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Interview: Brad Sykes on his 1980’s L.A. Thriller/Horror Deep Dive “NEON NIGHTMARES”

Monday, November 6, 2023 | Books, Interviews

By JOSHUA “Prometheus” SCAFIDI

You may know Brad Sykes for his sci-fi/horror film Plaguers, or possibly from the Hi-8, Hi-Death, and Hi-Fear trilogy. Recently, Brad finished up his latest project, NEON NIGHTMARES – L.A. THRILLERS OF THE 1980s, a very comprehensive, deep dive into the world of L.A.-based neo-thrillers and L.A.-based horrors of, you guessed it, the 1980s. Brad covers so many fascinating angles, and connections between over 200 films, ranging from the gritty feel of the neo-noirs, the heavy-hitting punches of the hardcore action romps, the lighthearted aloofness of the buddy cop films, to the epic rise of the unstoppable slasher, it’s practically all in there! Covering a wide range of films from Cobra, Live and Die in L.A., Fade to Black, Dead Heat, The Howling, and more – this book has something for practically everyone.

It’s also completely packed with tidbits of awesome information about all the films and subgenres, and just speaking to Brad about the book, RUE MORGUE learned some cool stuff. Whether it’s nostalgia you’re after, or if you’re simply looking to stuff your brain with some crazy movie trivia for game night, this book has got you covered. (Brad, you’re definitely on our fantasy Trivial Pursuit Team!)

Brad and Josephina Sykes

Hi, Brad! Thanks for your time! You have a new book out, NEON NIGHTMARES – L.A. THRILLERS OF THE 1980s!

Yup! It’s my second book. The first one was called Terror in the Desert – Dark Cinema of the American Southwest. It covered films like Hitcher and Duel. It even went into monster movies, like Tremors. Things like that. No one had done a book about that, and I bring that up because it was sort of the same thing with NEON NIGHTMARES. I really love thrillers of the 1980s, that are set in Los Angeles. I’ve been watching them off and on since I was about ten years old.

Around the end of the first book, I started watching all these L.A.-based thrillers as a pallet cleanser. Movies like Angel, Wanted, Dead or Alive, and Black Moon Rising. I thought that the films were sort of like their own genre, so I started making a list. That list ultimately ended up being over two hundred movies that you would call thrillers, between 1980 and 1989, all set and filmed in L.A.

Wow. So, the first thing that stood out to me was the cover. It just screams the 1980s. It has the shady guy looking through the blinds at an attractive, scantily dressed woman. The neon colors, the format. All of it.

The artwork is drawn from the movie poster for Body Double, the Brian DePalma film. I picked that artwork for a couple of reasons. One is that Body Double is one of the key movies in the book, and it really represents the mixture of high and low that we had back then in terms of real low-budget exploitation, but also some really big studio movies. Body Double sort of mixes those two things together. Also, it’s just a really striking image, that is just so 1980s. I think it says 1980s better than just about any other poster, or artwork I could have thought of. It’s sort of emblematic of the whole genre, and time period in general. Without being too specific, and with an incredible amount of style.

Let’s talk a little bit about what to expect from the book.

I break down these 200 movies made in the ’80s, into nine chapters, each chapter by sub-genre, like neo-noir, like To Live and Die in L.A.,  Cop, and 52 Pick-Up You’ve got cop movies – buddy cop movies like Lethal Weapon, rogue cop movies like Cobra.  You have vigilante films like Savage Streets and the Death Wish movies.

Then moving on to what I call cautionary tales; like a little girl comes to the big city and gets corrupted type stories, like Star 80. You’ve got movies more in the genre crossover, horror films like Fade to Black. There’s a chapter on prostitution – which covers some of the most iconic L.A. thrillers of the era, like Vice Squad and Angel. These are the movies a lot of people think of when they think ‘L.A in the 80s’.

I’m just naming a few key movies, of course. There are 200 movies in there. A lot of studio movies, but also a lot of low-budget, straight-to-video, and even shot-on-video movies are in the book. I wanted to really embrace the full spectrum of everything that was going on, what’s funny is when you do that, there are more connections between these movies than you think. They’re not so far removed from each other.

So, that’s how I did it.  I just broke it down, and at the end, I have a little epilogue about the early ’90s when things started to change in L.A. – in real life, and also in the movies. We were moving away from the over-the-top, and the gratuitous.

Some of the movies lean into serial killers, and even supernatural horror, which were both huge in the ’80s. What did you find digging into those?

There were more L.A. serial killer films than any other subgenre I covered in the book. At least 30 or more. I think part of that is because there were some major real-life serial killers on the loose around the city at that time – The Hillside Stranglers and later on, The Night Stalker. There were a few movies that directly reference those killers. And then there was the slasher boom in general.

At the start of the 80s, you had urban slashers like Don’t Answer the Phone, Schizoid and New Year’s Evil. Later on, you got slicker movies like Freeway, Jack’s Back, and Relentless that were more psychological with less gore. One of my favorite L.A. serial killer films is Fade to Black. That film does a great job of using slasher cliches in a novel way and really tapping into the dark side of Hollywood. There were almost just as many L.A. supernatural horror films released during that time.

As you said, supernatural horror was huge in the ’80s and so you had L.A. takes on werewolves, like The Howling, or vampires like The Black Room – which is a really underseen gem. Some of my favorites are the Satanic temptress films that came out later in the ’80s, like Satan’s Princess and Spellbinder.

These movies sort of predate the erotic thriller explosion that was coming in the next few years. I, Madman is one of my favorites, too, as once again, like Fade to Black, it does a great job of incorporating L.A. history into the storyline. Very original with a great performance by Jenny Wright.

How long did it take for you to write the book?

About two years, I’d say. I started in May of 2020 and finished toward the end of 2022.

This book actually ended up having more content in it, I would say, than my previous book. It’s funny because this book encompasses ten years of movies, and my last one was almost a hundred years of movies. Somehow, there was just more to digest on this one.

There was just so much in the ’80s. It was the pinnacle of home video.

That’s exactly right, and that’s actually something that I get into. I wanted to examine the why. Why were there so many of these films? There are reasons for this, like cultural and socio-economic reasons for it.  The video business, the rise of the video store, cable, and all of that, and foreign sales. That’s a huge, huge part of how a lot of these movies were financed. Not just distributed, but financed, in the first place. They did better sales overseas sometimes than over here.

When I started making my list, I did it by year – my initial list. I noticed that the list would get bigger almost every year. By the time you get to 1989, it’s like thirty, thirty-five, forty. That was the apex of the video era, so half the movies on the list were straight to video, or cable, but it didn’t matter. In fact, that’s how I saw a lot of these movies the first time like 52 Pickup, or Death Wish 4.

I do examine this to some degree. There were so many of these films, and a lot of the companies were based in L.A. That doesn’t mean they made all of their movies in L.A. – but they made a lot of them here. It was cheaper to shoot on location. Sometimes people didn’t even pay for permits, they just went out and shot so, you ended up with a portrait of the city that you don’t get in any other era. You got a little bit in the ’70s, but not nearly as much as in the ’80s.

Absolutely. Well, Brad, the book definitely sounds fascinating, and super insightful as a movie buff! I can’t wait to check it out. It’s always a pleasure. We really appreciate the time.

If L.A.-based thrillers and horrors of the ’80s are your thing, or you’re just fascinated by movie history, be sure to pick up a copy of NEON NIGHTMARES – L.A. THRILLERS OF THE 1980s, Available now from Bear Manor Media.

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