Book Review - Video Night by Adam Cesare
Updated: Jul 26, 2018
A blood-soaked trip back to the heyday of video schlock, epic bangs, and hair metal!
Bottom line up front…your enjoyment of Video Night is going to be at least partially predicated on how much you love the 80’s. If you are a child of the 80’s, or have just come to love it through other renditions in modern media, then you’ll find much to like here, especially in the first half of the book. Regardless of why you might appreciate it, it’s no surprise that 80’s nostalgia is pretty high right now, with Ready Player One and Stranger Things effortlessly taking us back to a time when synthpop and butt-rock ruled the airwaves, the women were women (and so were the men!), and neon spandex was all the rage. As a child of the 80’s, I have a rather strong fondness for that time period, as I remember growing up with the wonder of the original Star Wars movies and toys, the portability of cassettes (Walkman style!), and the power of hairspray. So, Video Night seemed right up my alley.
And in the nostalgia sense it was. This book is basically an 80’s straight-to-video movie in novel form, and author Adam Cesare plumbs the big-hair decade for all its worth. The classic horror movies? Check! The fiddling with the tracking of the VCR? Check! The Trapper Keepers and the Jansports? Check! Virginia Slims? Check! There are numerous pop-culture references in this book that brought me back to my youth, while also bringing a smile on my face. I was decidedly lower middle-class growing up, but honestly had no issue with my childhood. I had a caring mom, good friends, and a decent school. So for me the 80’s represents a simple and fun time, which I have no problems revisiting in various forms of media nowadays.
But…nostalgia can only carry you so far, and while this book has much to offer on 80’s references, it can’t quite reach those heights with the narrative. Like I said, it feels like a B-movie in book format. And you know what, maybe that’s the vibe Adam Cesare was going for. If so, he succeeded admirably. But the problem with that approach, if that’s the approach that was used, is that it somewhat lessens the impact of the book. But, do we want the book to be good…or do we want the book to be fun? Ideally, I’d like both, but if I had to settle for one…I guess I’d choose fun? Maybe?
Like all my reviews, I will try to keep this one devoid of spoilers. If it’s not mentioned in the official book synopsis, then I’ll do my level best to avoid mentioning it here.
One of the areas that the book stands tall is with the main characters. No, they are not the most detailed protagonists to ever grace a novel’s pages, but Mr. Cesare successfully pulls his characters from all walks of life, throwing them together in a way that’s believable and entertaining. It’s basically like a slight riff on The Breakfast Club, with the nerd, the troublemaker, and the pretty girl next door (readhead naturally!), and each character gets a little backstory that fits perfectly within the target decade. Billy, the earnest and awkward nerd, is arguably the “main” character of Video Night, and he reminds me a lot of me back in those days. Skittish around girls, slightly OCD, and perpetually trying to play the peacekeeper, Billy would hardly be anyone’s choice for a hero. Thankfully, he’s got his buddy Tom to look out for him. Tom is the traditional 80’s bad boy, leather jacket and a “don’t give a shit” veneer coupled with an unhappy home life and a chip on his shoulder. But there may be a deeper side to him that even he isn’t aware of. Then we have Rachel, Billy’s neighbor/crush, who has the brains AND the beauty, but who really just wants to fit in and be a little less “perfect”. And when the chips are down during the alien shenanigans she may just be the one to carry the day, instead of being the traditional “damsel in distress”. Keep in mind that, yes, these are young protagonists, and they tend to act as such. And while I generally have a problem with “teenagers save the day!” storylines, in the context of Video Night it totally works.
There are plenty more supporting characters who share the pages with our heroes, including Officer Darl, who becomes trapped in his own mind as the alien invasion goes into full swing. Ironically, he’s one of the most engaging characters, as he is basically a hero and a villain rolled into one character, and his observations of the crazy crap doing down are generally amusing. But the rest of the characters are hit or miss, sometimes getting a bit of backstory and defined motivations, sometimes not so much. Most other characters are, like in those classic horror movies, just fodder for the creatures, which is totally ok.
As for the creatures, they are effective enough. There’s a bit of an Alien/Aliens vibe about when they emerge from their hosts, which is suitably gruesome and fun. In fact, the plot of Video Night is a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers mixed with Aliens, with John Hughes overtones and a dash of late night Cinemax naughtiness thrown in for good measure. The aliens are led by a queen, and we do get some time in her headspace, but while she is vicious and dangerous, we never get much insight into her motivations or how the invasion started in the first place.
Much like the 80’s elements it so freely resurrects,Video Night is very much a character driven affair, with the plot coming in second. It's outrageous style over measured substance. Most of the time is spent with the characters interacting with each other, so the narrative doesn’t spend as much time with the details as I would have liked. And this is where I struggle, since I know it’s channeling the cheap vibe, but I still wanted a little more definition and impact with my story. The body horror elements are there, but the sense of dread and confusion regarding an alien invasion is significantly lacking. This isn’t a scary tale so much as a gruesome one, and I think the book would have been better served with a healthy serving of dread. However, if blood and gore is your thing, Video Night more than has you covered. You can practically feel the viscera under your fingers as you turn the pages.
If you were expecting a lot of raunchiness, you may come away unsatisfied (pun intended!). There’s quite a bit of softcore sexiness going on, but nothing truly audacious or sleazy.
Sadly, like the sleaze, the humor is all over the place. There are times when the funnies hit...and times when they miss by a mile. Some people might say that the 80's are funny enough by themselves, and maybe in a sitcom that would be true. But in written word, we need more than just casual references and old slang sayings, and Video Night didn't always hit the mark.
Look, if you are reading this book for a slice of 80’s cheese, then you won’t come away disappointed. It has that in spades. It’s got the body horror, the casual sexuality, and the petty domestic problems that practically define 80’s horror tales. Reading this book makes me want to watch some of the old classics (or less than classics); They Live, The Thing, Critters, and Return of the Living Dead. I’m sure they don’t hold up over time, but I have such fond memories of those movies (and many others). And this book does recapture some of that 80’s nostalgia for sure, so I have to give it kudos for that. But the writing just wasn’t as on point as I would have liked, and while I was entertained, I didn’t LOVE the book.
But, that said, if you have a hankering for a fun 80’s tale with a straight-to-video feel, you could do worse than Video Night.
3 out of 5 teased and neon colored stars!