If you love a good horror yarn, then you should probably skip True Horror, a 3 part documentary series coming up on SBS.
At least, skip the first chapter, “Werewolves” which airs this Sunday night. If the first instalment is anything to go by, I won’t be back for the next two on “Frankenstein” and “Dracula.” Not to be confused with the True Horror series narrated by actor Richard Head (Little Britain, Merlin, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this is essentially a drama re-enactment purporting to be a documentary.
Produced by Hardy Pictures for Channel 5 and the History Channel, it was filmed somewhere in the Baltic. You can tell by the oodles of snow. Or possibly from the fact that few of the actors have any dialogue to deliver.
Rather than providing a comprehensive account of werewolf history, it chooses to focus on one case, in rural Germany in the late 1500s. It spends an entire hour bringing lovely scenery to life.
“This is a true horror story,” it says. “A medieval news story which became the inspiration for the werewolf movie.” Whether that was “An American Werewolf in London” or “Teen Wolf” I’m not exactly sure. I presume they mean the inspiration for the werewolf legend as depicted in cinema, but they didn’t elaborate…
The incident at the heart of this tale is the publication of a pamphlet detailing an horrific spate of killings in the village of Bedburg. Children were being killed and abused in the forests by a local villager. With such an inhumane terror amongst them, locals gave birth to a myth that only a man-beast could be capable of such heinous crimes. Their traditional enemy, the wolf, must be at the centre of such evil.
The perpetrator was a man by the name of Peter Stubbe (aka Stumpp), a serial killer and cannibal whose horrific crimes terrorised the town for up to 25 years.
There are lengthy, dramatic reconstructions in this episode, with actors bringing to life the innocence of life on the edge of an icy forest, which turns dark when the murders begin. These comprise a good 90% of the documentary’s storytelling.
Linking them together are a few talking heads: Historian, Author, Forensic Biologist. One quickly passes over mountains of historic references to wolves and werewolves through the ages (Rome got a mention, Greece was in there somewhere) to hurry to the Bedburg case as a “blueprint” for the werewolf as we know it today. Other cultures, such as American Indians or Africa, are completely ignored.
Another expert briefly discusses Lycanthropy as a rare medical delusion, in which individuals believe they have wolf-like behaviour. But so much of history, cinema, literature and even pop culture are left in the waste bin here.
I also don’t recall much reference to the mythology of full moons or silver bullets. If this is a documentary about werewolves, some explanation as to how they became woven into folklore would have been fitting.
On the plus side, the re-enactments display a strong attention to detail. The period costumes, forest scenery and performances are its best features. It begs the question, why didn’t the producers just turn this into a drama?
Also letting down this production is an overbearing narration from an actor dressed as the author of the pamphlet. His dodgy German accent is matched only by his curious resemblance to Nostradamus with a quill in his hand, documenting our story.
Documentaries excel when they present two sides to an argument. They present compelling cases with points of view (otherwise aren’t they just Factuals?). True Horror‘s best argument is that it it really wants to be a drama when it grows up. If it can dodge a silver bullet.
True Horror: Werewolves airs 8:30pm Sunday January 17 on SBS ONE.