Sequels can be a strange breed. No matter how long a franchise grows, what counts is that the film stands tall and proud among the rank and file of its predecessors and successors. My relationship with the In Search of Darkness series from CreatorVC is a strange but pleasant one. The first film was an inspired look at big-ticket items in the realm of 1980s horror, but suffered from an absence of archival interviews, absence of certain living legends, and a strange running order. In Search of Darkness Part II managed to turn that all around, with a uniquely international lineup, a bolstered guest list, and a wholistic approach to genre history that blew the original clear out of the water.
And then Part III comes along…
Every critique I’m about to lay out has to be prefaced with the following:
I do still recommend In Search of Darkness Part III.
As an exploration of direct-to-video films, rental favorites, and all-around deep cut gems, it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive cataloguing of such a niche, done with enough depth to satisfy those looking for titles they’ve never heard before. The production values, such as the Weary Pines synthwave soundtrack and crystal clear cinematography, maintain the high standards of the past two outings. It is a thoroughly researched piece with a sizeable panel of voices, but something collectively went wrong, somewhere along the way, with Part III.
First off, the issue is NOT the films selected. I’ve seen a lot of whining about how no one recognizes these titles, and that’s kind of the point. These are the out-of-the-way films, the flicks that fell under the radar and dashed out of view from the general public. On top of that, a lot of these were voted on by fans and suggested by fans, myself included, and the backers have certainly gotten their money’s worth on this front. Yours truly was elated to see not only some of his choice picks, but so many other oddities on offer. Not all were winners, such as infamous Canadian Z-flick Things, but such movies were outnumbered by shelves-worth of curios and deep cuts like Frank LaLoggia’s Lady in White and Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire, breathtaking films that sparked the imagination and fattened the watchlist.
No, the issue of the documentary largely stems from the approach to presenting these. In some cases, there is great insight to be gained, like LaLoggia detailing his work on Lady in White and Fear No Evil, the endlessly entertaining Kathleen Wilhoite during her time on films like Witchboard, and the flaming ball of energy that is Rubén Galindo Jr. and his stupendous catalogue of Mexican horrors. Galindo Jr. stands head and shoulders above everyone as the finest interviewee of the piece. There are also some terrific talking heads in the form of Tracie Thoms of Death Proof fame and some incredibly spirited commentaries from Cinemassacre’s James Rolfe.
Then you come to sequences such as Manhunter, where video critic Brandon Tenold is the sole commentator on the film, and you’re left wondering how, in the entire rogues gallery assembled, only one solitary soul had anything to say about one of the most seminal films in the career of a living legend. Crounse’s story being mostly relayed by Severin co-founder David Gregory made sense considering the obscurity surrounding Eyes of Fire, but this is Michael Mann for crying out loud. A heavy-hitting big name who delved into the genre twice, and all he gets is a single, basic summary?
More importantly, sequences like these are prime examples of a horrible lull in energy compared to the previous films. For every Geretta Geretta, Lloyd Kaufman or Caroline Munro, there are at least half-a-dozen virtually slumming it. You get this strange, indelible feeling that so many are just not interested in the films lined up. What’s made it even worst is when we get to the breaks between the years discussed.
Picture if you will the perplexing state of my face when, in a five hour film, where not a single production stars nor involves her, I see “Adrienne Barbeau on Adrienne Barbeau.”
Five hours. Not a single film starring her.
This could be a “me” thing (and if that’s the case, I concede entirely), but I was caught completely off guard. I love the work of Ms. Barbeau, I have nothing but good things to say about it, but the fact this segment came careening out of nowhere, with flat-zero context for it, set me back on my heels. This turn is made all the sharper knowing she is never seen nor heard from again. The “Artist on Artist” segments, in my mind at least, should pertain to people showcased in the films highlighted. Dee Wallace and Screaming Mad George skate by with a film or two a piece, but Barbeau comes in as a total left-field inclusion. And she isn’t the only guest airdropped in for star power.
There were apparently two whole frames of unused John Carpenter left in the can, Hellraiser villain Doug Bradley bookends the film, Gene Simmons (who at least stars in Trick or Treat) does about five whole seconds, and so on. There’s such a slapdash assembly to the film and its interview structure, you feel like you’re spending most of your time in perpetual whiplash, especially since a lot of the “talking heads” seem to overtake actual production personnel and cast members.
Then you get to the socially conscious commentaries, and the film is at its absolute weakest.
Not because “politics don’t belong in entertainment,” not because I disagree with anything said, but because there is a clear HR-ification of the discussion. This noncommittal blend of “let’s speak our truth” with “do not offend.” When discussed in relation to specific films (e.g. themes of homosexuality in Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker), it comes across as even-handed because there are actual tangible points to be made about the film. But by the end of “Beneath the Surface,” the segment regarding diversity in 80s horror, I couldn’t tell you what the hell was trying to be said. There’s a lot of “it’s messy, it’s complicated,” with a slipshod approach to presenting examples of good and bad representation, and it renders the whole thing as 10 minutes of hem-hawing with no end goal in sight.
Everyone was fine and dandy ripping into Evangelicals and the crazed far-right in “Pariah Genre,” a discussion of the Satanic Panic and its relation to 80s horror. And yet, for all of this talk of a rebellious decade and “sticking it to the man,” the sheer timidity of voice in this sequence is insanely frustrating. And by the time this sequence appears (deep in the late 80s), the fate of Part III had been sealed for me. When combined with bizarre asides into more contemporaneous horror (the sequence on Asian horror seemed more preoccupied with the 90s J-horror renaissance than anything from the 80s), the film begins to lose a sense of identity, dragging the energy down and down until I was goddamn relieved to hit the anti-climatic end of “Famous Last Words.”
And after having said all of this: Yes Virginia, I Still Recommend In Search of Darkness Part III.
It is because I have fallen madly in love with the series and what it has done that I am so hard on it. It is because I love the horror films of the 1980s I am so hard on it. Hell, it’s because producer Robin Block began developing what would become ISOD on my birthday, July 14th of 2018 (I was born in 2001), that I’m so damn hard on this godforsaken series.
I love this series, in spite of every wart and zit on its three faces. It has wove together such a tremendous tapestry of horror icons and underdogs to help modern audiences and fans (and those of Sisyphusian patience) relive the magic and the extremity, the heart and the grisliness, and sheer creativity of an unforgettable era. As the curtain draws to a close on 80s nostalgia in the mainstream, and we all brace ourselves for what is likely to be a bizarre wave of early-2000s reminiscing, ISOD as a trilogy stands tall and proud as a reminder of why the 80s were, in many ways, the absolute zenith of the horror genre. But like all great trilogies, I recommend starting from the beginning. Part III is a completionists-only affair, a worthwhile endeavor all the same thanks to the sheer volume on display, but a flawed one as well.
May it and the 80s rest in peace.