Posted on July 2, 2020

In Search of Darkness: A Nostalgic Celebration of 80s Horror Cinema

Guest Post

Coinciding with the current renaissance of American horror cinema, we’ve seen more interest in horror documentaries. Within the last two years alone, Eli Roth’s History of Horror (2018) and Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019; see the Horror Homeroom review here) both released to critical acclaim, and now we have the collector’s documentary In Search of Darkness: A Journey into Iconic ‘80s Horror (2019), written and directed by David A. Weiner, to add to the mix.

This crowd-funded project was given a limited release direct to DVD, Blu-ray, and digital. It features interviews with over forty-five guests of varying occupations and notoriety within the horror realm who break down the memorable horror releases of each year during the decade of the 1980s. With a lengthy runtime of nearly four and a half hours, In Search of Darkness claims to be “the most complete retrospective documentary of the genre ever made,” and in this goal it mostly succeeds.

You can see the trailer for In Search of Darkness here:

Indeed, Darkness shines bright as it covers an ambitious breadth of 80s films and trends, which is truly unmatched. From horror staples like The Shining (1980) and The Lost Boys (1987) to established franchises like Friday the 13th, viewers can delight in commentary and/or insider takes on all of the decade’s favorites. Even lesser known films are discussed, films that seasoned horror aficionados may know little if anything about. This includes Motel Hell (1980), Dolls (1987), and Society (1989) as well as independent films like Fade to Black (1980), Basket Case (1982), Parasite (1982), and The Toxic Avenger (1986). As the filmmakers make clear, the 80s saw an explosion of ideas that produced a broad range of films spanning all subgenres of horror, offering something to appeal to every taste.

As one would expect, the film is distinguished most by its interviews. The menagerie of guests Darkness boasts includes some of the most prominent directors, actors, writers, stuntmen, makeup and special effects artists, composers, producers, creators, musicians, commentators, and critics in the horror business. For example, viewers can enjoy the intriguing insight and anecdotes of actors in 80s horror like Heather Langenkamp, Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and Tom Atkins and of highly influential directors like John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and the late Larry Cohen and Stuart Gordon.

Standout segments include A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and The Fly (1986). For the former, Langenkamp (who played the film’s protagonist Nancy Thompson) does a wonderful job filling the void created by Wes Craven’s passing and Robert Englund’s absence. She explains Craven’s philosophically-influenced filmmaking style and Englund’s impressive attention to detail in his mannerisms as infamous slasher villain Freddy Krueger. Her commentary makes the segment on A Nightmare on Elm Street arguably the most compelling of the documentary.

Darkness also benefits tremendously from its special topic segments that tackle trends of 80s horror or philosophical questions of the genre. Segments like “Introduction,” “Why We Watch,” “Horror FX,” and “Horror Heroes” provide valuable commentary and discussion of fundamental ideas perfectly suited for a class on horror cinema.

There are ways in which Darkness falls short, however, especially when it comes to the issue of inclusion. Avid horror fans will notice certain well-known films from the decade are conspicuously missing here, such as The Entity (1982), Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983), C.H.U.D. (1984), Tobe Hooper’s The Lifeforce (1985), Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Other horror classics are referenced only in passing during discussions of larger trends like the Canadian slasher Prom Night (1980), Hooper’s The Funhouse (1981), and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984).

Moreover, the filmmakers’ somewhat narrow interest in American horror becomes quickly apparent. Although guests discuss Cronenberg’s Canadian classics like Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), and The Fly (1986), along with a few British films like The Hunger (1983) and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), only visual allusions are made to notable Italian contributions like Inferno (1980), Dario Argento’s second of the Three Mothers trilogy, and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which is known as the originator of the found footage aesthetic.

Admittedly, it is impossible to cover all contributions to 80s horror even in four and a half hours, and it’s also likely that the films included in Darkness were determined by the depth of guests’ knowledge and quality of their commentary on the movies the filmmakers mentioned. In other words, some films were bound to be excluded one way or another.

The same can also be said of its guests. Despite its impressive number of contributors, Darkness still suffers from the glaring absence of specific high-profile filmmakers, actors, and writers. Those who do not make an appearance include Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, David Cronenberg, Robert Englund, Corey Feldman, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Stephen King, who did sit for an extensive interview for Eli Roth’s History of Horror (as did Curtis). These absences especially hurt the segments related to these guests, such as Evil Dead (1980).

Figure 1: (from left to right) Sam Raimi, David Cronenberg, Robert Englund, and Jamie Lee Curtis

Where Darkness arguably suffers most is from the absence of horror scholars, which leaves the documentary bereft of much of the critical depth seen in Eli Roth’s History of Horror and Horror Noire. Scholars would have made more explicit connections between the films discussed and the American anxieties of the 80s on which they riff. For example, while many guests note that slashers of the decade often seemed to equate sex with sinning because of traditional attitudes toward premarital sex, none connect this convention to the Reagan administration’s return to family values. Director John Carpenter and actor Alex Winters of The Lost Boys fame do their best to provide insightful sociopolitical commentary, but the inconsistency of explicit and thorough cultural contextualization for the films proves to be a significant shortcoming of Darkness.

The guests, then, become the documentary’s greatest asset and weakness. When discussing his love of 80s horror, Phil Nobile, Jr., Editor-in-Chief of Fangoria Magazine, incidentally reveals a consequential flaw of Darkness: “It’s nostalgia. It’s just, well, I saw [this film] when I was 11, so it’s great because there’s a certain lizard part of your brain that’s never going to be able to look critically at that movie that did it for you at that certain age” (04:10:27-04:10:37). Indeed, guests tend to wax nostalgic over the films they are prompted to discuss rather than critically evaluate their merit, though some do ridicule larger horror trends of the decade like 3D effects or lament the pervasive objectification of women.

In this way, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are intent on capitalizing on the late nostalgia zeitgeist for 80s horror cinema in order to push fans relatively new to the genre further inside its subculture. But is this such a bad thing? Perhaps it depends on the audience.

Academics will find In Search of Darkness pedagogically useful for introducing their students to fundamental questions and theories of horror criticism, such as the paradox of its appeal or the guiding principle that, as Stuart Gordon succinctly puts it, “What scares us says a lot about the society.” Curious viewers new to American horror film will also find this documentary to be a valuable source for learning about one of the most prolific decades for horror cinema ever. Finally, In Search of Darkness will appeal to all avid horror fans, especially those looking for an extended opportunity to get lost in 1980s nostalgia.

You can purchase In Search of Darkness from the documentary’s website. It is also streaming on demand on Vimeo.


Cody Parish is an educator and freelance writer who covers American horror cinema and culture. He has published with Horror Homeroom and PopMatters and has a chapter in a forthcoming edited collection on James Wan’s films, which will be released in 2021.



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