There has been a strange nostalgia for the 1980s over the last 10-15 years, including countless remakes of iconic horror films from that decade, including Friday the 13th (2009), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), Evil Dead (2013), and Child’s Play (2019). Meanwhile, "Stranger Things" has become such a cultural phenomenon that the upside down is now part of our lexicon. It’s no surprise then that there’s a new documentary celebrating that era in horror. In Search of Darkness, written and directed by David A. Weiner, features commentary on several films from that period and interviews with genre heavyweights, including Kane Hodder, Heather Langenkamp, Doug Bradley, Joe Bob Briggs, John Carpenter, Sean S. Cunningham, just to name a few. The doc’s greatest strength is that it never leans into nostalgia too much and instead offers insightful perspectives on the films and characteristics of that decade.
The film opens with some thoughtful analysis about the attraction to horror. Director Mick Garris compares watching a horror film to riding a rollercoaster. There’s a thrill, but you know it will eventually end and you’ll be safe. Yet, it’s a cool experience that you can discuss with your friends afterwards. He and others also note that horror addresses our deepest anxieties and allows us to confront death, but from a safe space. Indeed, this commentary echoes what others have said about the genre, specifically Morris Dickstein’s essay “The Aesthetics of Fright,” which raises many of the same points that Garris does.
From there, the documentary covers each year of the decade and a handful of films per year. Starting with 1980, the doc features some insightful remarks on The Fog, The Shining, Friday the 13th, The Changeling, among others. The films covered in the subsequent years will be no surprise to viewers and include A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), various Friday the 13th sequels, Evil Dead (1981), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984), Hellraiser (1987), and many, many others. It’s likely that some fans will gripe that certain films weren’t covered, especially since their VHS covers are shown but no commentary is offered. Yet, it would be impossible to cover everything.
That said, a little less time spent on the Friday the 13th franchise to make way for, say Cannibal Holocaust or any of Dario Argento’s films would have been welcome. Argento’s films especially had a huge influence on the genre, and Cannibal Holocaust was the first found footage horror film. Furthermore, its controversy and the birth of the video nasty sub-genre make it influential.
After each year, there’s some analysis given to tropes and characteristics unique to the 1980s. I found this aspect of the doc the most interesting. Topics covered include the rise of the final girl, sexuality in the horror film, practical effects, the advent of 3-D, just to name a few. Here, the doc digs a little bit deeper and analyzes the genre and time period as a whole. My one real gripe is that no scholars or sociologists were interviewed to deepen the analysis, especially from a political or cultural perspective. Instead, all of the commentary is given by actors, actresses, directors, and one or two media critics. Yet, horror studies is a growing field, but the doc only features industry insiders.
Overall,the doc is generally light on historical context. One commentator early on states that the 1980s were a terrible time for certain groups of people, especially the LGBT community, due to AIDs and the Reagan administration’s tepid response, which resulted in more deaths. I kept wondering why the doc ignored A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, which has found renewed interest recently due to its gay subtext and the story of its gay lead, Mark Patton, whose career was essentially destroyed by the film. Yet, substantial commentary is given to parts 1 and 3 of the franchise. At least Shudder also has Scream, Queen: My Nightmare on Elm Street available to stream. It’s a must-watch.
Furthermore, Reaganism is touched on briefly by Carpenter and a few others, but never in depth. It seems like an oversight since so many films from that period, specifically They Live (1988), deal with it head-on. Additionally, there isn’t much exploration as to why there is such a fondness for the 1980s and films from that period. Near the end of the doc, Phil Nobile Jr, editor of Fangoria, admits that it’s simply nostalgia. If we saw a movie when we were 10 and 11 and that film stuck with us, nothing will ever replace that memory. That’s why there’s such a fondness for 1980s horror.
In the closing, Joe Bob Briggs comments that the film industry today is obsessed with remakes. That’s true. As already mentioned, several of the 1980s horror films have been remade. There are more sequels and remakes that will be greenlit, I’m sure. Briggs says that the 1980s was such a high point for horror because filmmakers and screenwriters cared about originality and what they could do with no money. He seems to imply that’s missing today.
Yet, what about the films of Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Jennifer Kent and Robert Eggers? What about the rise of international horror cinema, thanks to streaming services like Shudder? If we keep romanticizing the 1980s, then the film industry will continue to fund remake after remake and tired sequel after tired sequel. Yet, more recently, there’s been several up and coming filmmakers to watch, including female directors. The doc ignores that and leaves you wondering if the 1980s was the last great period for the genre.That said, and to be fair, Briggs’ “Last Drive-in” series on Shudder does an excellent job screening newer horror films with the old. He and his assistant, Darcy (Diana Prince), also featured in the doc, do a fine job showcasing newer films.
Overall, In Search of Darkness should please horror fans, especially for the array of interviews that it contains with some of the genre’s biggest stars and directors. It never feels like it’s four and a half hours long because it’s generally engrossing. The doc could have done with greater historical and cultural analysis and spent less time on some of the most well-known franchises, but overall, it’s a comprehensive overview about one of the most important periods in horror history.
In Search of Darkness is currently streaming on Shudder.
Follow HorrOrigins Social Media Pages