their many, many films that are perfect for this time of year. It is made for Halloween, even if it first aired in June!

Biography: Vincent Price - The Versatile Villain

I had to have at least one episode of Biography in this list.

To keep things fresh, I decided to try and think of a horror icon that maybe doesn't get as much of the spotlight and I settled on the incomparable Vincent Price.

The honest truth regarding this pick, however, is that unlike someone like Karloff, Lugosi, or Lon Chaney Jr., whose careers were - for the most part - embedded in the horror genre, Vincent Price fell into the spooky movies over time. It's 20 minutes or so into the special before there's even mention of a horror film!

That said, you get such a candid look at Vincent Price in this show, which of course talks at length of his career in horror, that it is so worth the watch.

The special has all the accoutrements of a horror-themed Biography; the classic organ music (I'm sure Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is in there somewhere), the gothic set pieces, skeletons, bats, and monsters, oh my! So for Halloween, it does have you covered, but if you want something a little more mired in the macabre, you might want to settle on some of the names I dropped above. But why not spice things up? I mean, did you know Vincent Price appeared on Hollywood Squares 900 times!?

You're not going to find that just anywhere. You can thank me later.

Rivals: Frankenstein vs. Dracula

I had to have one deep cut.

Rivals was a 1995 series produced by the newly minted Discovery Channel, which never shied away from great Halloween content back in the day. The show was hosted by veteran character actor, Gerald McRaney, and took a look at different rivals throughout history. I have to assume this particular episode aired during Halloween of '95, but I can't be sure without a TV guide handy.

Now, Discovery is a Canadian station and Rivals only aired late on Fridays and Saturdays, so it was a pretty short-lived affair that I'm sure not many people are aware of. I personally had no idea it existed and only ever found it while I was searching for new videos to watch about Karloff and Lugosi.

The show documents the careers of both actors from the very beginning, through their launch to stardom at Universal, and ultimately their deaths in the 70s and 80s. It definitely hams up their rivalry to some extent (which it kind of had to, I mean look at the title), but it does offer up some candid information on each of the veterans that I personally hadn't seen and thought was very interesting.

For a show that had nothing to do with horror outside of this one episode, they made the effort of dressing it up right. McRaney hams it up in a Dracula cape a few times and there's appropriately spooky music throughout. It just goes to show with just a little bit of effort you can add a little Halloween into anything!

And that's the whole point of this, right? Let's grab these few short weeks in Autumn before the craziness of Christmas settles in and enjoy the Halloween season. So, light your pumpkin candles, enjoy the cool weather, throw some fake spider webs on the windows, and let's do this!

Keep it spooky,