The Strengths and Weaknesses of Eli Roth’s History of Horror

I’m not much of a history buff. While I like to think I have a decent enough understanding of history, I’m not the type to go out of my way to learn all there is to know about it. However, there are a few exceptions. When it comes to the things I love, like baseball, punk rock, and horror movies, I’m a completely different person. I devour just about everything I can find about those subjects, including their histories, so when I found out a few years ago that AMC was making a show called Eli Roth’s History of Horror, it immediately shot to the top of my must-see list.

And when the first episode came out, I was not disappointed. It featured some of the biggest names in the genre giving their insights into a bunch of classic films, and I just ate it up. It allowed me to sit at the feet of horror masters like Stephen King and Tom Savini and learn from their decades of experience in the genre, so I was pretty much in my glory.

Then, as the series progressed and the novelty of it wore off, my perspective changed a bit. I remained a big fan, but I soon began to notice some flaws in the show as well. And now, after two seasons comprising thirteen episodes in total, I have a much more balanced view of Eli Roth’s History of Horror than I did when it first premiered. Like anything, it has both strengths and weaknesses, so let’s take an honest look at this series and see just what it gets right as well as the ways it sometimes goes wrong.

Strength: It Gives You a Good Sense of the Evolution of Various Subgenres

Edgar Wright talking

Let’s start with one of the show’s biggest strengths: Eli Roth’s History of Horror gives us a really good sense of how some individual subgenres have evolved over the decades. To take just one example, the very first episode of the show is about zombies, and it covers the key milestones in the evolution of these films.

It doesn’t say much about older movies like White Zombie or I Walked with a Zombie, but it does mention that they were very different from modern zombie stories. They were usually about a person on an island somewhere controlling a relatively small group of undead servants, but the subgenre experienced a tectonic shift in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead.

Eli Roth’s History of Horror tells us that modern zombies were born with this movie, and all of the rules we normally associate with the subgenre were invented in this film. For instance, it created the tropes that you become a zombie if you’re bitten by one and that you have to shoot them in the head to kill them.

The show also explains that slow, Romero-style zombies ruled the day until 2002’s 28 Days Later. This wasn’t the first time zombies ran at their victims, but it was the movie that popularized the idea and set off a genre-wide debate about which zombies are better. To this day, some people prefer fast zombies, and others prefer slow ones.

And zombies aren’t the only subgenre that Eli Roth’s History of Horror guides us through in this way. It also examines other kinds of horror, like slashers, vampires, and ghosts, and it does a great job of hitting their milestones and taking us through all the twists and turns that have formed these subgenres into what they are today.

Weakness: It Doesn’t Give You a Good Sense of the Evolution of Horror as a Whole

Jamie Lee Curtis talking

Even though Eli Roth’s History of Horror does a great job of teaching us about the evolution of some individual subgenres, that strength of the show has an unfortunate dark side: it doesn’t tell us much about how horror as a whole has evolved. Sure, it gives us a few tidbits here and there, like saying that the early 1980s were dominated by slashers, but it doesn’t really give us a sense of how the entire genre has changed and reinvented itself through the decades.

And understandably so. The people behind Eli Roth’s History of Horror had a choice to make. They could’ve tackled horror history era by era, or they could’ve gone subgenre by subgenre, and either one would’ve had its drawbacks. Going era by era would’ve made it just about impossible to tell us how individual subgenres evolved, and examining individual subgenres makes it almost impossible to look at the bigger genre picture.

That’s an inevitable tradeoff that the series had to make, so this isn’t so much a criticism as it is just an acknowledgment of the limitations inherent in the entire endeavor. Maybe they can remedy this in a future season by devoting an episode to larger trends in the genre as a whole, but until they do something like that, the format of Eli Roth’s History of Horror is always going to leave it with this blind spot in its explanation of horror history.

Strength: It Can Introduce You to New Movies

John Landis talking

Getting back to the strengths of the show, another great thing about Eli Roth’s History of Horror is that it can introduce you to some great movies you’ve never seen before. For instance, take the final episode of season one. It’s about haunted house films, and it’s an absolute goldmine. It covers the more famous classics like Poltergeist, The Sixth Sense, and The Shining as well as a bunch of lesser-known gems like The Haunting, The Changeling, and The Uninvited, so there are plenty of recommendations here to help bring both beginners and genre veterans a little bit closer to total horror mastery.

In fact, this episode is the reason I finally got around to watching The Changeling. I had heard of it before, and after the show talked it up, I decided to seek it out and see it for myself. And I’m super happy that I did. Even though it’s not as well known as some of the other movies they examine, it’s one of the absolute best haunted house films ever made.

And if you watch all thirteen episodes of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, you’ll almost certainly have a similar experience. While the show obviously can’t cover every classic horror movie ever made, it touches on all the essential classics as well as a ton of underseen gems, so you’re bound to come out with at least a few titles to add to your to-watch list.

Weakness: It Can Sometimes Feel Like It Just Moves Randomly from Film to Film

Robert Englund talking

Next, let’s take a look at arguably the show’s biggest weakness. While Eli Roth’s History of Horror does a great job of explaining the evolution of certain subgenres, it also drops the ball with others. In particular, there are a few episodes that feel like they just jump around randomly from movie to movie without giving you any sense of historical progression. Take Season 1 Episode 4, for instance. It’s about demon/possession films, and while it has some cool insights into a bunch of awesome movies, it does a poor job of explaining how the subgenre evolved over the years.

