The three-part documentary "Creature Features" promises to be an insightful, thorough analysis of a century of horror cinema. But it's an empty promise: the series plays instead like any other clip show, one with all logic removed. The narration is high class and the producers take some chances by presenting the occasional art house obscurity, but the overall result is shallow talk that offers nothing new to the discussion.
A 2003 co-production between European filmmakers and the Bravo cable network, "Creature Features" divides itself into three 50-minute themed chapters, covering "The Beasts," "The Machines," and "The Dead." The breakdown of each episode is fairly obvious from the titles, although the producers play it loose throughout. A clip from Jim Jarmusch's somber western "Dead Man" strangely wraps up "The Beasts;" footage from several "Star Wars" movies help round out the discussion of "The Machines;" and the trailer for "Once Upon a Time in the West" is inexplicably detailed in "The Dead." If these non-horror examples seem out of place, it's because they are. Even when the narration manages to actually explain these unusual additions, they feel too off topic to matter.
But then, the whole affair is scattershot. There's no attempt to subcategorize within the three broad classifications, leaving the series to linger on one subgenre, skip over another completely; we bounce from idea to idea with increasingly annoying randomness. Quiet narration attempts to tie these otherwise arbitrary clips together with arguments for how horror films reflect the human condition, yet each example is undercooked (just a line or two, not enough to get intelligent discussion brewing) and unfocused. At times, the narration tosses all analysis aside and simply raves over a director, and even then we don't get enough. There's no context, no real dialogue, no full explanation of why a film is effective or a director is important.
Instead of detailing the actual history of the horror genre and its evolution over the past century, the filmmakers just toss us a wide range of clips, presented with little rhyme or reason. Somewhere within we are asked to find the producers' theories - namely, that movie monsters showcase our fears over not being removed enough from the animal kingdom; movie machines reflect our fears of a bionic future; and movie ghosts help us prepare for death. Yet these lessons are tossed out a sentence or two at a time, as though these theories were made up on the fly, after a writer looked at the collected clips and had to come up with suitable narration on a tight deadline. And the filmmakers never really follow up; so vampires are a "metaphor for eternity," but can you do more to discuss this than merely showing us a couple scenes from "Interview with the Vampire"? No? Sigh.
Even as a mere clip show, "Creature Features" stumbles. It offers no insight behind the films it's introducing (at best, we get a subtitle revealing the title, director, and year of release) and zero discussion of the cultural impact of any of the titles shown. Worse, most of the movies showcased are presented not with clips, but clips of their respective trailers (and, in a few key moments, production stills). Genre fans anxious to see famous footage of important films will be sorely disappointed, and heads will become overly scratched in wondering why the series would spend so much time on relatively "minor" titles, then ignore other, more highly influential fare. ("Night of the Living Dead," for example, appears for less than a minute.)
Shortly after the series' original release, it ran on the Sci-Fi Channel with new, livelier narration (from Keith David) and trivia "pop-ups" making up for the massive information gap. Even then, it wasn't enough to salvage the series, a slight, meandering, often obnoxious non-study of the horror genre.
Elite Entertainment offers all three episodes on one disc, titled "The Creature Features Collection." The episodes are presented in their original European versions.
Video & Audio
Presented in the original 1.33:1 broadcast format with most (yet, strangely, not all) of the film clips properly letterboxed, the series looks about as good as its varied archival footage will allow. With no digital problems present, it's passable if not impressive. The soundtrack is a simple Dolby stereo. An optional English subtitle track combines translations for non-English movie dialogue and the aforementioned film title information; there is no set-up menu, so the subtitles understandably default to "on."
Hardcore horror buffs might find a few minutes of interest here and there, but as a useful study of how the genre properly reflects ever-changing times, the series is a flat-out dud. Skip It, and track down any of the countless books on the subject instead.