Documentaries are non-fictional films about real world subject matters – usually the profile of a person of interest, an investigation into a particular theme or venture into the history of a topic/subject/place. Their mode is non-narrative and more that of an essay. Content is portrayed with the use of interviews, clips taken from news footage or other films, incorporation of investigatory footage and occasionally dramatised re-enactments.
By and large, in being centred around real world subjects, documentaries are not of interest to the coverage this site focuses on, which is fantastic cinema. There are however a number of exceptions. These can be grouped into three categories
– Documentaries about the making of fantastic films
– Documentaries about the creators (directors, writers, producers) of fantastic films or crossover material
– Documentaries about fandom
– Documentaries about fringe subjects that would normally be covered as fantastic (UFOs, hauntings, vampires etc)
This topic does not cover fictional films that pose as and mimic the documentary format. For these see Mockumentaries.
Making Of Documentaries
Historically, these were usually documentaries that were shot behind the scenes of a film and depict its production. Since the dvd revolution of the late 1990s, there has been a considerable proliferation of Making Of documentaries and commentary tracks from people involved in the production, released as extras to accompany film re-releases. These are usually made some time after the original came out. (We are only concerned here with feature-length documentaries, although dvd extras contain a vast amount more entries made at shorter length).
In more recent years, we have documentaries that look back and chart the making (and usually) the vast hurdles, technical problems and ego clashes behind the scenes of the making of famous (or infamous) films, in some cases unmade films. Some of these have attained standalone theatrical release. Other works chart unique niches or offer overviews of particular genres.
Examples of genre-related documentaries might include:-
i) Documentaries About Individual Films or Series
– Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998) about the original Planet of the Apes saga and Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film (2019) about the makeup effects on the series
– The Omen Legacy (2001) about The Omen series
– Bringing Godzilla Down to Size: The Art of Japanese Special Effects (2008)
– His Name Was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th (2009) and Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday the 13th (2013) about the Friday the 13th films
– Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (2010) about the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, as well as Scream Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (2019) about the gay subtext of the second Elm Street film
– Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 (2012) about the James Bond films
– Back in Time (2015) about the Back to the Future trilogy
– Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (2015) about the Hellraiser films
– Wolfman’s Got Nards (2018) about the making of The Monster Squad (1987)
– Cleanin’ Up the Town: Remembering Ghostbusters (2019)
– Growing Up With I Spit on Your Grave (2019) made by the son of the director of the notorious I Spit on Your Grave (1978)
– Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2019) about the making of The Exorcist (1973)
ii) Works That Conduct Genre Overviews
– Hammer: The Studio That Dripped Blood (1987), Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror (1994) and Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years (2018) about Hammer Films
– Universal Horror (1998), an overview of the Universal horror film between the 1920s and 1940s
– The American Nightmare (2000) and In Search of Darkness: A Journey Into Iconic ‘80s Horror (2019) about 70s/80s horror films
– Mark Hartley’s documentaries Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation (2008) about the Australian exploitation film, Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) about the Filipino exploitation industry, and Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)
– Monsters from the Id (2008), which features this article’s author, about 1950s SF films
– American Grindhouse (2010) about 1960s/70s exploitation cinema
– Screaming in High Heels: The Rise and Fall of the Scream Queen Era (2011) about the Scream Queens fad of the 1980s
– Banned Alive! The Rise and Fall of Italian Cannibal Movies (2015)
iii) Documentaries About Disastrous, Problem-Laden or Failed Productions
– Lost in La Mancha (2002) about the failure of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote film
– Despite the Gods (2012) about the problems behind Jennifer Lynch’s Hisss (2010)
– Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempts to make a film of Dune (1965) in the 1970s
– Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014) about the bizarre and troubled production history of The Island of Dr Moreau (1996)
– The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015) about Tim Burton’s unmade Superman film starring Nicolas Cage
– Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four (2015) about the notorious unreleased The Fantastic Four (1994)
We even have a documentary about the making of fan films with Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015).
Included here are also the downright wacky likes of American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (1999) profiling no-hope amateur horror filmmakers in rural Wisconsin and Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts (2012) about the wacky theories that have emerged concerning Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
Documentaries About Directors/Writers/Producers of Genre Material
There are various documentaries about directors and producers who have regularly worked in genre material. These include the likes of The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal (1985), The Fantasy Worlds of Irwin Allen (1995), Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures (2001), I’m King Kong: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (2005), Lynch (2007) and David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007), Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007), Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011), Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan (2011), Filmed in Supermarionation (2014) about Gerry Anderson, De Palma (2015), They Came from the Swamp: The Films of William Grefe (2016), Aenigma: Lucio Fulci and the 80s (2017), King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (2017), Omega Rising: Remembering Joe D’Amato (2017), Spielberg (2017), Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (2019), Fulci for Fake (2019) and Fuck You All: The Uwe Boll Story (2019).
