In Search of Darkness, now available to pre-order, is a documentary love letter to American 80s horror films. It examines the films of each year consecutively, interweaving them with discussions on different topics, from special effects to the decade’s iconic women of horror. You can read what I thought in my review. David Weiner is the writer and director of In Search of Darkness and, with excitement and press coverage ramping up, we had a chat about the film’s making.
Peter Meinertzhagen: I see that backers, in the past week or so, have begun receiving their keys to watch the film. I’ve seen the official In Search of Darkness Twitter account retweeting many positive messages from fans. How does it feel now that the film is out there being watched widely and are you keeping an eye on what people’s reactions are?
David Weiner: I am keeping an eye like a hawk. It’s been an absolute thrill to have people who were really excited for this film and who backed and had faith in this film to be over overjoyed with the result and what we’ve given them. The simple fact is that no one expected a four hour and 20 minute movie. And so everyone is pretty much getting double what they expected.
While the film can’t be everything for everyone, because the 80s horror decade was just such a massive decade with such a tremendous output, for the most part, people have responded that they’re very pleased with the choices, the way we structure it and who we talked to, and how the four hours and 20 minutes really just flies by. Credit to my editor Samuel Way for making this a breeze of a watch.
PM: As In Search of Darkness is a crowd-funded film, do you feel an even greater obligation to satisfy the fans and backers?
DW: I think there’s an obligation to please the fans and myself. I have pretty particular standards for the type of material that I like to consume and be informed by and I think documentaries are a very different animal than a standard feature film. So, when it comes down to it, I want to be familiar with the material yet educated and informed with new material. See things I’ve never seen before.
When it comes to the fans, I think they’ve been incredibly supportive. The biggest complaints about this film is that out of the four hours and 20 minutes, I didn’t cover that one particular film that they wish they had in there. And that’s an extremely valid complaint. And it’s one I’ve gotten many of and I gotta tell you, there are some movies that were favourites of mine that didn’t make the cut either, because we had challenges with running time.
But at the end of the day I’m here to please. We have over 4000 fans and backers who are horror fans. I want to be able to please the fan and me and provide an entertaining film that would not disappoint the people who had the faith in this project from the get go.
PM: That you’ve gone with a four hour plus documentary, how much of that is to give the backers a sense that they’ve gotten their money’s worth and how much of it is because there’s just so much stuff you didn’t want to cut?
DW: It’s pretty much the latter I think, it’s a bonus element that the backers get twice the amount. But this was always meant to be a movie that was going to be under two hours with a three hour director’s cut if we met our stretch goal in Kickstarter with the crowdfunding of a year ago. And based on the requirements of trying to be as expansive as possible, you end up wanting to put as much as you can in there and there’s no way that you could ever do it.
The executive producer, Robin Block, came up with the idea where he wanted to go through every single year of the 80s decade and go through every single movie of each year. That’s not necessarily possible, but it is possible to structure it that way where in between those years you have more expanded topics to provide context. We try to hit as much as we can. We try to get the very popular and commercial titles as well as the obscure and straight-to-video ones. The ones that don’t ultimately get a dissection, so to speak, there’s at least some visual or lip service with a poster or a clip or a mention. So we try and satisfy on as many fronts as possible.
PM: Were you worried that reviewers, for example, might see the four hours and think “wow, that’s way too long”?
DW: Yeah, absolutely. That was very much a concern. But as this progressed, and we considered making it just a three hour film, we realised we’re just going to throw the baby out with the bathwater because the structure demands time. It really does. And we had a focus group of the film and we asked the backers what they thought, we told them that I delivered the five-hour cut and that we were considering a minimum four-hour cut, “what do you think?”, and it was an overwhelmingly positive response.
I think you can really credit two films, Never Sleep Again, the Nightmare on Elm Street documentary, and Crystal Lake Memories, the Friday the 13th documentary, which are essentially four and six hours respectively, and fans have demonstrated a desire to do a deep dive on their favourite subjects, and they’re willing to spend the time to dive into these things and live with them and inhabit them. And so that gave me an enthusiastic push to be able to do this. And again, it comes down to satisfaction for me. I realised, yeah, there are ways to slice this where it’s not a four hour and 20 minute sit, I understand that. But Robin always insisted that this is, first and foremost, a project that is for the fans and for the backers who expect one film, and it’s meant to be consumed in multiple sittings. It’s sub-divided in a way that you can come and go, however you please.
