Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A Neon Nightmare: An Interview with the Executive Producer of the Documentary "In Search of Darkness"

On March 1, 2019, I had a Skype conversation with Robin Block, the executive producer of the new documentary In Search of Darkness: A Journey Into Iconic 80's Horror.  This upcoming, crowd-funded documentary explores horror from this particular decade, and features interviews with over 40 individuals from that time period, including actors Bill Moseley, Caroline Williams, Keith David, and Heather Langenkamp, plus directors like Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, and Brian Yuzna.

Today, the production company released a new trailer for the documentary and re-opened their IndieGoGo campaign, which I'll link below.  The campaign runs till the end of March, and this is the only way people interested in the documentary will be able to order a copy, since it won't be widely available or released on to streaming services.

In this interview, I talk with Robin about the origins of the documentary, why 80's horror has stood the test of time, and speaking with some of the people behind the films from that time.

1.    Tell me about the genesis of the “In Search of Darkness” documentary.  Where did the idea come from?
I’m 41 now, I think I was about 35 when I started revisiting the films, artwork, and really that whole 80's horror aesthetic I loved when I was a child/young teenager.  The ages between 9-14 were my peak horror time.  Every 25-30 years there’s this nostalgia cycle and when I reached my mid-30's I became astounded by horror and started buying books about it. 

At the age of 40, I set up this company that specialized in factual entertainment for super-fans because I realized there was an opportunity to get projects funded for niche audiences.  When you’ve got groups of highly-engaged people that care about the topic, you can create great work for them.  

The first project I did was a feature-length documentary on action movies with my friend Oliver Harper.  That had been successfully funded and I wanted a new challenge, so I decided to do something about 80s horror, which became “In Search of Darkness,” and I remember the day, the 14thof July, which was the first day I started working on the project properly, and here we are in the first day of March, and 99 percent of it is in the can.

We’ve shot 40 interviews, we’ve gotten most of the big names in 80's horror on board, and it’s been such an incredible journey.

2.    Why is the 1980s considered one of the best decades for horror, especially compared to prior decades like the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, or even the ‘20’s and 30’s?
It’s a really great question, but it’s a question you’ll never get an accurate answer to because dealing with works of art and nostalgia.  These are all suggestive elements, but the reason I think the 80s was the best era for horror was because of these convergent forces at work.  You had massive sociopolitical change, huge advancements in prosthetics, practical effects, and the technology, although pre-CGI, the technology to make them more realistic was reaching its apex.  

You also had this tectonic shift in distribution where the content came out in cinemas and homes, which accelerated audiences’ demands for this sort of work, so you had this moment in history where the barriers of entry were lowered.  Suddenly, if you were a person with a great idea who really wanted to make it happen, you had an avenue to do so.  Distributors popped up to take advantage of these new distributing mechanisms, so suddenly you had a wealth of incredible ideas that were realized throughout the decade. From 1980-1989 there were about 600 horror movies created, which is crazy, and the ideas, the visuals, the aesthetics were gorgeous, and that’s why I love 80’s horror and will champion it.

There’s an argument for each era.  There’s an argument for the 20’s, there’s an argument for the 30’s.  The 70’s was hugely eventful and iconic in its own ways, but the 80’s was the era I was exposed to the genre and it shaped my view of what horror was.

3.    How did the rise of home video impact horror during the 80’s?
It was huge.  There’s a bunch of key things: one is that you could create movies on video, the cost of production had fallen, and the impact of 60’s and 70’s new wave cinema created a whole new generation of filmmakers that wanted to try their hand at a genre which was on fire and accessible and you could create movies with not-so crazy amounts of money.

Also, the impact of home distribution saw a soar in video stores with VHS and Betamax which created a whole new channel of distribution.  All these factors combined to impact the genre, to accelerate it.  Horror movies cost crazy amounts of money to produce, and they’re the go-to genre for filmmakers looking to establish themselves because there’s an available market to do so.  Now, it’s even better because there are more means of distribution.

The VHS era has been as dramatic and profound as the Internet era has been.

