Acclaimed horror director Eli Roth discusses why he wanted to create a catalog for horror, what it was like to sit down with the biggest names in the genre, and why horror is actually good for us.
Q: Why did you want to make this documentary series about horror?
A: I’ve seen some really fantastic “Greatest Hit” shows from horror movies, but of all the subjects that have been documented, I felt like no one has ever really done a full cataloging of the genre, and the history of it and where it comes from and why. From the very first images of cinema through today, horror has consistently remained popular. It has never died. It’s resurrected studios — it saved Universal Studios, it saved New Line — and if you look at the movies that are theatrical hits now, it’s really horror movies and Marvel movies, or “event” comic movies. Whereas all of the other genres have fallen — dramas are now on television, comedies are harder and harder to get made — horror is consistent. People love to be scared.
Combined with that, a lot of my favorite directors are dying. We lost Wes Craven, we lost Tobe Hooper, we lost George Romero, we lost Herschell Gordon Lewis — and these are the architects of the genre. These are the people that made these seminal, landmark movies that not just changed cinema but actually changed popular culture. And with these filmmakers dying, unfortunately their stories die with them. I had the pleasure of knowing a lot of these guys and they were very, very funny and they were fantastic storytellers and it’s just a shame that they’re gone. So before we lost anyone else, I thought it was really important to get people’s stories and go through the history of the genre.
Q: What was it like sitting down and talking horror with some of biggest names in the genre?
A: For me, the big one that I’d met before in passing, but hadn’t gotten a chance to sit down with, was Stephen King. That was a big honor for me because he’s such an important figure in my life. … Just to get to talk to him about The Shining and get his point of view of why he didn’t like it, or what horror movies he does like. And how does he feel about adaptations? Does he like all of them, is it different from what’s in his head? We really went deep on Cujo, and how if that movie was any other genre, Dee Wallace could have won an Oscar for her performance, or at least been nominated, but because it’s a horror movie, critics dismissed it. But it’s really one of the best performances ever and it’s a really underrated film. When people see [History of Horror], the idea is that watching the show will make people want to go back and watch what is really a terrific, overlooked horror film. But we just had a fun time … He’s so funny, and obviously so brilliant. He has a quote in the show, “Even the worst horror movie is f–king terrific,” and that just sums up horror movie fans. You’re not judging a movie by the actors or the scripts. Even if it’s terrible, if there’s a great scare or a great kill, nothing else matters — all is forgiven.
Q: There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes knowledge in the series about the making of those scares and kills from Tom Savini, Greg Nicotero, and other special effects artists and filmmakers.
A: What those guys did was so innovative and really became the foundation for modern special effects. Tom Savini is one of those people you could say is single-handedly responsible for the Slasher boom. The violence in movies that he did like The Prowler and Maniac and Dawn of the Dead was unparalleled. And it comes from someone who was coming out of Vietnam and understood what that stuff looked like, and he also had an understanding of war and an understanding of weapons and effects, and a love for horror. If you go back to the Grand Guignol Theater in the 1890s in Paris, where they were chopping off heads and chopping off arms — that’s what crowds were coming out to see. And these [special effects] guys, 80 or 90 years later, were putting on like a modern Grand Guignol. And I think that’s how we all think of it. We all think of it as doing very fun, very gory, very inappropriate magic tricks.
Q: Was there anything that surprised you to learn while making the show?
A: I loved watching when Tom Savini was giving credit to Greg Nicotero for doing the best zombies in The Walking Dead. Tom is the zombie king, and he trained Greg on Day of the Dead and these guys are very close. To see Tom, almost like a proud parent, show his admiration for Greg and what Greg has been able to do. You look at the volume of zombies they do on The Walking Dead week after week after week, the amount of shows that have been produced. What Greg has been able to do is create a modern zombie unlike any other before in history and do it with such speed and have them look so incredibly real and so creative — it’s Tom Savini’s teaching that Greg has taken to another level. So it was really a pleasure to hear Tom Savini’s opinion of The Walking Dead.
Q: What horror movies impacted you the most when you were young?