When the Blu-ray and the DVDs are fulfilled, they’ll find that the navigation is incredibly convenient, where you could go to any chapter – there are 95 chapters – and you can pick any year, you can go to any of the films within the year or pick any chapter topic like heroes, villains, pop culture and politics, fandom, special effects – you can go to any of those individually as well. So the navigation is incredibly easy, especially for repeat viewings.
PM: Did you always intend for it to be as comprehensive as it is, sort of like a textbook of 80s horror?
DW: Someone wrote in a review that it’s like the dog-eared copy of VideoHound that you keep at the base of your TV for quick reference. And while you’re watching one thing, you’re like, “Oh, wait, Barbara Crampton, what else was she in?” and you open up your dog-eared copy. And now you can think about other things she’s done and watch them because it piqued your interest or inspired you to seek out more within her resume.
I think the biggest challenge was the fact that when we were selling this idea we were calling it “the definitive film of 80s horror” and that’s a very tall order. As much as you want there’s always going to be things that you can’t touch upon and I decided that I was only going to cover American film within my timeframe to keep it focused, much to the chagrin of many people who, you know, wish that there was more Argento or Fulci or any world cinema.
There’s amazing stuff out there, but I’m very much of a completist. It’s like a party, right? You invite one friend and you feel like, well, they’ve got two other friends who I know tangentially. And if I invite them then I kind of have to invite their friends and then I have to invite everybody and now I have a room that’s overcrowded and the fire marshal is going to come in and kick us all out because there’s too many people and not enough space. And as much as I would love to have everybody there I just cannot accommodate. So I had to make some very difficult choices, even despite myself as a horror fan, I just had to stick to those choices. And it was difficult, very difficult.
PM: And was that a decision that was made at the start, that the film would only cover American horror?
DW: It was something that was discussed and it was obviously a decision we made, but we went back and forth quite a bit. A lot of it has to do with the guests that we had and the amount of time that we had to shoot all those interviews and then turn this film around. If you really want to go on a deep dive with world horror cinema, you have to find the people who know what they’re talking about. And while John Carpenter mentions that Inferno is one of his favourites, it’s not enough to structure a whole section around.
Ideally, because this is kind of a living, breathing document and time capsule, I do believe that we could always add more later. And I would love to add a world cinema chapter that would be long and extensive. And I guarantee you if I do that, and I’d love to do it, I probably will do it, there will be omissions that people are unhappy with because the world is a big place and there’s a lot of great cinema out there.
PM: Is there anything that you didn’t include that you really wish you had?
DW: It’s a laundry list. It really is. I had a bunch of things, from Altered States to Xtro to Cellar Dweller. I had Don Mancini who wrote Cellar Dweller under a pseudonym talking all about that. I had him and I had Jeffrey Combs talking about Cellar Dweller. One of the highs of making this film is when you can sit across from Jeffrey Combs and talk about his career and say, “okay, now let’s talk Cellar Dweller,” and he looks at me and he just pauses, and he goes, “Cellar Dweller? You want to talk about Cellar Dweller??” and then talks all about Cellar Dweller.
There are certain concessions we had to make, like, 1988 was just becoming a huge year. And that’s another thing I had to take into consideration is that for each year you want to try and have some sort of time consistency. But there were some years that were just much more full than others in terms of the material we had or just literally the output. If I could have I would have gone another several hours with this.
PM: What criteria were you using when you were looking at a particular year and you’ve got a long list of films you want to include? Were you whittling them down based on the ones that were the biggest blockbusters, or were you trying to frame the films in such a way that you’re telling a particular story?
DW: Telling a particular story about that year. I never looked at box office. The way each year timeline is structured, there’s a variety of approaches. One is just order of release. That’s how they’re laid out, not by importance. Also, which talent I had to talk about which films and if they were relevant. I would have loved to do the first Critters and I would have loved to do the first Stepfather – I had Caroline Williams, she was in Stepfather II, so I could combine the two. Same thing with Critters 2, I’ve got Mick Garris who wrote and directed it. So I had a Critters 1 piece and I folded it into Critters 2 based on that.
