NEON NIGHTMARES Q+A WITH AUTHOR BRAD SYKES
1. Your latest endeavor is a new book entitled NEON NIGHTMARES: L.A. THRILLERS OF THE 1980s. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind it?
Brad Sykes: In 2017, around the time I was finishing up writing my first book, TERROR IN THE DESERT: DARK CINEMA OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST, I started watching a lot of urban thrillers made in the 1980s– many of which were set in Los Angeles - as kind of a counterbalance to all the rural desert films I’d been devouring. I was having a lot of fun watching these thrillers, like Angel and Vice Squad, for the first time, and as an Angeleno (I’ve been living in L.A. since 1997), I also noted what incredible time capsules they were. It got me thinking that the “L.A. Thriller” was practically a genre of its own during the eighties, with its own distinctive look, sound, attitude, filmmakers and stars. And yet, no one had ever identified it as such let alone written an entire book about this unique era of filmmaking, which seemed to disappear altogether once the ‘90s began. Once I jotted down an initial list of films, I could tell there was definitely a book there. So, I started amassing research materials, but didn’t get started writing it until 2020.
2. What initially attracted you to the market in the first place? What specific memories do you have regarding discovering and watching these films?
My love of L.A. thrillers goes all the way back to when I was ten years old, when I saw Fletch in the movie theater. It quickly became one of my favorite movies and still is to this day. I love Fletch’s combination of comedy and noir, along with its distinctly L.A. vibe.
I spent my teen years watching movies like The Hidden, Wanted: Dead or Alive and They Live in the theater and films like Cobra, The Terminator, 52 Pick-Up and Stripped to Kill 2 on video and cable. This was the mid-late 80s and L.A. thrillers were at their peak. So, I’ve always had a great love for these films, and that was my first goal for the book: to share that enthusiasm along with proving that the over 200 L.A. thrillers released during the 1980s constitute their own genre.
3. When you decided to finally start writing about them, did you have a certain format or approach for the book in mind? What kind of research went into preparing for it?
I like to say that I’ve been “researching” this book for over thirty years! My first step was to make a “master list” from 1980 to 1989, which started at around 100 movies and ended up growing to over 200. Then, I divided the list into subgenres which would later become chapters in the book: neo-noirs, buddy cops, vigilantes, serial killers, supernatural horror, etc. My next step was to track down movies that I didn’t already own, some of which were pretty obscure and still not released past VHS or laserdisc.
When watching films for review, I tried to approach each movie with fresh eyes, whether I had seen it before or not, and not do too much formal research until after watching the movie. But I did plenty of research, especially for key titles, that included everything from reading the original novel (for adaptations), reference books and press notes; watching featurettes, listening to commentaries, reading web articles about various companies of the era, etc. I even visited some of the filming locations, like the Bradbury Building (best known for its use in Blade Runner, but featured in L.A. thrillers going back to the original D.O.A.) and the O’Neill House. I tried to steer clear of reading other reviews, though, as that can influence your own writing.
4. What was your writing process? How did you stay focused on the project while writing?
When writing a film review book, I’m not that methodical. I don’t finish out a year or a subgenre and then move to the next. Instead, I tend to “jump around” between subgenres, years and major/minor films. Keeps me on my toes and makes it more fun. My only rule is to not review several major films in a row, as that can be mentally exhausting. In fact, it’s often best to start with a simpler film, in my experience. For this, the first movie I reviewed was a relatively minor one, Hero and the Terror, a Cannon film starring Chuck Norris. But it was the perfect way to get the ball rolling.
I started writing the book in May 2020, a few months after COVID started. Once I realized that the world wasn’t going to end, but that I’d also have plenty of free time for a while, I decided this was the perfect time to start a long-term writing project that I could do all by myself (as opposed to filmmaking, which takes a team of people, and is what I’m mainly known for).
That said, I still took occasional breaks from the writing, as we had a feature film (Hi-Fear) in various stages of production and post that same year, so sometimes I was juggling the movie and the book. Which was okay, because all creative projects benefit from a break once in a while, and you can come back to each of them refreshed. I finished writing NEON NIGHTMARES in Spring 2022.
5. Did any preconceptions about the genre change for you while the book was coming together? Do you have any specific stories about a film or frequent performer that surprised you during the writing?
Part of the fun of writing NEON NIGHTMARES, and also the challenge of it, was to not only cover all the major films I had already seen, like To Live and Die in L.A. and Body Double, but to write about films that I discovered during the writing process. And a lot of those films surprised me! For example, I was aware of City Lights/PM Entertainment catalog prior to starting the book but hadn’t really seen any of them. Watching those movies was really eye-opening, because they’re very low budget, with plenty of technical and artistic issues, but often have more “L.A.” content, both visually and thematically, than many of the studio films of the same timeframe. They’re also a lot of fun to watch, thanks to the location shooting, over the top performances and general lack of censorship. Most of them were frankly better than I’d been led to believe, and have a lot more to say about the city than you’d expect.
It was also fun to explore the work of certain lesser-known filmmakers, like Norman Thaddeus Vane, who wrote and directed four fairly obscure movies – The Black Room, Frightmare, Club Life, and Midnight – during the 80s. Each of these films is interesting on its own, but taken together, they offer the perfect cultural snapshot of the city during the time period.
6. Once it was written, what was the process like to get it published?
I offered it to BearManor Media, which had been on my radar for a while as I was a fan of the books they were publishing. They loved it and offered me a contract right away. I then began the lengthy work involved in proofreading, creating an index, working on the book cover with a designer, etc. All the stills in the book (over 100) are from my personal collection.
7. What type of schedule can we expect regarding its release? What do you hope to achieve with the release of the book for fans of the genre?
NEON NIGHTMARES is coming out September 5 from BearManor and is available for preorder at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publisher and many other sites. The book is available in both softcover (trade paperback) and hardback.
I’m launching the book at the legendary Dark Delicacies Bookstore in Burbank with a signing event on September 23.
My hopes for this book are to give readers a new subgenre to explore that has never been covered before, offer a new take on films they already know, and make them aware of many more obscure but worthy films. I should also add that while NEON NIGHTMARES is a book of film criticism, its main purpose is to point out the virtues of these films, not simply make fun of them. I hope readers enjoy it.