In Search of Darkness: The Definitive 80s Horror Documentary is being billed as a film, but it feels more like a miniseries. Over a run time of nearly four and a half hours, it crams in discussions of dozens of films and a jaw-dropping range of interviews with top flight-directors (John Carpenter, Joe Dante), iconic actors (Barbara Crampton, Doug Bradley), effects artists, composers, pop culture commenters, and more. The overstuffed kitchen sink approach nicely captures a decade of gruesome excess in horror cinema. But in evaluating and analyzing his decade of choice, first-time writer-director David A. Weiner would have benefited from a bit less enthusiastic love and a bit more of a critical scythe and / or chainsaw.
For fans of 1980s horror, In Search of Darkness is a compulsively watchable delight. The documentary proceeds chronologically from 1980’s The Shining and The Fog through 1989’s Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. Neither snobbery nor slobbering fandom is allowed to mar the proceedings, and the interviewees gamely tackle David Cronenberg’s high concept Videodrome with the same appreciation of craft and gore that they bring to discussions of open schlock like Chopping Mall or Stephen King’s cocaine-fueled directorial debut (and directorial swan song), Maximum Overdrive. There are a few glaring individual omissions (no Aliens?!), and foreign horror films of the era are completely missing. But given that it’s impossible to cover everything, the doc does a good job of hitting most of the era’s American highlights and many of the buried, fiendish obscurities as well.
Weiner intersperses his year-by-year surveys with thematic explorations of various ’80s horror topics, including VHS cover art, nudity in horror, and soundtracks and sound design. He also spends a lot of time on discussing how various effects were achieved, with puppetry, makeup, prosthetics, and a good deal of pre-digital ingenuity.
There’s enough information here, with so many films covered, that even hardcore genre fans are bound to find something new they’d like to see or something old they want to revisit. Among the lesser-known gems that get substantial attention is From Beyond, the companion piece to Stuart Gordon’s preposterously gory Herbert West: Reanimator, and The Society, a satirical political paranoid thriller with massive gross-out body modification and literal talking butts. It looks completely, marvelously bonkers.
In addition to pointing out obscurities worth watching, the documentary also includes a lot of terrific individual moments. The best is probably Joe Dante’s rueful evaluation of The Howling II, the follow-up knock-off of Dante’s famous werewolf picture. After doing his best to find something nice to say about Philippe Mora’s direction, he concludes, “It just didn’t make any sense.”
Stuntman Kane Hodder — who, at one point in his career, was hospitalized for serious injuries suffered doing a fire stunt — talks at length about how much he loves doing fire stunts because they just look so cool. Caroline Williams, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, drops F-bombs and seems giddily happy to be on camera. And practically everyone giggles about how completely alienated audiences were by the Michael Myers-free Halloween III: Season of the Witch.
The only misstep, interview-wise, is a heavy reliance on podcasters and fandom figures. One or two enthusiasts would have been fine, but the doc includes so many that their contributions sometimes feel repetitive and superfluous. The inevitable Joe Bob Briggs opines twice, for example, that Freddy Krueger is a better villain than Jason, an insight we probably didn’t even need to hear once.
In place of some of these commentators, it might have been nice to hear from a few critics or scholars. The absence of any academics is especially notable when the conversation strays into theoretical territory. A number of female stars, for example, explain how they dislike the term “Final Girl,” and would prefer just to be called “protagonists.” It’s a fascinating discussion, but it would have been useful to hear from Carol Clover, who coined the term, or from other scholars or critics who have found it useful.
The documentary does touch on feminist themes, but without critics or scholars, it has trouble putting the ’80s in context. How did the representation of women change over the decade? How did films engage with the contemporary feminist movement or the backlash to it? Similarly, the absence of representation of black actors in ’80s horror is barely mentioned — a glaring oversight, especially in light of this year’s amazing documentary on the African-American horror tradition, Horror Noire. The closest the documentary gets to touching on the issue is a brief discussion with actor Ken Sagoes, who talks enthusiastically about how his character survived Nightmare on Elm Street 3 and with less pleasure about how he was killed off in the opening minutes of Nightmare on Elm Street 4.
In Search of Darkness’ biggest missed opportunity, though, is probably its failure to address AIDS. A few people mention that the epidemic was possibly an influence on films like The Thing or The Fly, but no one takes a minute to explain the disease’s impact on the country, the queer community, or culture as a whole, much less to talk about how the era’s films addressed it or thought about it.
Part of the problem is that such a consideration probably wouldn’t be especially positive. The Thing is fantastic horror, but it doesn’t have an especially sensitive or compassionate take on the spread of infectious disease. One of Horror Noire’s great strengths is its willingness to tear some hunks out of the thing it loves in order to figure out how it works or doesn’t. In Search of Darkness, by contrast, is reluctant to say anything that might be seen as a bloody attack on its subject matter. It’s certainly an enjoyable documentary, and it’s highly recommended to any horror fan. But the best horror movies are a little more ruthless than this.
In Search of Darkness debuted at Beyond Fest 2019 in Los Angeles on October 6th, and it’s coming to Blu-ray on October 7th.