But it was really important for me to get not only the box office performers, but the more eccentric films, the more arcane films, the more practical effects-driven films, the cult films, the films that have found a greater appreciation many years later. Like Halloween III is this incredibly beloved film now, but I was around when it came and went, and everyone just said, “what the hell just happened to my Halloween franchise?” And to be able to track that with Tom Atkins and John Carpenter and Nick Castle, talking about the victories and the pitfalls of Halloween III and its ultimate comeuppance is, to me, one of the things that makes this film a real special event.
PM: Were you surprised by some of the big names you managed to get on board?
DW: I was definitely surprised with a lot of the people because this is a small crowd-funded project and who are we compared to anybody else? I think our secret weapon was putting together some amazing artwork and an amazing teaser cut. And incredible leadership by Robin Block in terms of having the savvy on how to launch this properly by attaching talent, putting together a very attractive package, and getting the word out in terms of marketing. But we only had a couple people attached. And we had aimed to get about 30 or 40 people and it was getting towards 50 and I had to cut that number off as well, based on budget and time.
You also want to get a nice cross section of talent that is representative of the era. And people who can give contemporary context to a 30-year-old decade of the horror genre. So you have not just the actors, not just the directors, you’ve got special effects people, you’ve got composers, you have a former child actor. You’ve got the people who really were pivotal during that timeframe, providing not only stories about what it was like to move through that decade and create amazing films but what it’s been like in the past 30 years and the evolution of the perception of and the respect and reverence, or lack thereof, of their work.
When we were starting this, people were like, “okay, you’re just yet another horror documentary of the many horror documentaries that I’ve sat down for and it never got released or I feel like it wasn’t worth my time”. So the fact that I was able, with the help of an incredible team, to get these people to sit down exclusively for us for an hour, hour and a half, two hours sometimes, to deliver some amazing anecdotes… all I can say is that the cutting room floor is is is waist deep, full of amazing content.
PM: What made your documentary different? What made these names wish to participate in In Search of Darkness?
DW: I think a good portion of it is that they hope for the best. But we also stacked our team with people who have moved within this genre before. Our Director of Photography, Jim Kunz, who also did a number of the interviews, is very steeped in this genre. I mean he’s just an absolute encyclopaedia, and he is constantly doing all those Blu-ray special features for a variety of different companies where he sits down with these people all the time. So he’s a known quantity.
Heather Wixson and Jessica Dwyer are two of our producers. Heather is managing editor of Daily Dead and wrote an amazing book on special effects called the Monster Squad. So she knows a lot of these people. Jessica has written for Horror Hound, she wrote for me when I worked at and was the editor of Famous Monsters. She is extremely well connected. I’m not so too shabby myself. I was the editor of Famous Monsters. Prior to that I was with Entertainment Tonight for 13 years and so we all have a formidable Rolodex and a good amount of people that we know how to access. I currently write for The Hollywood Reporter and I do a lot of genre interviews as well. So for example, I did a piece on Child’s Play‘s 30th anniversary and so sitting down with Don Mancini, after you do the piece, if he’s happy with what you’ve done, you can ask him: “Don, you’re a horror legend, we’d love to have you do this.” And he was game to do so.
I had built a trust with Heather Langenkamp and it was a big ask for me to ask her and she’s a busy person. But the fact that she chose to do it, I think was she was being nice to me. And I hope she’s very happy with the result because it’s doing very well. But she held me to a certain standard. “You know”, she said, “David, I will do this, but I want to make sure that women are not marginalised as as they are in many of these documentaries, where we’re known as the ‘final girl’ or the ‘screen queen’. I want to make sure that if you’re going to do this, you’re going to give women their voice.” I took those words to absolute heart and became essentially my mission statement. It was a pleasure for me to be able to deconstruct those two words “final girl” and what they mean to people now, because it’s not necessarily a positive thing. It’s a label that some people are okay with, and other people are absolutely not okay with.
