Four Docs to Watch on Halloween

In uncertain times, many filmgoers seek out horror or escapist narratives in order to get their minds off terrorism, unemployment, or their own lives. Over the past 10 years, my friends and I have kept up the tradition of watching terrifying films throughout the month of October in order to dispel the candy-colored cobwebs that have sterilized the holiday season into so much Scooby-Doo hijinx. However, now in my 30s, I look back on the many films I’ve watched and realized that the truly horrifying films have never been about zombies, vampires, or possessed dolls, but documentaries about events in settings that were far too similar to my own, small-town upbringing. The four films I recommend below contain subject matter that is not suitable for children or grandparents. I admire them because they ignore an escapist impulse and dive in to life’s nastier truths and the frightening behavior of marginalized people. At the same time, these films try to make sense of exactly why these characters are in their situations, proving yet again the adage: truth is often scarier than fiction.

Until the Light Takes Us
(Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell. 2010. USA. 93 min.)

Aaron Aites and Audrey Ewell present the evolution of Norway’s black metal scene with an almost literary perspective, focusing on the complex, disaffected youth who created a new music genre that was overshadowed by the crimes committed by its musicians. In an atmosphere of eerie seduction, the filmmakers introduce us to men who speak and behave as any young, intelligent men would, until their darkness seeps out and reminds us that not everything is as it appears.

Interviews with Fenriz of Darkthrone and Varg Vikernes of Burzum cast the two stars of this musical revolution in near opposition. The former chooses music; the latter chooses murder and the pull of a radical political philosophy. The film pays sympathy to Vikernes then reminds us he is both a racist and a murderer. Fenriz plays the role of protagonist, if there is any in this documentary. Now in his late 30s, surrounded by musical imitators with little understanding of his scene’s original goals, he lives a lonely existence in the town where his musical dreams were created and then blanketed with satanic hysteria. Fenriz’s visit to a visual artist’s misinterpretation of his own life is a powerful scene; the white of the gallery’s walls and the room’s silence stand in stark contrast to the loud, hellish music that Fenriz helped create.

Though some of the interludes run a bit longer than the average filmgoer would prefer, the film’s transitions are beautiful. The most powerful visual transition occurs when Vikernes’s compares his incarceration to the peaceful seclusion of a monastery, then the film cuts to footage of one of Norway’s historic churches engulfed in flames. On the second disk of the special edition DVD (out on October 19th), there are extended interviews with Vikernes, other bands, and a history of the black metal genre.

Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies
(Todd Phillips. 1991, 2007. USA. 64 min.)

Before he became a director of Hollywood comedies like Old School and The Hangover, Todd Phillips brought us the shock rock documentary of punk rocker GG Allin, front man for the Murder Junkies. Re-released in 2007 with additional footage, the film chronicles the life of one of rock n’ roll’s most controversial fringe icons. Although there’s brutal and sexually graphic material, Phillips is able to find the comedic and relatable side to those people who called Allin friend and brother. (At one point a fan describes how he convinced a friend to perform a sex act on Allin, mention’s the friend by name, reconsiders, asks Phillips for a recut, then continues to tell the story without worrying about the consequences.)

While some of the transitions are certainly the work of a film student evolving into a full-fledged director, the story is parceled out with an expert hand. The cringe-worthy antics captured on film are contrasted by stories of childhood trauma, alienation, and a need to fight back against a system that Allin and friends believed had failed them. Hated is the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of all the films I reviewed. Allin tears at himself with broken glass, assaults fans, and defecates, all in one concert. The shocking content may drown out the compelling story underneath, but those of strong stomach may find themselves entertained.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations
(Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. 1996, 2000. USA. 150, 130 min.)

Whereas Until the Light Takes Us presented the scary notion of heavy metal killers, the young men appear to be guilty of nothing other than liking black clothes and Metallica. Paradise Lost, however, tells the story of three men convicted of raping and murdering three boys in a small Arkansas town. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were given unprecedented access throughout the trial of the West Memphis Three, complete with behind-the-scene conversations with defense lawyers, interviews with the victims’ parents, and the accused murderers themselves.

The first film is a masterwork, leading the audience through the dismal backwaters of West Memphis, and respectfully showing the hard lives of the parents of both the alleged criminals and their victims. The filmmakers show a town more ready to convict than defend these outcasts, though the prosecution’s argument is underrepresented.

The second film, while a fine follow-up that shows how the West Memphis Three have adjusted to life in prison, relies heavily on footage from the first. Featured more prominently in the second film is John Mark Byers, the uncouth father of one of the victims who had his teeth removed shortly before new evidence on the corpses suggested bite marks. However, this misdirection may only add to the hysteria of a small town looking for answers and closure on a crime that they could only assume was satanic in nature. The special edition of this DVD set came out in 2008, and with a third movie in the works, I recommend watching it as a study of how a modern day witch hunt can unfold at a moment’s notice.

The “monsters” of these movies are the Sunday School teacher’s boogeymen: the heavy metal fan, the weird kids that hang out in the woods all in black, or the freaky loner with purple hair that haunts the mall’s food court. The chills one gets from these documentaries comes not from a rubber-masked murderer, but from unassuming small-town neighborhoods or farmlands. While they’re not “popcorn flicks” (please do not eat while watching Hated), they are thought-provoking, unsettling, and ultimately rewarding films.

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