It starts off by talking about The Exorcist, and that’s entirely appropriate. Not only is this the most famous demonic possession movie of all time, but it really kickstarted the subgenre and gave rise to the modern possession film as we know it today. However, after that, the episode just jumps around with no discernible rhyme or reason. First, it goes to the 2009 movies Paranormal Activity and Jennifer’s Body, and then it goes back to the 1980s with The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2. From there, it turns the calendar back even more to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976), and then the episode ends by taking another quantum leap forward to 2017’s Get Out.

Admittedly, all the episodes are like this to some extent, even the ones that explain the evolution of their respective subgenres pretty well. The difference is that those episodes tell you which films were the milestones that changed the game, so you can piece together their timelines in your head and still get a good understanding of how those subgenres progressed. But episodes like the one about demon/possession movies don’t do that. They just go from film to film in a seemingly random way without giving us much sense (if any) of larger trends within the subgenre, so while they have a lot of cool insights into a bunch of great films, they don’t come together very well as integrated wholes.

Strength: It Gives Some Great Insights into Classic Movies

Stephen King talking

From the greatest weakness of the series, let’s turn now to probably its biggest strength: Eli Roth’s History of Horror gives us tons of great insights into classic movies. For instance, there are multiple episodes where Tom Savini talks about how he created the special effects in some of his most famous movies, like Friday the 13th and Day of the Dead. He describes some of the techniques he employed to create his world-class gore scenes, and he explains how his experiences as a war photographer in Vietnam influenced his visual style. These discussions are fascinating, and even if you’re not an effects junkie, you can’t help but love hearing him talk about his role in making some of the most beloved films the genre has to offer.

Similarly, the show also gives us some really cool insights into the stories these movies tell. To take just one example, Season 2 Episode 6 includes some discussion about The Wicker Man, and in a very perceptive moment, Eli Roth explains one of the deeper meanings of the film. Even though Sergeant Howie thinks Summerisle’s beliefs are absolutely ridiculous, they make perfect sense to the islanders, and that observation contains a profound truth that we would do well to always keep in mind in today’s diverse world. As Roth says, “What is totally normal to one person is absolutely terrifying to another.”

Eli Roth’s History of Horror is filled with little gems like these, and in my opinion, they’re the best thing about the show. They’ll help you better understand and appreciate the films you love, and what more could you want from a show about horror history?

Weakness: Sometimes It Struggles to Come Up With New Subgenres

Tony Todd talking

The final weakness we’ll look at here is that the second season of Eli Roth’s History of Horror struggles to come up with new subgenres to talk about. It has six episodes, and three of them exhibit this problem in striking ways.

To begin, the first episode is called “Houses of Hell,” and it’s about horror movies that take place in a house. No, that’s not a typo. The entire episode is literally just about films that involve a house, and it covers such diverse movies as Misery, Sinister, The Cabin in the Woods, and The Last House on the Left. Houses are about as common as anything in horror, so this is not a real subgenre. It’s just lazy categorization, and as much as I like the insights this episode gives us into these films, that laziness is palpable through its entire runtime.

When we move on to the second episode, called “Monsters,” we find that it does cover a real subgenre, but it has another, equally frustrating problem: the first season already covered it. Season 1 Episode 5, “Killer Creatures,” is all about monster movies, so the show literally just redoes the same subgenre in season two. Granted, it’s probably the broadest subgenre in all of horror, but that’s no excuse. They should’ve tackled a new one rather than just retreading the same ground with a different group of films.

Last but not least, Season 2 Episode 6 is called “Nine Nightmares,” and, per the episode description, it’s about “nine films that defy categorization.” Now, I get that some movies are tough to classify. There are plenty of films that burst the bounds of our typical subgenre boxes, but if you’re going to go with the subgenre format, you should stick with it. You can always find some category to put a movie into, even if it’s not an exact fit, and the films in this episode are no exceptions. For example, it talks about American Psycho, which is a slasher, as well as The Wicker Man and Midsommar, which are folk horrors. So when you watch the episode, it feels like the people behind the series just couldn’t be bothered to come up with one last subgenre to cover. Instead, they simply threw together nine random movies and called it a day, making this the most disjointed episode of the entire show.

Thankfully, these three episodes don’t skimp on the high-quality commentary on individual films, so there are times when you can easily forget this problem. However, on the whole, the issue is very noticeable, and at times it’s even a bit distracting, so I really wish that Eli Roth’s History of Horror had done a better job of coming up with new (and real!) horror subgenres to cover in season two.

Putting It All Together

We’ve looked at some individual strengths and weaknesses of Eli Roth’s History of Horror, so now it’s time to put it all together and see just how good this show really is. And when we do that, I think it’s pretty obvious that the pros outweigh the cons. Sure, the series has its blind spots, and some of the episodes feel disjointed in various ways, but at the end of the day, it gets the job done effectively enough.

The purpose of this show is to teach us about horror history and to entertain the hell out of us in the process, and it does just that. It gives us a ton of great insights into classic films and introduces us to a whole boatload of movies we may not have seen before, so despite all its flaws, you can’t help but walk away with a better understanding of the genre, (at least) a few films to add to your to-watch list, and a huge smile on your face. And what more could you really want from a show like this?

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Written by JP Nunez

JP Nunez is a lifelong horror fan. From a very early age, he learned to love monsters, ghosts, and all things spooky, and it's still his favorite genre today.

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