PM: The 80s, while it’s produced some real classics of the genre, is also known as being a bit of a schlocky decade – there’s lots of films, for example, made on an incredibly low budget or that are very formulaic. How did you approach that particular issue – did you try to side step it, try to embrace it? I know what my answer would be based on watching the film, but I’m interested in knowing what your approach was.
DW: Well, I didn’t tell anybody how to label anything. You’ll notice that the word “cheesy” comes up quite a bit. But I think everyone has a very healthy reverence for the output of that decade with a wink and a nod knowing that this is not high-brow stuff. Some of it is – people love to bandy about Kubrick and Cronenberg as two top names of the era. But arguably you could say Sam Raimi is total schlock depending on the type of person you are, but if you’re within the community of horror, you know Sam Raimi is exalted as a god.
All I wanted from everyone was honesty, candour and enthusiasm. I would give them a 10-year list and I’d say pick a year and let’s go through each film of that year. Did you see it? What do you remember? What do you think of it? What’s your knee jerk response? What’s your favourite moment? And there were a couple of times where people are like, “listen, American Werewolf was a favourite back then, but I looked at it recently and I think it’s absolutely awful, those effects are clearly so fake.” Whereas for me, I just I bit my tongue because that’s my all-time favourite. But I didn’t shy away from that, because I think it comes down to the viewer and what they prefer.
PM: One theme that stood out to me in the film was fandom. Why do you think horror fans are such a passionate bunch?
DW: I think the horror fandom is a little different because the cynicism does not run so deep. I think there’s passion for films that meant something to them. And when I say them, I say me, I really speak from the heart because I connect with all of this stuff. These movies speak to all of us a little more than others because they’re like odd little children that you feel the need to protect and to make feel special because they made you feel special. I had to include Humanoids from the Deep and I had it in there, but I had to cut it for a myriad of reasons but that film is perhaps the most special for me just for nostalgic reasons. And it’s a goofy film, it’s a terrible film, it’s cheesy, but it means something to me.
And I think that’s the thing with horror fans – they get absolutely excited about how different and radical and eccentric and cathartic these films can be for them, especially with multiple viewings. They really rally around these things. Horror fans, when it comes to cosplay, when it comes to collection, when it comes to multiple viewings, when it comes to their enthusiasm, when it comes to the reverence of the people who made these films, whether they were in front or behind the camera, I think they really are head and shoulders above the rest in terms of their passion.
I’ll say one more thing, and Barbara Crampton says this in our film, is that horror fans are some of the most self-actualised people because there’s something about horror where you have to face the darkness. People who don’t understand horror think that it’s literally the definition of horrific. Why would you want to watch people hacked up and murdered and killed and terrorised? But there’s a certain catharsis to it, but there’s also an understanding of your own dark nature. That doesn’t mean you have to perform on those motivations and instincts, but you understand and dissect and deconstruct, and horror allows you to do that in the safety of your armchair.
PM: To round off this interview, I’m not going to ask you what your favourite horror film of the 80s is. The question I’ll ask instead is: is there a film that you’d highlight as being one that you think was unfairly disregarded or forgotten about? And if you could go and encourage the readers of Sublime Horror to go check that film out, what one would you highlight?
DW: I would go to a film that’s not even in my movie. It’s Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage. It’s a Lynchian fever dream. It’s sexual. It’s strange, it’s disturbing. It’s got the tonal taste of Eraserhead to a certain degree. It’s just weird and it’s funny as hell. And it’s a film that I ignored when it first came out. Here’s the funny thing: I always remember the box art because the guy on the cover, I thought it looked like me. And maybe that’s why I never wanted to rent it because I thought maybe it’s going to hit too close to home. I’m serious. [Editor’s note: Brain Damage has recently been added to Shudder]
And I’ll throw in another one that didn’t make the cut – I think the poster makes the cut as does the Brain Damage poster – but Evilspeak is such a great weird little movie. Ron Howard’s brother stars in it. It’s early computers, military boarding school, devil worship, and bullying all rolled into one. And it’s just odd, entertaining and a strange little gem that I think people will definitely appreciate.