4.    At what point during the decade do you think horror hit its peak?  A lot of people I’ve talked with tend to say during the mid 1980’s, especially 1984 and 1985.
1984 was an incredible year, the peak year. This was when artists and their visuals, such as the prosthetics and make-up effects hit peak creativity.  You had some incredible films come out during the late 80’s, but the political context had a bit of an influence more during the mid-80’s.  1984 and 1985 are cultural touchstones. 

5.    What about horror in the U.K.? I say this because when home video started to become big the U.K. started cracking down on horror titles through stuff like “The Video Nasties.” In other words, what was your country’s response to the rise in horror?
They tried to shut it down, but they only made it more popular.  There’s a brilliant documentary, a three-disc DVD called “Video Nasties,” and it’s an in-depth look into this phenomenon.  What happened was that there was this huge outcry fueled by the newspapers who reported these crimes committed by children which were scapegoated by films like “Child’s Play,” “Bad Taste,” and “The Evil Dead.”

A load of films was banned, but it didn’t work because what happened was these films took on a mythical status because they were banned and referred to as “Video Nasties.”  This only just escalated their mythos and effect.  I remember watching one of these banned films, I can’t remember which one it was, but it was an extremely bootleg version, so it was a VHS that had been copied multiple times to the point you could barely make out what was onscreen.

Yet, because of this mythos and the fact it was banned, it had this extraordinary aura about it.  This was forbidden, and that’s what was crazy about this whole thing, it made you want to see more.

6.    Do you feel societal trends and global issues at the time influenced the films of the genre?  For example, how “The Fly” has been viewed as a metaphor for AIDs or how “They Live” is clearly mocking the Reagan administration.
Absolutely.  The soundtrack for “They Live” has just been recently re-released in the U.K. by Death Waltz records, and I spent time with Keith David in Atlanta asking him that exact question, and it’s funny because “They Live” is even more relevant now than when it came out.  That’s what’s so powerful about Carpenter’s work, and of course, everyone talks about “The Fly” and how it’s obviously a metaphor for AIDs, but there’s also the body horror, which was reflective of society’s fears.

It’s the same way how 50’s movies reflected society’s fears over nuclear war.  Art is a reflection of life, and there’s a historical context for all of these films because they were moments in time, it’s sort of like looking at an insect in amber. They’re time capsules, which is also what we’re trying to do with this documentary.  The people we’ve assembled will never be together in another film in history, and some of them might not even be around in ten years’ time.  It’s been 30 years’ plus since the 80’s now, and what we’re trying to do is get everyone possible together to look at 80’s horror, to understand it, to contextualize it, and live it.

7.    How far into production is “In Search of Darkness?”
We’ve completed the majority of production and done over 40 interviews.  We’ve got two or three major interviews, which I can’t talk about, left to do.  We’re launching a new campaign that’ll be the final time you’ll be able to be part of this project.  It launches on the fifth of March, and the new trailer will premiere on “Bloody Disgusting,” who have been a major help, and after the final interviews are done, we go straight into post-production.

It will be available to backers in late July, and the only way to see this documentary is if you join the “IndieGoGo” presale, so it won’t be on Netflix or Google Play.

8.    What’s the experience been like, meeting actors, writers, and directors prominent during the decade, and discussing with them the films they did or starred in?
It’s been a complete and utter joy, an absolute dream come true.  The director, a chap called David Weiner, has done a tremendous job out in L.A., and he’s done the majority of the interviews, but I did all the East Coast ones, so I was talking with Keith David, Lloyd Kaufman, Laurie Cardille, Michael Gingold, James Rolfe, and it was a remarkable experience.

It’s hard to choose one, but one highlight was Lori Cardille, who played Sarah in “Day of the Dead,” an iconic, strong, female lead, and “Day of the Dead” is one of my personal favorite movies, I have the poster hung up at my house in London.  I flew out from New York to Pittsburgh, where she lived, and she invited me over to her place for interview.

