Where do Gen X nostalgia and a new paradigm in documentary funding meet? With the new film In Search of Darkness, a look about 80s horror that asks the people who were on screen, behind the camera and watching obsessively what made the genre great.
The definitive love letter to 80s horror, “In Search of Darkness” was put together after a huge Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and is ready for its close-up next month at Hollywood’s Beyond Fest, followed soon after by Australia’s Monster Fest (Melbourne) and many others. After that a DVD copy will be sent to backers and further distribution plans are afoot.
The four-hour documentary comes at a perfect time. Coming ahead of the next film from the same production company (“In Search of the Last Action Heroes”), the ’80s are red hot right now. You only have to look at “Ready Player One”, “Stranger Things” and the endless reboots and remakes that made the collective childhoods of anyone who grew up in the era (or wishes they did) so joyous.
It was veteran entertainment journalist David Weiner’s first project as a writer and director. In between finishing the edit (‘tinkering with it until the film is pried from my fingers’ is how he puts it) and starting a gruelling round of press, he spoke to Moviehole from Los Angeles.
What made an editor and writer the best choice to direct the film?
One can never rule out that they were simply in the right place at the right time. But I think my background really suited the job. At Entertainment Tonight I spent over a decade interviewing celebrities and filmmakers, writing the sit-down questions and then assembling segment packages for ETonline.com. After ET, I went on to become the executive editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a hugely influential genre magazine from my childhood.
My experience at those two outlets provided the perfect-storm foundation to helm a documentary about 80s horror movies. There are close to 50 faces interviewed in the film, shot in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Rotterdam and London, with executive producer Robin Block and cinematographer Jim Kunz sharing the load and conducting interviews too.
Was it good fun or very, very hard – even dispiriting – co-ordinating and executing all the elements?
Good fun, absolutely. Sure, it can be quite a challenge to coordinate so many talented people to sit down for a good hour, sometimes much more, to talk up the horror genre. But never dispiriting. It’s actually an incredibly rewarding experience to chase down top names and have them agree to appear in your film, especially after navigating their management.
Of course, it’s not a done deal until they’ve actually shown up, finished their interview and you haven’t lost the file. We had a couple of stars that I thought were in but then became unavailable. That’s frustrating. But we joke that’s it’s like herding cats. I think I’m a pretty seasoned cat herder.
Being a crowdsourced effort I guess you also didn’t have trailers full of Evian water and had to do a lot of stuff on the fly yourself?
It was tap water for all… Kidding. Working on a small indie production is actually an easier job at times because there are less crew members to coordinate and accommodate. You have to be nimble and tackle several tasks on your own to make it all happen.
But since you joked about it, we still managed to have quality bottled water for the talent. Don’t skimp on the quality water, folks. People are donating their time and brain space for our project, so you’ve got to show some basic appreciative gestures in return — along with profuse amounts of ‘thank you’s’.
Were the ’80s really a golden age for genre films or are those who came of age in the era just wearing rose coloured glasses?
One could argue that anyone’s formative years, no matter what decade they fall in, are truly their golden age. I’m convinced that any movies and media that one consumes between the ages of about 8-16 end up being prime foundations for later nostalgia.
That being said, movies in the ’80s – especially horror, sci-fi and fantasy films – really demonstrated bursts of creativity, raw indie resourcefulness, a quantum leap in special effects, bolstered budgets and a continued merging of star power with genre filmmaking. That resulted in some really wonderful films. Some really awful ones too, don’t get me wrong, especially with the newly introduced straight-to-video market.
We also tend to think the 80s were great because crafts like puppetry, miniatures, etc came of age and we’re a bit cynical about effects today being all CGI. Do you agree?
Practical effects all the way, if you ask me. Almost. The ’80s really introduced an explosion of amazing effects courtesy of resourceful geniuses like Tom Savini, Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin. But I’ve learned over the years from talking to the likes of filmmakers like Ridley Scott and Guillermo del Toro that CGI isn’t all that bad if used properly.
Practical versus digital isn’t a binary choice. By using practical effects as a base and then sweetening them with CGI you can achieve convincing visuals while still being in-camera. At the end of the day, just give me something tangible onscreen. Even if it’s clearly fabricated, I’ll still respond more positively as a viewer than with an obvious CGI effect, which is almost always a disappointment to me.
Horror movies have several iconic epochs, whether it’s the Universal monsters of the 30s or the more cerebral and allegorical films of the 70s (The Exorcist, The Wicker Man). What aesthetic or mood typifies the horror of the ’80s you were trying to capture?
The ’80s were big and bold and full of excess, and the films of the decade often reflected that. But it was the sky’s-the-limit practical effects explosion and the seismic shift in the way that audiences could view these films at home on cable TV and VHS that really defined ’80s horror.
While slasher films drew much of the attention in the early ’80s, the horror genre quickly expanded in multiple directions when creative minds and hungry producers saw what everyone else could do, from body horror and fantasy elements to creature features of a more explicit nature. And franchise building. Everyone wanted a horror icon of their own — Freddy, Jason, Chucky, Pinhead — to build a franchise around.
Did you go into the production with a mandate or remit about its shape or did other themes emerge the more people you spoke to?
From the beginning the mandate [from exec producer Robin Block] was simple – create a lively and informative documentary that would take horror fans on a nostalgia trip, year by year from 1980-1989, and fire up viewers to revisit their favourite ’80s films in binge mode.
