Friends, I’m a Blockbuster baby.
There are few experiences I hold more dear to my understanding of joy than the feeling of opening the door and witnessing the cornucopia of chunky, colorful VHS covers and the crackling boom of a yet-to-be discovered movie playing through cheap speakers. I even have a smell logged into my mind’s nose I can only describe as ‘freshly vacuumed carpet with a dash of popcorn’; I don’t know where the popcorn comes from — this isn’t the theater — but maybe the checkout line’s assortment of Pop Secret and Orville Redenbacher tricks my senses into manifesting crunchy, buttery temptation.
In 1999, my mother prefaced every visit to the video store with “Don’t get comfortable; we’re not gonna be here for long.” She since passed that baton to my wife, who’s become privy to my habits. If left unchecked, I will comb through every shelf, from top to bottom, front to back, the Criterion Collection to the dollar bin of truly bizarre shit, for upwards of two hours. Why? Because almost as much as I love the movies themselves, I love the process of discovering and learning about them.
When I say, then, that I love “In Search of Darkness,” David Weiner’s new documentary about ‘80s horror movies, it’s because of that blink-and-you-miss-it flow of movies, actors, craftspeople, directors and personalities bombarding my frontal cortex. It’s like being 14 years old, the only person in Blockbuster for four and a half hours, picking the clerk’s knowledge for all its worth and finally leaving with a stack of recommended titles to guide you through a new cinematic journey.
The movie takes me through the decade, discussing about eight or nine movies per year with notable horror icons and talking heads. For each film, there’s a plot summary, some behind-the-scenes info, criticism, historical context and a wealth of excited fandom, especially when it comes to a great kill or shocking effect. The assortment of films range from stone-cold classics like “The Shining” or “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to cult favorites like “The Monster Squad” or “Basket Case.” The distribution heavily favors the work of the people featured in the documentary, and I’m sure there’ll be many discussions as to which titles got snubbed, especially since the title screen before each entry surrounds its movie covers with others from the same year. My heart still holds out for a deep dive into “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Demons,” or “Xtro.”
I’m not sure how many people need this disclaimer, given most of the Shudder audience who’ll be streaming this are likely large fans of the genre and have seen many of these titles before, but there are a healthy dose of spoiler-adjacent moments revealed throughout, so if you want to enter some of these films blind, be warned. I will credit the movie for mostly staying coy about the absolutely mind-shattering revelations, but let’s be honest: If your overall enjoyment of a film lives or dies on you not knowing the big twist, the movie likely wasn’t gonna be your cup of tea.
In between each year, the documentary breaks off into featurettes discussing an aspect of horror history, pop culture or tropes. There’s discussion of how the politics of the Reagan era affected the movies made during the time, the role the burgeoning home video market played in making independent horror more accessible, the adoption of the “final girl” in horror language and how the term affects public perception of women’s representation in the genre. If a film student is looking for a potential essay topic, these featurettes make for great brainstorming fodder.
What a murderers’ row of iconic talent, from directors like Joe Dante and John Carpenter, to SFX masters like Greg Nicotero and Mark Shostrom, to “final girls” like Barbara Crampton and Heather Langenkamp. One of my favorite little details is that every so often, the interviewees’ credits will change to reflect their body of work. It’s neat seeing someone like Mick Garris go from being introduced as “Creator – Masters of Horror” to “Director – Critters II.” The variety of credits these people have is surprising.
I also appreciated the generational gap when it came to talent. If a horror geek was a child/teen in the ‘80s, Elvira, played by Cassandra Peterson, served as a guide into horror cinema on her show “Movie Macabre.” The ‘90s had Joe Bob Briggs hosting weekly double features on TNT’s “MonsterVision.”
“MonsterVision” would serve as inspiration and education for filmmaker and critic James Rolfe, known best as “The Angry Video Game Nerd” on Cinemassacre.com, but for me, his yearly “Monster Madness” series was a month-long treat: 31 horror recommendations spanning the history of the genre from the ‘20s to now.
In the last few years, James A. Janisse’s “Kill Count” series on his YouTube channel, Dead Meat, has introduced new fans to the genre in a comedic, easily digestible fashion. These hosts and critics highlight the importance curation and access plays into the survival of the genre going forward. Whether it be on cable or YouTube, there’s always a wealth of people hungry to explore what goes bump in the night and, subsequently, people happy to share that love and knowledge with others.
Here’s a question: Should the documentary be binged in one setting, “Irishman” style, or broken up into more episode-length chunks? It’s definitely a long sit and, near the end, I found my attention waning at times (though the inclusion of “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” brought me back cheering, because that movie is an excellent demented sugar high).
Your mileage may vary, but here’s my recommendation: Start the documentary while eating lunch. This gives you time to experience a sample of every goofy, gory moment the ‘80s has to offer…and still have time afterwards to stream a new discovery before bed. Experiencing horror is like going to the pool: The best course of action is to simply dive in. So kick back, grab a pizza, beer, candy corn (underrated champion of candy — fight me, heathens) and enjoy this decade of spooks with the unbridled excitement of your youth. “In Search of Darkness” is a damn good time.
Featured image credit: Shudder
Daniel Berrios watches movies in Dallas with his wife and three meowing children. When not watching movies, he’s likely writing about them or discussing them on his YouTube channel. Outside of film, he enjoys “Borderlands,” cooking and playing a guitar that desperately needs new strings.