Tag Archives: horror documentaries

Going Like a Ghost Town

Sideworld: Damnation Village

by Hope Madden

Director/narrator George Popov and writer Jonathan Russell return to England’s shadowy past for the third installment of their documentary series, Sideworld: Damnation Village. We leave the forests and seas behind to peek inside the cottages, inns and public houses beset by residents unwilling or unable to leave.

The sixty-minute doc benefits again from the collaboration of a team that’s clearly on the same page. Russell and Popov have worked together, not only on both previous installments in this series (The Haunted Forests of England and Terrors of the Sea) but also the narrative features Hex and The Droving.

Cinematographer Richard Suckling once again helps Popov fill the screen with spooky but beautiful scenes, while composer Matthew Laming again breathes eerie life to the imagery with his whispering, whistling score.

Their focus this go-round are the tiny clusters of cottages dotting the English countryside, villages that have withstood centuries of war, pestilence and trauma that have left their marks. We begin, of course, in Pluckley – Guinness’s “most haunted village”.

The film moves on to Prestbury and the tale of, among others, the Black Abbott. Visits to the mostly empty villages are accompanied by Popov’s associated tale of the macabre. The filmmakers enlist actors Helen O’Connor and William Poulter to give voice to letters, articles and witness accounts.

As intriguing as the tales of lost love and criminal retribution are, it’s the mournful story of Eyam that stays with you. Perhaps it’s the connection to modern tragedy – Eyam voluntarily quarantined during the Plague, saving all the communities around it from infection but dooming themselves in the process.

As the series progresses, an interest in connecting the spectral with the scientific has become one of Sideworld’s prominent elements. In this case, Popov and company explore British archeologist/author T.C. Lethbridge’s Stone Tape theory to help explain recurring, looping paranormal phenomena.

Perhaps what best sets this series apart from other spooky folklore entertainment is its reverence for the subject – not just the scary stories, but the actual human lives behind them. Mingled with the solid storytelling – visual and aural – the heady concoction delivers another solid look at the unexplainable.

Scary Sea Shanty

Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea

by Hope Madden

Inspired by the British folklore they’ve explored in two features, Hex and The Droving, director George Popov and writer Jonathan Russell turn away from fiction, delivering spectral dread in truer tales.

Their second documentary in less than a year, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea swims dark waters alongside ghost ships and sea monsters.

Popov’s voiceover establishes a Twilight Zone quality: Truth and lies do not relate in such a simple equation when the line between fact and fiction is enshrouded in mist and shadow. Beyond that threshold is a place that can change our perspective on everything we think we know. I call this place the Sideworld.

Earlier this year, Popov and Russell led us into this mist and shadow with the first installment of their doc series, Haunted Forests of England. Their second effort opens with more of their characteristically haunting cinematography.

The film breaks into four chapters: Ghost Ships, Sea Monsters, Spectral Sailors and Mermaids. Each chapter consists of a number of tails, always highlighting one in particular with some primary or secondary source material to mine.

Though the Flying Dutchman has its fame, the majority of the stories spilled on these shores are little known legends with historical documents for basis. The Wildman of Orford and other tales offer fascinating historical curiosities, while outright ghost stories delight in their sad, scary way.

Popov’s voiceover remains somber throughout, avoiding the campfire fright style of storytelling and instead rendering his tales with reverence. In fact, Popov and Russell’s sympathetic point of view continually asks whether the monsters in these tales are not actually the humans.

Brisk, informative, creepy fun, Sideworld: Terrors of the Sea uncovers welcome treasures of haunted folklore.

Feed My Frankenstein

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster

by Hope Madden

Who doesn’t love Boris Karloff? From Frankenstein’s monster to the Grinch, he’s brought to life some of the world’s best (and greenest) baddies. And he did it with grace, understatement and more than a touch of weirdness.

Co-writer/director Thomas Hamilton, like many of us, loves Boris Karloff and wants to celebrate his legacy. The vehicle for this celebration is the documentary Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster.

Interviews from gushing fans including filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Joe Dante, as well as film historians, colleagues and Karloff’s daughter, Sarah Karloff, ground the doc. With these voices, Hamilton shapes a picture of the actor as a lovely soul, humble, and more talented than audiences of his time realized.

We’re also treated to a smorgasbord of scenes from Karloff’s 50+ years onscreen. Ample time is spent with the many incarnations of Frankenstein, of course, including mention of the partnership Karloff and make-up magician Jack Pierce shared in the creation of cinema’s most iconic monster. The film hits the other obvious highlights as well: The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Black Sabbath (1963) and Targets (1968) among them.

Hamilton also digs into Karloff’s TV experience, which reinvigorated his career as well as his love of acting. Low lights, such as Karloff’s list of racist Asian characters, most notably the abomination that is The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), are touched on if never fully examined.

Most interesting is footage of del Toro and Dante, two greats of genre cinema, both detailing the career and impact of a hero. Conversation with Peter Bogdanovich, who directed Karloff in the chilling Targets, leaves the most lingering impression.

Man Behind the Monster falls short in two fairly important areas. There’s no revelatory information, and that’s OK, but there’s little more insight here than what you might find on Wikipedia.

The second real shortcoming is in production value. Most subjects sit in front of weakly imposed green screen images. Even artwork rendered by Joe Liotta finds itself lost in front of garden variety backdrops.

The end result is a pleasant enough chance for Karloff fans to soak up like-minded love of one of cinema’s greatest genre performers. Hopefully everyone can come away from it with a list of new Karloff movies to discover.