A: When I was young, I remember reading an interview with Sam Raimi for Evil Dead and it said he was 21 when he made it. I remember being 13 and thinking, “Oh my God, that’s not that far away.” I used to think you had to “be an adult” or “be a professional” to make movies, and what Sam Raimi said made me think, “OK, this is how I’m going to do it.” This is someone who comes from Michigan, who made a movie with no stars, and it changed horror — and he got a quote from Stephen King on the poster, and that’s what everyone went to see. So when I made Cabin Fever — I wrote it when I was probably 20 or 21, and I didn’t get it made until I was 28 — I was just begging for money, and I shot it in the woods in a cabin with my friends. Then when the movie sold at a film festival, I screened it for Peter Jackson, and he gave me a quote for the poster, to continue the tradition of Stephen King giving Sam Raimi a quote for his poster for Evil Dead. It was actually Fran Walsh, Peter’s wife, who said, “Remember we saw Evil Dead because of that Stephen King quote? We should do that for Eli.” So I had the director of The Lord of the Rings with his quote on the poster, and he gave it to me for nothing, to support me. And that to me was one of those big major turning points in my career, because suddenly the whole tide had changed and it didn’t matter what the critics said, this is what Peter Jackson thought. … The momentum of the campaign changed because of that and people went to see the movie because Peter Jackson recommended it.
Q: How did you translate your childhood love of horror into your own personal filmmaking style?
A: When I was a kid, all I would do is sit down and think, “OK, I want to do a decapitation. How am I going to do it?” I had a VHS camera that was half our VCR that plugged into a camera. We were the only people in the neighborhood to have a VHS Camcorder. So during the week I would plan, and then on the weekends, I would think, “All right, how am I going to chop off a hand, or chop off an arm? How am I going to get a circular saw or a chainsaw? Do I have to hold the chainsaw and squirt the ketchup bottle at the same time?” [Laughs] So every weekend I was ruining power tools and making a mess and stinking up the basement. I had two brothers so I always had willing victims, and you just start shooting. … From the time I was 11 or 12 years old, all I would do is shoot a short film, and figure out the gags: an eye being stabbed out, someone’s head being chopped off, arms being ripped out, someone being hit by a car, someone being run over by a car — and when you pull it off, it’s the most incredible feeling. Then you bring it to a bunch of friends and people are having a sleepover and you put it on and everyone is losing their minds People just go crazy, and then they would watch it and say, “Let me know when you do another one, you can kill me.” By the end of high school, I had a cast of 40 or 50 people that would readily be in my films whenever I wanted. Everyone knew that’s what I was. It was like, “Oh, Eli’s going to direct horror movies.”
Q: People have been telling scary stories since basically the dawn of language. Why do you think scary stories are such an indelible part of the human experience?
A: The world is a terrifying place. Birth is very violent and death is very violent, and everything in between is violent. We’re basically avoiding these potholes in life where something terrible happens to you. Every day we just try to get through it without someone we know dying, or getting a disease, or getting hit by a car. It’s constantly there, this fear of the unknown. Scary stories are a way of dealing with that. In life, if we sit paralyzed by fear, nothing would function, so we bury all those feelings of being afraid. But it’s going to come out one way or another, as stress, as anxiety, as anger. Scary stories are a very healthy way to exorcise that fear. If you look at Grimm’s Fairy Tales, they’re very violent. There’s children being eaten by witches and baked in ovens and turned into creatures. They’re incredibly violent, but children love them, because kids are already thinking about this. Fairy tales help children deal with that fear of death and that fear of the unknown. It makes you feel better because it teaches you how to beat monsters if you ever encounter one. Horror movies are really fairy tales for adults.
Everyone watches a horror movie and thinks, “How would I get out of it? How would I do it?” That’s the fun of them. [Horror movies] are never going to die because the fears of society always change. As culture evolves, there’s always new contemporary fears — whether it was SARS, nuclear war, atomic radiation, Vietnam. You don’t always know it at the time. You’ll see it a few years from now, or a few months from now, a movie that captures the fears of the time.
Q: What do you hope viewers will take away from the show?
A: I wanted a show that would appeal to casual fans as well as horror geeks like myself. If you like zombies, but you don’t know a lot about it, you’re gonna get a lot of great ideas for movies to watch. If you’re an expert on zombies and you’ve seen every movie and you know everything, there’s always going to be something new to learn from the directors and filmmakers and fantastic people we interview for the show. I wanted a show that every Halloween, you can put it on at a party and just watch them as a marathon. They’re really, really fun to watch.
Eli Roth’s History of Horror premieres Sunday, October 14 Late Night.
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