I took that foundation and structured it with thematic chapters in between the timeline years to best incorporate all the wonderful, insightful reflections of our interview talent.
In addition to dozens of dozens of specific titles, they talk about the varied elements of horror filmmaking, from the genre’s iconic heroes and villains and amazing practical effects maestros to the brief ’80s 3D resurgence, musical scores and sound design, marketing the films, sex and nudity, and even the virtues of the horror fan base itself.
There have been horror documentaries before, some even made in the 80s. How is In Search of Darkness different given we now have 40 years of distance?
There are many great horror documentaries out there, and more being made all the time. However, In Search of Darkness really tries to tackle the many different facets of ’80s American horror and its sub-genres that permeated screens, big and small, through the observations, opinions, and stories of many of the top creators who were there when it was all being made.
Hearing the likes of John Carpenter, Joe Dante, Heather Langenkamp, Barbara Crampton and Keith David recount not only their own experiences but their favourite moments of ’80s horror films as fans themselves — and then re-contextualise much of it — really makes for a unique experience.
Of course, the 40 years of distance might give us a slightly tainted view. Can we even view the 80s honestly, especially now nostalgic projects like “Stranger Things” might be making it seem more awesome than it was?
Time changes things. The further away we are from our favourites, the more our perspectives change. Society changes too – what was accepted before is not always appropriate now as sands shift.
Nostalgia is a powerful force that can muddy critical clarity, but somehow the horror genre above all others manages to defy criticism. Horror fans love to stand by their favourites, whether you consider them treasures or trash.
An interesting thing about the march of time is that many of the films of the ’80s that were thrashed by critics like Siskel and Ebert are now revered as absolute classics, like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”. Even Frank Henenlotter’s “Basket Case” gets critical love now.
And it’s important to have film veterans like Mick Garris, Tom Holland and Joe Bob Briggs remind us in “In Search of Darkness” that up until the genre started making a regular killing at the box office, horror was considered to be ‘the red-headed stepchild’ of the Hollywood community.
It is a coincidence genres like horror grew so big in both number of films and influence around the time home video was becoming so mainstream?
Not at all. Home video was an avenue for indie filmmakers to finally skirt the big Hollywood studio gatekeepers and get easy distribution for their films with an even playing field alongside mainstream movies.
And with no studio execs preventing big ideas from being executed on a shoestring budget, the genre really took off because the basic exploitation ingredients of violence, sex and gore sold by way of eye-catching art made for encouraging financial returns.
You have 100 hours of footage. How do you possible whittle that down to feature length?
I initially delivered a five-hour cut and still had plenty of great, unused material. We’re delivering a final cut of the film that’s about four hours and twenty minutes long, designed to be watched in a couple sittings unless you have the stamina for a single sit.
We asked our backers what they thought of the film’s extended length, and they almost collectively screamed, ‘More!’ which makes me happy, because it’s painful to cut back so much good, relevant material.
I was actively involved with the editing as an over-the-shoulder director. Using a predetermined narrative outline and pointed questions as my guide, I sifted through all the interviews and essentially scripted the entire film, bite by bite, crafting stories about specific films and topics by interweaving several interviews together as one tale.
My editor, Samuel Way, did an incredible job assembling this epic film with a brisk pace and loads of fun clips and stills that take you right back to the middle of that amazing decade.
Who was the best interview?
So many great stories from so many respected, accomplished people — don’t make me choose. But I have to admit it was a real thrill to chat with John Carpenter and elicit some real candid thoughts.
He’s especially modest about his films and his incredible career, even his many failures that have since turned into triumphs like “The Thing”. Carpenter is the man who sparked my love of genuine horror by scaring the crap out of me with Halloween. That launched my obsession to watch his film countless times in order to face my fear and deconstruct it as a student of film. It remains an all-time favourite.
Genre movies of the 80s have been more scrutinised than just about any other film movement and period. Were you surprised by how much more there still was to discover and learn?
You can watch a single film like “Videodrome” or “Re-Animator” multiple times and almost always discover a new moment here, a previously missed nuance there.
To have many of the creative forces of ’80s horror share untold stories alongside experts and journalists who dissect these films for a living in our documentary, there are an infinite amount of things to discover and learn.
Plus, I knew there were a lot of horror films made in the ’80s, but I didn’t realise just how many there were until I had to figure out how to encapsulate a decade full of them. There are just too many to do justice to all, but I tried to at least get visual or lip service to as many as I could fit in a four-hour film. Trust me, I tried.
What’s the distribution plan, will we see it in theatres?
The big screen premiere is at Beyond Fest in Los Angeles on October 6 in two parts, with a Q&A panel featuring some talent who are in the film. After that the film goes directly to our backers, who each get their own credit.
We couldn’t have made this film without them, literally. They are an amazingly supportive and enthusiastic bunch. Wider distribution is still in the works, so no announcements on that yet.
What’s your favourite 80s horror movie?
It’s a killer question to ask a lifetime film lover to name a single favourite in any genre, but I’d have to say “An American Werewolf in London” has always been tops for me. That film inspired me to dig deeper.
After I first saw it on the big screen in my local movie theatre, I needed to know how Rick Baker achieved such insanely realistic transformation effects. I studied how John Landis so deftly balanced comedy, drama and horror in one package. I marvelled at the atmospheric setting and the naturalistic performances. And I fell in love with Jenny Agutter and Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. Didn’t we all?