There have been three documentaries about bad movie-maker Edward D. Wood Jr with Flying Saucers Over Hollywood: The Plan 9 Companion (1992), Ed Wood: Look Back in Angora (1994) and The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr (1995). There was also the quasi-fictionalised The Creep Behind the Camera (2014) about the making of the bad movie The Creeping Terror (1964)
Examples of documentaries about various writers/creators might include Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life (1997), The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick (1999), No Maps for These Territories (2000) about Cyberpunk author William Gibson, The Shadow of Mary Poppins (2002) about Mary Poppins’ creator P.L. Travers, The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2003), Tintin and I (2003) about Tintin creator Hergé, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008) and In Search of Lovecraft (2008) about H.P. Lovecraft, Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously (2016), Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (2018) and a history of UK’s 2000 AD comics in Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014). A fascinating work here is Batman & Bill (2017), which explores the story of Batman’s unacknowledged co-creator Bill Finger.
Examples of documentaries that stretch to cover multi-media franchises might include Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), Power of Grayskull: The Definitive History of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2017) and A Riddle of Steel: The Definitive History of Conan the Barbarian (2019).
Various other creative genre talents are featured in Nightmare Factory (2011) about K.N.B. EFX Group makeup effects studio; The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013) profiling Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli; and Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World (2014) about artist H.R. Giger.
By and large, the site doesn’t concern themselves with actor documentaries but there are one or two with much genre overlap such as Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000), Starring Adam West (2013), That Guy Dick Miller (2014) about B movie actor Dick Miller, For the Love of Spock (2016) about Leonard Nimoy and Becoming Bond (2017) about James Bond actor George Lazenby, as well as The Captains (2011) profiling the actors who played the captains of the various Star Trek series.
Documentaries About Fandom
Trekkies (1997) and its sequel Trekkies 2 (2004) began a fad of documentaries concerned with the oddities and peculiarities of genre Fandom – in this case the vagueries of Star Trek fandom. Star Trek fandom is also the subject of Earthlings: Ugly Bags of Mostly Water (2004), Trek Nation (2011) and the William Shatner directed Get a Life! (2012), while Shatner also fronted How William Shatner Changed the World (2005) and The Truth is in the Stars (2017) about the influence of Star Trek in the real world.
A number of others fandom documentaries have come out since including Frodo is Great … Who is That? (2004) about Lord of the Rings fans; Zombiemania (2008) and Doc of the Dead (2014) about zombie movie fans; Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (2011), which visits the San Diego Comic Con; and The People vs George Lucas (2011) dealing with fan dissatisfaction with Star Wars fandom.
Comic Book Confidential (1988) and Comix: Beyond the Comic Book Pages (2016) deal with comics fandom, while My Comic Shop Country (2019) deals with the phenomenon of the comic-book store.
Documentaries About the Paranormal or Pseudo-Sciences
This includes various documentaries about UFOs, Bigfoot, haunted houses, the prophecies of Nostradamus and any aspect of the supernatural, or subject matters that are fringe science and would normally be regarded as fantastic material. These are so prolific in the 2000s that there are entire History Channel series and specials devoted to them.
Included here would be the likes of:-
– the silent witchcraft and deviltry documentary Häxan (1922)
– the UFO documentary Unidentified Flying Objects: The True Story of Flying Saucers (1956)
– Bigfoot in Mysterious Monsters (1976)
– The Bermuda Triangle (1979)
– The Orson Welles-narrated The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981) about the prophecies of Nostradamus
Of considerable fascination, although more grounded than these others, is the speculative documentary The Visit: An Alien Encounter (2015) dealing with the likely reaction humanity would have to a visit from aliens. You could also include here the fascinating The Nightmare (2015) dealing with the phenomenon of sleep paralysis.
In the downright bizarre category is Edward D. Wood Jr’s quasi-documentary Glen or Glenda? (1952) in which he in his inept, bumbling way tries to make an argument for transvestitism.
In a category of its own is Superheroes (2011) about people trying to be masked superheroes in the real world and The American Scream (2012) about people who convert their homes into Halloween haunts.
Also of note is a bunch of films that end up an odd mixture of documentary and fiction. These include:-
– Level Five (1996) an essay about World War II told in terms of a Virtual Reality game
– The Wild Blue Yonder (2005) where Werner Herzog blends interviews, space shuttle and Antarctic footage to create an SF film about a journey to another world
– The Age of Stupid (2009), a documentary about Global Warming that is told from the perspective of an environmentally devastated future
– The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future (2010), where discussions of technological advancement sit alongside an SF plot that illustrates these
– Arabian Nights (2015), a quasi-fictional, part-documentary depiction of the Portuguese Austerity Crisis, which mixes fantastical elements alongside the documentary
– Lost and Beautiful (2015), a documentary about a man restoring an Italian villa that mixes in supernatural elements
– A Glitch in The Matrix (2021) about the theory that we are all living in a Virtual Reality simulation
- Häxan (1922)
- Glen or Glenda? (1952)
- Trekkies (1997)
- Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998)
- American Movie: The Making of Northwestern (1999)
- The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick (2000)
- Lost in La Mancha (2002)
- Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007)
- Best Worst Movie (2008)
- Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation (2008)
- Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010)
- Superheroes (2011)
- Room 237: Being an Inquiry Into The Shining in 9 Parts (2012)
- Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
- Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)
- Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau (2014)
- De Palma (2015)
- The Nightmare (2015)
- The Visit: An Alien Encounter (2015)
- 78/52 (2017)
- Batman & Bill (2017)
- Becoming Bond (2017)
- Blood and Flesh: The Reel Life and Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (2019)
- Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2019)
A full list of titles can be found here Documentaries Archives