More Horror To Come
Eli Roth, horror director, executive producer, and host of AMC’s Eli Roth’s History of Horror, chats with AMC.com about what fans can expect from the latest season, the scariest movie he’s recently seen, who he would interview for the show if he had a time machine, and more…
Q: Season 1 covered a wide range of horror themes. How did you narrow down and organize the topics for the Season 2?
A: I had a list of about 30 topics that I wanted to do, so we talked to the network about them. We like to have a nice variety because horror is such a wide spectrum. Part of the fun of the series is showing everyone all the different types of horror out there, and we found fun ways to categorize them.
I really wanted to do a killer kids episode, so we have one called “Chilling Children.” There were certain “Monster” episodes that I didn’t get to do in Season 1 because they conflicted with James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction, so this season we got to talk about films like John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is one of my all-time favourite films, and Ridley Scott’s Alien. Then we have “Houses of Hell,” where I get to show Rob Zombie’s fantastic work, House of a Thousand Corpses, but also The Amityville Horror, which is a classic movie. Then we did “Witches.” I wanted to focus on witches because they really go back to the beginning of cinema. Films like Häxan, Suspiria, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and later Hereditary. It’s a really fun episode. I also loved working on “Body Horror,” where we have an amazing interview with Megan Fox talking about Jennifer’s Body. And then there’s the “Nightmare Nine,” which are just nine films I absolutely love that are almost unclassifiable, like The Wicker Man, Pieces, Cannibal Holocaust, and we put Jordan Peele’s Us in there because I think it’s definitely in its own category—plus we included an amazing interview with Jordan. It’s just so much fun to have this wide spectrum. We could go on and on and on. It was actually very difficult to narrow it down to these six for Season 2. That’s the hard part, but also the fun part.
Q: It sounds like a really interesting mix of old and new horror films.
A: Yeah, the show is about the history of horror, so I like including new movies but I want to tie them all back to the classics. We have Piper Laurie and William Katt talking about Carrie, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. We also show how Brian De Palma and his film Dressed to Kill influenced Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, and how those both influenced modern horror. How Wicker Man influenced Hostile, and then Hostile influenced Midsommar. We have Ari Aster talking about the prom scene in Carrie—the camera work and the filmmaking. We have Jordan Peele talking about The Lost Boys and what an influence that film was on Us, so it’s tying the movies together in a way that people might not necessarily know or expect. The fun is that if you’ve seen the newer films, you get to hear the creator talk about them in new ways, and you can go back and watch them with a completely new lens. And if you haven’t seen the older films, it’s going to turn you on to a whole bunch of new movies. It’s really all about keeping all of the films alive and showing how this is one continuous evolving thing.
Q: It’s pretty fascinating to watch the through line of how horror has evolved over time. I’m curious, in what ways do you think the genre is going to evolve and change in the future?
A: If you look at horror movies, for example Dracula, we tied the film back to the horrors of World War I. Vampires, the fear of vampires and the living dead, and people coming back maimed from World War I. Horror has always reflected what’s been going on at that time. Certainly we go into that in ‘Monsters’ discussing King Kong, slavery, the racism in American society—those themes that the film dealt with that reflect what people’s fears were at that time. It’s really fascinating to go back and rewatch these films under the historical lens of what was happening in the world at that time, asking what it is about the movie that makes it stay so relevant? Why do we go back to it over and over?
I think that it doesn’t always happen instantaneously. Right now we’re dealing with a pandemic. Yes, we’ll see pandemic movies, but there’s going to be some other horror movie two or three years from now that just catches fire, and everyone that sees it can look back and say, “Oh yeah, that reflected that tension.” If you look at all of the protests that are happening, I think a film like Jordan Peele’s Us kind of anticipated that. Everyone is thinking about race and thinking about people that are othered. Those that are incarcerated, people that are locked up, while everyone else gets to live aboveground at their expense. I think, in a crazy way, that same anger, tension, and frustration is now being expressed through the protests against police brutality. So I think that because it’s so emotionally charged maybe we can’t see it immediately. Years later we can go back and see what was happening in society and tie it to the movies. Every now and then, you have that movie that just hits the nail on the head and expresses a fear that everyone’s thinking. Maybe it hasn’t been verbalized or it’s too painful to talk about at the time, but the movie catches it, and the film catches fire.
I think there will always be terrible things going on in the world and in movies—as our fears change, movies will change too. I think that right now the homeless crisis is reflected in zombie movies, and this fear of civil war and a collapse of society will be reflected in films in some way. Certainly the fear of isolation, the fear of disease, the loss of control of your body—these are all the things that everyone is terrified of right now. And this real loss of control will ultimately get expressed through horror films in some way, either directly or indirectly, even if we don’t realize it at the time.
Q: It might be scary to live through now, but it’s fascinating to think of the art that will come out of it in the future.
