Just in time for Halloween, this monster-sized look at the most important decade in horror is thorough, affectionate, & endlessly entertaining.
Generation X has resigned themselves (or ourselves, I should say) to being the forgotten generation, casualties in the neverending battle for relevance between Baby Boomers and Millennials (both of them not realizing that Gen Z is quietly creeping up behind them with a switchblade). Our contributions have been forgotten, our pop culture is viewed with indifference, and very little new is made with us in mind. We’re just a bunch of people’s embarrassing middle-aged parents, or disappointing middle-aged children, or both.
With that bummer of an opening, it pleases me immensely to announce the arrival of In Search of Darkness: A Journey Into Iconic 80s Horror, a documentary that seems to have been made specifically with Generation X in mind. That’s not to say that if you’re part of an older or younger generation you won’t get anything out of it — because you absolutely will — but so much of it is steeped in 80s horror fandom (which skewed heavily towards teens and young adults) that you can practically smell that stale popcorn and musty cardboard scent of your local video store.
Backed by both Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, In Search of Darkness clocks in at more than four hours long, but don’t let that, uh, scare you away. It could easily go on for another two hours, and not lose its sense of engagement and fun. Watching it feels a bit like you’re at a party with a bunch of people who want nothing more than to talk about how great Scanners is.
Featuring interviews from horror directors (including John Carpenter and Mick Garris), iconic actors (Nightmare on Elm Street’s Heather Langenkamp, Barbara Crampton, Keith David, and more), and superfans of the genre (Joe Bob Briggs, writer Heather Wixson, and even the founder of horror apparel brand Fright Rags), In Search of Darkness offers a year by year breakdown, focusing on both classics (The Shining, Hellraiser) and more obscure oddities (Fade to Black, Full Moon High). Some movies get a little more time than others for behind the scenes trivia, such as how the disembodied hand effects were created for Evil Dead II, or how Kelli Maroney’s character in Night of the Comet was changed to spare her an early death.
Sandwiched between the year breakdowns are segments focusing on the VHS boom, the misguided 3D trend that led to such memorable duds as Parasite and Jaws 3D, music and sound design, and the devotion of the horror fan community (during which Halloween’s Nick Castle mentions that he’s had fans get his autograph tattooed on them). It also doesn’t shy away from some of the less wonderful aspects of the decade and genre, including gratuitous, often exploitative nudity, and the distinct lack of black and other POC leading characters.
In a time when people seem far more interested in litigating on social media what exactly “horror” is, it’s both refreshing and delightful to see such an open-armed embrace of the genre as a whole, without the endless, insufferable gatekeeping. You may argue that The Burbs is more of a comedy than horror, or that They Live is probably closer to science fiction, but they’re both mentioned here with the same sort of reverence as An American Werewolf in London and The Fly. There’s no faux ironic “so bad it’s good” here, even when it comes to movies like Critters II and Maximum Overdrive. It’s all part of a beloved genre providing endless fun and entertainment for individuals who might have felt a little left out and overlooked in their everyday lives. It’s all part of their community, accepted with affection.
In a time when people seem far more interested in litigating on social media what exactly “horror” is, it’s both refreshing and delightful to see such an open arms embracing of the genre as a whole, without the endless, insufferable gatekeeping.
Perhaps the most enjoyable part about In Search of Darkness, other than the warming glow of nostalgia (I miss you Hollywood Video in Somers Point, NJ, forever and ever), is how much obvious joy the interviewees take in talking about both their own movies and the genre in general. You’d think that Tom Atkins would have gotten tired of talking about Halloween III: Season of the Witch more than twenty years ago, but Atkins, now 83, is still delighted to reminisce about it, even his brief nude scene (“I had an ass then! I don’t have an ass anymore”).
He’s proud of his work in a genre that even today, while still making plenty of money, is dismissed and minimized. So’s Caroline Williams, particularly of her work in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in which she almost has a chainsaw shoved between her legs, but also, as opposed to every single male character in the film, survives to the end. They may not have gotten roles in The Remains of the Day, but how many people are out there doing Remains of the Day cosplay?
The featured films noticeably decline in both number and quality by the end of the decade, as the viewer is reminded of just what a bleak period, the Scream franchise aside, the 90s were for horror. It’s unclear why, other than perhaps what a glut of derivative garbage the home video market became, the horror genre so quickly fell out of vogue, and never really began to recover until the early 00s. Even now, in a renaissance period where films like Hereditary and Us push the genre and demand that viewers and critics alike accept them as art instead of “just” horror, it doesn’t have that same feel. Horror movies that end up becoming box office smashes, like Andy Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It, are treated as surprises no one saw coming — who knew that people like this kind of stuff so much? Well, we did, Hollywood. We could have (and did, many times) told you that.
Shudder, which earlier this year produced Horror Noire, another excellent documentary about black representation in horror, is the closest we’re going to get to that bygone excitement of browsing in a video store and picking out the movie with the creepiest cover, but it’s not really the same. In Search of Darkness hits those perfect bittersweet notes of watching scary movies between your fingers, being scared but wanting more of it, and knowing that this was exactly where you belonged.