In Search of Darkness: Documentary Review

In Search of Darkness is a documentary by David A. Weiner on 80s’ horror. It begins with a quote from the late George A. Romero and then it analyzes chronologically the films of the decade through interviews with a mixed group of protagonists of the time and famous fans including John Carpenter, Tom Holland, Greg Nicotero, Mick Garris, Keith David, Jeffrey Combs, Stuart Gordon, Joe Dante… The list of speakers is impressive!

In addition to the focus on individual films which are particularly relevant for some of their aspects (it could be for their satirical value, or for the masterful special effects, for instance), there are a number of chapters on themes related to the horror genre and in particular to the productions of the decade. For example, there’s an inevitable introduction on why horror has always been so successful, followed immediately by a discussion on the role of politics. “Maybe Ronald Reagan inspired all the horror“, that’s what John Carpenter says with his usual irony and frankness. Stuart Gordon is also on the same wavelength: horror reflected the society of the time made of excess and repression (for example, it was difficult to be openly homosexual in the United States of the time, and everywhere else, let me add).

The documentary correctly highlights the importance of home video: VHS brought cinema to people’s homes and allowed for the possibility of collecting films. The covers were sometimes important for the performance of the movies in the rental market, and at the time some were real artistic drawings, which in video rental shops could attract audiences and therefore make the difference for directors with low budgets available but with interesting ideas to develop.

And what about the special effects? There were no computers at the time, everything had to be done with imagination, skill, talent and 100% practical effects! The best special effects artists worked in that era: think of Rick Baker, Tom Savini, Stan Winston and Rob Bottin, just to name a few! The Fangoria magazine specialized in the special effects of horror films, and Joe Dante defines it a transgressive magazine in the interview. It was as if there was a competition between horror films in which people competed to create the most surprising effect, the most spectacular murder, the most impressive monster transformation. And there was no shortage of opportunities with the werewolves of The Howling (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (1981), or films like Cat People (1982)!

Another inevitable theme to address when talking about eighties horror is the following: slasher movies. After Halloween (1978), plenty of horror films came out which took place during a holiday with someone or something killing one person after another: April Fool’s Day (1986), My Bloody Valentine (1981)… Something worked particularly well in staging a series of murders during a holiday which was supposed to evoke happiness and good feelings.

And then the short fashion of 3D, for which I found John Carpenter’s words illuminating: “I never wanted to work with 3D, it’s just a gimmick, it always has been“. Some 3D movies came out, but they are far from memorable: Parasite (1982) with Demi Moore, Friday 13th III (1982) which is full of 3D moments with yo-yos and sticks going towards the camera, Amityville 3D (1983) with Meg Ryan, Jaws 3-D (1983)… in short, nothing to be particularly proud of.

It was inevitable to to touch upon the topics of gratuitous (female) nudity as well as those of horror villains and franchises: the list is very long! Critters, Gremlins, the Freddy-Michael-Jason trio, Pinhead… The decade produced a lot of sagas whose luck depended on the memorable villains who always came back movie after movie. And there were heroes too! I’m thinking of Ash from Evil Dead (1981) or Kurt Russell in The Thing (1982), while the old horror icons like Vincent Price and Christopher Lee always played the villains! And how many examples of final girls! They are the protagonists in Halloween, Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)… They are victims, of course, but they persevere and survive at the end (mostly)!

I liked the chapter on soundtracks and the sound department of the films, with Carpenter saying that the Halloween soundtrack was born out of necessity (there was no money for an orchestra nor to hire a great composer), and with Manfredini highlighting Bernard Hermann’s influence on many 80s’ soundtracks of the decade.

The more than four hours of documentary end with the great Stuart Gordon (who’s sadly dead, now) saying that horror films are healthy because they allow us to exercise our fears. I couldn’t agree more! Ciao!

PS: In Search of Darkness is dedicated to the memory of Larry Cohen (maverick filmmaker), who was interviewed shortly before his death.

PPS: If I may, I do have one criticism: I would have liked to see longer clips of the individual interviews and hear, say, Carpenter or Dante elaborate something more structured than simple extrapolated sentences used to accompany the various topics of the documentary. Also, the choice of the films included in the documentary sometimes seemed a bit questionable to me, but it was clearly dictated by who accepted to be interviewed by the creators of In Search of Darkness!

PPPS: Thanks to this documentary I discovered countless interesting things: Maniac (1980) is the precursor of torture porn, H.R. Giger worked on Poltergeist II (1986), Stan Winston directed Pumpkinhead (1988), Robert Englund directed 976-EVIL (1988), Christopher Lee apologized to Joe Dante for taking part in Howling II (1986)…

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