A: Yeah, I think that that’s what the artists do. They feel it, they interpret it, and they give people a format to discuss painful subjects. Jordan did it with Get Out, with talking about uncomfortable, casual racism. Everyone could laugh at the characters and discuss the characters, but everyone was seeing themselves and other people they knew reflected in those characters. So I think that that’s what these films can really, really do. Other films that aren’t even trying to do that, that are just fun and scary, those also have value. I don’t put one over the other. I believe that the objective of a horror movie is to be scary, to be fun, to push buttons, and be shocking and outrageous. I think that all of it has value.
Q: What’s the scariest movie that you’ve seen recently?
A: Oh, man. I went back and rewatched a lot of old films during lockdown. I watched this Korean film that I had missed called The Wailing, and I really, really loved it. It was a really great, fun, scary, scary movie from 2016. I love Korean movies and that was just one of the ones I had missed. I thought The Wailing was really, really good.
Q: Is there a particular scare trope that always gets to you? Or have you seen so many horror movies now that it’s harder for you to feel scared?
A: You know, even if you know the trope and you know what’s coming, if it’s effectively done, it can still get you. There’s always the kid that’s been turned into a zombie. I watched a movie called Hell of the Living Dead that is sort of considered a grade Z zombie movie by a director I love named Bruno Mattei. It’s an Italian film from 1980. We actually have a clip of it in the show. There’s always a thing where the kid is sick, he’s been bit by a zombie, and the parent’s are holding the kid while the others run to look for help. You’re just waiting for the kid to turn and to bite them, and the film has a really, really, really effective version of that. As cheesy as the kid is, and as ridiculous as the moment that the kid turns is, the kid just chomps into the dad’s neck and that always gets me! It’s always creepy. It’s always scary.
I also watched Ju-On: The Grudge. The original movies were shot as two television specials, Ju-On 1 and Ju-On 2 before they were a movie, so I went back and I watched those. The creepy kid at the house… when he opens his mouth and there’s this weird cat noise that comes out. And then when his mouth opens unnaturally wide, it’s just so disconcerting. That’s one that always gets me.
Q: Japanese ghost horror, I can’t do it.
A: It’s not the type of movie I make. I tend to do more grounded, more of the Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre end of the horror spectrum. It’s just my instinct. So whenever people can pull off those movies, I love them. And they’re just the kind of creepy, supernatural, something-is-infecting-no-one-knows-how-to-stop-it, kind of movie. The Wailing definitely has elements of The Grudge. I love it, and hats off to those directors that pull that off and make it so scary.
Q: If you had a time machine, who would you go back in time to talk to for History of Horror?
A: Kubrick on the set of The Shining. I would love to talk to Stanley Kubrick about The Shining. I’d want to talk to Tobe Hooper about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Wes Craven about A Nightmare on Elm Street. I’ve had conversations with them, but I never got to have them on film. Herschell Gordon Lewis! He’s the creator of on-screen gore with his movie Blood Feast. I was at a film festival with him and he was probably 90 or 91 years old, and the guy was so funny, so lively, completely with it, and had a million stories. I spent the weekend with him and I was just laughing the entire time because his stories were so unbelievable about making his films. I thought I’ve got to do this series where we can just capture these stories, because he’s not going to be around forever. Then Herschell died, and then we lost George Romero, and then Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper. Tobe had the most amazing, insane stories about making The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
You think of how important these characters are—from Michael and Freddy, to Jason and Chucky—that’s why we wanted to get the creators talking about them and what it was like to work on these films. People get tattoos of these characters that were created 70, 80 years ago. People have King Kong tattoos, Dracula tattoos, tattoos of Boris Karloff’s The Mummy. These characters are so beloved and everybody relates to them in some way. The monsters really reflect something in ourselves, something in society, our shadows, and the parts we’re most afraid of. People really identify with them, they want to put them on their bodies, and have the characters with them everywhere they go. So it was so important to me to get these creators before they left. Of course, we couldn’t get to everyone we wanted to, and that’s what kills me, that we don’t have Tobe Hooper or Wes Craven or Stanley Kubrick. There are so many great directors I would love to talk to. Robert Wise, to talk about The Haunting. These are the architects of the genre that I love so much. They created the foundation that we build movies on now.
Q: In a rapid-fire “Who Would Win?” segment, pick which one resonates with you the most. Michael Meyers from Halloween or Jason from Friday the 13th?
A: Well, Jason because he’s unkillable.
Q: Graboids (Tremors) vs. Eight Legged Freaks?
A: Eight Legged Freaks because it’s underrated, and I like that movie.
Q: The Overlook (The Shining) vs. The Bates Motel (Psycho)?
A: Overlook, for sure. Nothing’s going to beat The Overlook.
Q: Kathy Bates (Misery) vs. Norman Bates (Psycho)?
A: Norman Bates. I love Norman. Kathy, you see her coming a mile away. Norman’s a little more subtle.
Q: Chucky vs. Bride of Chucky?
A: Probably Chucky.
Q: The Devil in The Exorcist vs. Death in Final Destination?
A: Oh, that’s a really good one, but I’ve got to give it to Pazuzu, the devil in The Exorcist.