It’s sometimes not a good idea to meet your heroes because in real life they disappoint you, but Lori exceeded my expectations.  She was one of the warmest, wonderful people I’ve ever met, and she gave us such a phenomenal interview.  She’s really grateful to be part of that film, to be of the Romero connection, and it was her father who helped George Romero give him his big break.  She’s humble about it; fans adore her, but there’s no ego to it, she’s brilliant and she even hugged me at the end of the interview. This was a great experience because her portrayal of this character affected my life, I remember the day I bought the VHS from a charity shop, I took it home and had no idea it was going to be this incredible movie.  Before I left for America, I re-watched it with my wife, who hadn’t seen it in a while, and she thought it was really good.

Lori is like Sarah in so many ways, she’s a very strong individual but has this vulnerability to her, this likability that you can relate to.  What made her amazing in the film is what makes her amazing in real life, and that was a complete joy.  I spent the day with James Rolfe out in Philadelphia, and I’ve been a huge fan for over a decade of his work, and he was amazing as well.  He’s like us, he loves this stuff, he’s a fan.  His viewpoint on 80’s horror is valuable because again, he’s one of us.

Keith David, I had really high expectations; after all, he’s the voice of the Arbiter, but he was so entertaining, so warm, and that voice he has is just absolutely remarkable, and I was grinning with joy throughout the interview.   What can I say, he’s a cool guy, and humble too, he’s an American acting legend, and he’s got a dedication to it.  He loves movies, and he’s grateful to have been in two of the greatest movies of the 80’s.  He told us all these stories about being in “The Thing,” and his performance in it is one of those roles that gets better with age.  Keith David does a lot with very little dialogue, and he’s one of the major forces in that.  A remarkable guy and a joy to speak to.

9.    How does the production team decide who’s available to interview?
I wish I could give a proper answer, but the reality is we have to work incredibly hard to get access to these people. This was a crowd-funded project. This isn’t a network or studio production, we had a very limited budget and we had to let them know it was the fans who wanted them to be a part of this.  Not everybody said yes, but the ones we got, we got them on camera.

Horror is a small world, but I think we had the best line-up of horror talent in history.

10.  I understand there are creators on YouTube who are helping out with production, such as Oliver Harper and Cecil Tracheburg of Good Bad Flicks, what are their roles in the documentary?
Cecil will be doing his first ever on-camera appearance, he’s being interviewed, same goes for Oliver Harper.  They fit into the same category as people like Ben Scribbins from “Fright Rags” and James Rolfe from “Cinemassacre,” they are people who built careers on celebrating this era.  That’s what makes them amazing contributors because they love this work and keep it relevant by introducing it to an entirely new generation of fans.

This film is going to be a rollercoaster ride back into 80’s horror.  You’ll watch it, and then you’ll binge watch 80’s horror twelve hours afterwards.  Again, Cecil is making his first on-screen appearance, and for people who don’t know what he looks like, he’s a handsome guy. I went over to his house and him and his wife are such great people.  We filmed the interview in his office, which is like this big playroom for a grown-up since it’s filled with collectibles, merchandise, DVDs and videos, it was like the most amazing playground ever.

His interview is remarkable because he has so much knowledge about the genre that it was a real privelge to be able to speak with him.  Cecil’s a good friend of mine now and I think him, and Oliver Harper are successful creators.

11.  Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview. Speaking of time, as the years progress, what do you think horror films of the 1980’s will be most remembered for?
I think they’ll be remembered for two things: the aesthetic and the emotion.  Wait, make that three things: the aesthetic, the emotion, and the characters.  The aesthetic because you know what 80’s horror feels like. 80’s horror feels like this visceral, deep, red hug that absolutely loves you.  The emotion of 80’s horror is extreme, colorful, warm, and nostalgic. It’s a weird thing, because horror is supposed to be scary, yet it’s also supportive.

Finally, the characters.  Have we ever had an era with such incredible characters?  We’ve never had characters like these who will be around forever.  They will be etched into the minds of an entire, global generation and will continue to inspire and win new fans.

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