The most terrifying PBS special of all time

The most terrifying PBS special of all time

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: As part of the A.V. Club’s 10 Days Of Horror, we recommend the movies that frighten us the most.

The Donner Party (1992)

That’s right, one of the most unsettling movies of all time is a PBS history special by Ric Burns (brother of Ken), relating the infamous tale of frontier cannibalism via the usual mix of historical stills, nature photography, and celebrity voiceovers. No matter the level of familiarity with the almost mythically horrific subject matter, there’s something about seeing it dramatized in this square way that makes it penetrate deeper. In a sense, the archival approach is perfect for horror, photographs of the dead being, by their very nature, haunting. Looking at the gaunt, stricken faces of the survivors (ghosts now themselves) drives home the stomach-churning awfulness of what happened better than any fictionalized take ever could.

Throughout The Donner Party, Burns seems to take his visual and aural cues from the opening sequence of The Shining, in which the Torrances drive up a mountain pass to the strains of a doom-laden soundtrack. (The Shining itself contained a reference to the Donner Party.) The opening shot here is a sweeping, bird’s-eye view of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the music is Angelo Badalamenti’s spectral “Dark Spanish Symphony”; together, they convey an almost cosmic sense of unease and malignant predestination. 

Structured as a peculiarly American cautionary tale, the film begins in earnest with an admonishing quotation from Alexis De Tocqueville about “the feverish ardor with which Americans pursue prosperity.” The Donner Party, of course, pursued the quickest route to prosperity, and ended up paying dearly for it. It’s when the party becomes snowed in, about halfway through, that the movie really starts to get disquieting: The diary entries grow increasingly dire, and Burns keeps zeroing in on the sinister, foreboding qualities of, say, a snow-darkened copse of trees or the dying embers of a makeshift fire. The sequence, in which a small splinter group, dubbed “The Forlorn Hope,” decides to murder and then partake of two Native American guides, is disturbing in a way no traditional horror movie has ever been, because the moral terror of their transgression is palpable. The end of the film, which sees the party—reduced in size almost by half—finally make it to California, is perfectly chilling: The only thing worse than the Donner Party’s ordeal, it turns out, is the legacy of that ordeal, and having to bear the weight of it until the end of time.

Availability: The PBS American Experience special The Donner Party is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix.

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