Review: IN SEARCH OF DARKNESS

Massive documentary project examines influential decade in horror.

For those of you still reeling from the abrupt end to Scott Weinberg and Drew McWeeny’s wildly popular podcast “80s All Over,” take heart, “In Search of Darkness” will fill part of that void. Having worked at a video store in the 1980s, I can attest to the decade’s significance to the horror genre. And while the casual viewer might be familiar with Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” films or know the name Leatherface “Bubba” Sawyer from Tobe Hooper’s 1986 raw sequel to his 1974 classic “Chainsaw Massacre,” there are literally hundreds of 1980s movies that helped shape the movie franchises that dominate cinemas today.

This documentary feature from director David A. Weiner (his first film) is nothing short of epic. “Darkness” clocks in at over 4 hours, and Weiner and his team manage to trip year-by-year talking with the filmmakers, artists, and actors that made the magic happen. We get the good and the bad, the sublime and the downright nasty, as we hear from the people who were there when the face of the business and the nature of the art form changed.

Iconic maverick John Carpenter sits down for extensive interview.

In an expansive interview, master John Carpenter gives us insight into the struggle to satisfy producers with his tricky ghost story “The Fog.” He shows regrets at the direction of the “Halloween” sequels, especially the hard right turn of “Season of the Witch.” Also examined in depth, both technically and narratively, is his now highly regarded “The Thing,” which upon release was roundly criticized by the likes of film critic Roger Ebert. Actor Keith David tells us what a joy it was to work with Carpenter and the late Roddy Piper on “They Live,” a film that is in the process of being remade. Hopefully, that delicious satirical gem will be given the proper treatment in light of today’s political machinations.

That’s Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) out of make-up
colorfully reflecting on the genre and her place in it.

Using each year as a natural structure, Weiner smartly pauses occasionally to focus on the issues that arose with the genre’s evolution. Battles with the MPAA were common, as the growing pains ushered in some of the less tasteful aspects of horror. But there were more highlights than shameful lows.

The concept of the “final girl” that was given a big boost with 1978’s “Halloween” is covered at length, as well as a frank discussion of sexual exploitation. Actress Barbara Crampton, who once was strapped to a table in one memorable scene in Stuart Gordon’s undeniable classic “Re-Animator” talks about nudity and it’s often gratuitous use. Iconic horror host Cassandra Peterson, who was the star of “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark,” one of my wife’s all-time favorite films, discusses the empowerment that many of the 80s horror entries delivered. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” hero Heather Langenkamp is heavily featured and explains Freddy’s place in the genre, and how that franchise helped shape audiences acceptance of female and minority presence on the big screen.

Actress Barbara Crampton discusses sexual exploitation
and her feelings about nudity in 1980s horror cinema.

It’s an impressive collection of talent with some 45 interviews. And while Weiner is clearly in love with his subject, which makes him perfect to take the helm here, he doesn’t shy away from controversy within the genre. Director Joe Dante criticizes the misguided sequel to his 1981 werewolf tingler “The Howling.” Brian Yuzna addresses the criticism of his wild film “Society.” And Joe Bob Briggs (“The Last Drive-In”) definitively puts an end to the rumor that Steven Spielberg directed “Poltergeist,” protesting credibly that Tobe Hooper’s touch is all over the film.

The technical side of the business is examined, as well. “The Walking Dead” executive producer and special effects wizard Greg Nicotero reveals the use of real animal intestines while working as an assistant to Tom Savini on the set of George Romero’s “Day of the Dead.” And the late Larry Cohen tells us about the mistake he made with his 1982 film “Q: Winged Serpent” by shooting it without consulting with the visual effects team first.

Extensive interviews with Cohen are a highlight, as he talks about working with Michael Moriarty on 1985’s satirical horror “The Stuff” and re-teaming with him on the third “It’s Alive” film. Low budget masters like Cohen figured out the decade better than maybe anyone else, and Weiner smartly takes time to get his insights as well as those of fellow horror provocateur Lloyd Kaufman (“The Toxic Avenger”).

Director Joe Dante reflects on his significant contributions in 1980s
including 1984’s “Gremlins.”

“In Search of Darkness” is a pure joy, and even though it’s lengthy running time might be cause for concern, it makes for excellent binge viewing. I watched it in one continuous Sunday afternoon sitting, and while it does contain title card divisions, the streaming link that I was provided was not formally segmented. I’m uncertain how this is handled on Blu-ray where navigation menus may provide chapters to viewers intent on sampling the documentary over a number of days.

No matter how you decide to watch it, Weiner’s movie is a definitive survey of almost all things 1980s horror, and what is surprising is that a second helping could dive even deeper into the lesser known films that took advantage of the video boom and mainstream success of the genre. This fact points out the enduring legacy of the decade that today is mined by producers, whose risk averse approaches ensure that everything is remade.

A must for collectors, “In Search of Darkness” is available for pre-order through midnight on Thursday, October 31st, at https://80shorrordoc.com/. It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray (the collector’s chosen format). And this from the distributor: Everyone who pre-orders their copy will also receive an exclusive poster, enamel pin and a digital download of the documentary, perfect for viewing anywhere! Orders will ship in November 2019, just in time for the holiday season.

NOTE: After publishing this review, the director reached out and assured me that “the DVD and Blu-ray will have detailed navigation — 95 chapters or so — enabling viewers to navigate to any year, movie, or chapter section in the whole film.” This sounds awesome and interactive, because I really would like to revisit certain parts of the film for reference in the future.

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