A&E // 2007 // 300 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // October 25th, 2007
The real stories behind history's spookiest phenomena.
A&E's latest box set is a Trick or Treat bag of previous releases, with all that title implies.
Now that we've dumped the goodies, and our parents have checked everything for razor blades, here are the takings:
* Vampire Secrets
* Salem Witch Trials
* The Haunted History of Halloween
Let's clear one thing up right away: the Haunted Histories Collection, does not contain a single episode of the Haunted Histories television series. I'm not sure why A&E decided to give this set the same title as another series they produce, to me that's like the company throwing raisins and pennies into your dinky plastic bag and calling it a treat. Yeah, you're getting something, but it's not necessarily what you expected.
Salem Witch Trials and The Haunted History of Halloween are the only true history programs of the bunch and do the usual History Channel job of balancing out the educational with the entertaining. Witch Trials is a little dry, and doesn't add much to the Salem story beyond what you learned in your high school unit on The Crucible. Experts are eager to share all sorts of gory torture details, but they also include a breakdown of the sexual, class, and political motivations behind the witch hunts. That adds a human element to the horror.
The Haunted History of Halloween is fun but scattershot special. Fifty minutes isn't long enough to cover 3,000 years of traditions and the program hurls facts at you like fistfuls of Jujubes as it bounces from one century to another. One minute it's 1600s Salem, the next it's Word War One, without going into any real depth on the topics it mentions. It's like getting a taste of the Tootsie Pop and never the satisfaction of the center. The show should have narrowed its focus or doubled its run time.
At the twice the length of the other programs, Vampire Secrets has plenty of room to spread its batty wings and it takes full advantage. Not only is there 100 minutes of vampire history and folklore, but it digs up some fresh stories and presents the old ones in new ways. We get the story of Vlad the Impaler from the Romanian point of view and a forensic expert who demonstrates how normal decomposition mimics vampire traits using fresh corpses as visual aids. Unlike other supernatural documentaries, Vampire Secrets isn't out to prove anything and the experts that identify themselves as vampires are as articulate and educated as the historians and scientists. Everybody is there to give context and commentary on the various vampire stories, even the ones that don't flatter modern vamps, like killer Rod Ferrell and missing person Susan Walsh. The production values are much higher than on the other DVDs and the extra money invested on lighting and music give the documentary a moody, Gothic feel. It's fangs down the best disc of the collection.
If Vampire Secrets is the coveted full-size candy bar, then Poltergeist is the misshapen popcorn ball lingering at the bottom of your bag until Thanksgiving. The program never fully defines what a poltergeist is, hoping that viewers won't notice half the segments are devoted to regular ghosts, and a profile of a Kentucky honkey tonk bar is so over the top it pushes the episode into realm of the hilariously awful. Engineers and architects appear to present their explanations for the paranormal activity and give the episode some credibility, but it's not enough to cancel out the show's sideshow elements. Once you've seen a hyperactive line dancer, a woman with green talons, and a straight arrow security guard fighting over who a ghost hates more there's really no going back. A woman who claims to possess clairvoyance, clairaudience, psychic abilities, and healing powers stating (in complete seriousness) that people sometimes make up ridiculous things just to get attention is the icing on the crazy cake.
Both Poltergeist and Hauntings are from the Unexplained series and rely heavily on personal testimony. This means a lot of talking heads footage while the editing team frantically throws slo-mo, colored filters, and vertigo-inducing motion effects into the mix, hoping you won't notice what crackpots made it past the interview process. Never mind that all the red tinting in the world can't make a still frame of a sinkhole seem scary.
Hauntings is by far the better of the two programs because the stories were picked with more care and there's physical evidence for each case instead of just silly recreations. Even a skeptic like me was stuck for an explanation when shown a home video of weird lights zooming around a backyard. The disc also contains the set's most effective creep out: an Amityville-style haunting of a New Jersey family that goes on for 20 years. Whether it's malevolent supernatural forces or someone's mental illness jabbing knives in door frames and scrawling "Go Dead" across the walls, you can't deny the spookiness of it.
The five DVDs span 1996 to 2006, so sound and video quality vary. Vampire Secrets, the youngest of the bunch, is digital quality and the only disc in widescreen; the picture in the four older shows can be grainy, especially during expert segments. There are no extras, and, more frustrating, no closed captioning. Quite a few interview subjects have heavy accents that needed optional subtitling.
Program quality may range from excellent to cheesy, but they're never boring. Considering the collection's suggested retail is the same price as any individual DVD in it, the box set is a "Buy one, get four" steal. Now there's a real treat for you.
Overall, Haunted Histories is an interesting mishmash of DVDs that A&E wanted off their warehouse shelves. Serious documentaries rub plastic covers with supernatural fluff, so there's something to satisfy whatever flavor of spooky you might crave, and the program's "experts" produce a good amount of Snickers and Nerds.
Case dismissed for lack of evidence.
Review content copyright © 2007 Kristin Munson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated