The year’s first great comedy and first decent horror film – What We Do in the Shadows – releases wide this weekend. Hooray! We loved it so, and wanted to celebrate it as well as all our other favorite documentary-style horror films. There are so many greats to choose from – the Norwegian lunacy of TrollHunter? The meta-slasher Behind the Mask? Well, it took some doing, but we landed on our favorite documentary-styled horror films. Enjoy!
What We Do in the Shadows (2015)
In the weeks leading up to the Unholy Masquerade – a celebration for Wellington, New Zealand’s surprisingly numerous undead population – a documentary crew begins following four vampire flatmates. Besides regular flatmate spats about who is and is not doing their share of dishes and laying down towels before ruining an antique fainting couch with blood stains, we witness some of the modern tribulations of the vampire. The filmmakers know how to mine the absurd just as well as they handle the hum drum minutia. The balance generates easily the best mock doc since Christopher Guest. It’s also the first great comedy of 2015.
About 5 years ago, Belgian filmmaker Vincent Lanoo made his own (blandly titled) mock-doc about vampires. Far darker and more morbid than Shadows (the first two film crews were eaten before they could complete the documentary; the final film is dedicated to the memory of the third crew), Lanoo’s film is still insightful and very funny.
The crew moves in with a vampire family with two undisciplined teens. The house also contains the couple who live in their basement (vampires can’t own a home until they have – make – children), and Meat (the name they’ve given the woman they keep in their kitchen). There’s also a coop out back for the illegal immigrants the cops drop off on Mondays. Wickedly hilarious.
American Zombie (2007)
American Zombie begins as an insightful satire on the modern documentary, pitting objective artist against gonzo filmmaker. Director Grace Lee, playing herself, agrees to co-direct a documentary on the Los Angeles area’s growing undead population with her zealous, craftless friend John (John Solomon). They interview experts – doctors, historians, social workers – and choose a handful of zombies as subjects. Lee approaches the film as the documentation of a misunderstood community; her co-director John is looking for something a little more lurid.
American Zombie is observant and often very funny. (An evangelist hoping to serve this untapped market remarks to the camera, “Jesus loves zombies. Jesus was the original zombie.” Nice!) As the movie progresses you find yourself lulled by Lee’s low-key, funny take on the living dead. And then, slowly but surely, she turns her film into a surprisingly creepy little horror flick.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Not every faux-documentary in horror is a comedy. BW is, of course, the now famous instigator of the found footage movement. (Yes, we’ve seen Cannibal Holocaust.) Between the novelty of the found footage approach and the also novel use of viral marketing, the film drew a huge audience of people who believed they were basically seeing a snuff film. Nice.
And those two cutting edge techniques buoyed this minimalistic, naturalistic home movie about three bickering buddies who venture into the Maryland woods to document the urban legend of The Blair Witch. Twig dolls, late night noises, jumpy cameras, unknown actors and not much else blended into an honestly frightening flick that played upon the nightmares some of us have had since childhood.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Out to expose the fraudulent exorcisms perpetrated by evangelical ministers like himself all over the South, Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian) teams up with a documentarian and her cameraman. Together they set out to capture his final exorcism – chosen at random from his PO Box – before he hangs up his bible. Things don’t go as planned.
Fabian exploits every possibility he finds in the character of a disenchanted preacher. He’s absolutely terrific, and is aided by an effectively shaken and/or creepy supporting cast working with a script that explores any number of unseemly Southern Gothic possibilities before deciding what kind of devil is plaguing poor Nell (Ashley Bell). Thanks largely to the commitment of the cast and the effortlessly eerie backdrop of backwoods Louisiana, The Last Exorcism entertains throughout.