Published Oct 23, 2014As a nerd, it's always pretty weird seeing your favourite genre rise to the surface of mainstream culture, and horror is no exception. In high school I used hide my VHS copies of Brain Dead and Army of Darkness under my bed or risk being ruthlessly mocked by friends, so it's been exciting and strange to watch as zombie walks, American Horror Story and horror conventions have gradually come into pop culture vogue all over the world. In Why Horror? — the lone documentary entry in this year's Toronto After Dark lineup — superfan journalist Tal Zimerman explores this modern upsurge of horror culture, charting its course throughout history and interviewing a host of filmmakers, writers, creators, gamemakers and thinkers about why we love to get spooked.
First things first: this movie is stacked. Armed with two directors — Nicolas Kleiman and Rob Lindsay — Zimerman travelled to the UK, Japan and Mexico, and spoke to everyone from John Carpenter and Eli Roth to Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami and senior British Film Institute executive Lizzie Francke, in addition to reputable folks from the Vancouver and Toronto horror communities. These interviews are cut with a chronological overview of horror history, beginning with the art of Bruegel and Goya and moving into the evolution of gothic horror with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and beyond. It's structured by the framework of Zimerman's own horror history, bolstered by anecdotes from his parents and siblings; he also goes through a couple of scientific experiments to compare and measure the effects of watching horror movies on the brain.
So yeah — this is a lot to digest in one film. While Zimerman, Kleiman and Lindsay have done an admirable job trying to be as comprehensive as possible, the rapid-fire deluge of talking heads is a little dizzying. There are also some tonal incongruities, which is something that will happen when you try to cover this much material with so many different personalities and ideas. While I appreciated the filmmakers' discussion of misogyny in horror, I cringed when one interviewee — the editor of a major horror publication — attributed the rising popularity of horror movies to "bros trying to get their girlfriends wet"; another interviewee earlier in the film commented that horror films are as effective as wine coolers when it comes to getting women in the mood. These are throwaway comments that I suspect are not necessarily reflective of the filmmaker's views, but they're also gross, and I think they exemplify exactly why we need to keep the conversation about women and representation in horror films going.
Happily, though, much of the film focuses on Zimerman, who is a warm, engaging and self-deprecating presence, and an ideal guide to the global horror phenomenon. I also loved his mom, who remembers gently tolerating Zimerman's gory childhood drawings and nurturing his tendencies to experiment on his brother with horror makeup. This personal touch is reminiscent of Sam Dunn's Metal and Global Metal documentaries, and testifies to the way personal passions can inform identity and community.
(Don Ferguson Productions)