20th Aug2021

Opinionated: ‘Censor’ and the nostalgia for VHS and the Video Nasties

by Alain Elliott

Prano Bailey-Bond’s début feature film Censor has received nothing but praise since its recent showings across genre movie festivals around the world and it’s theatre release in America. The movie tells the story of film censor, Enid, who views a strangely familiar video nasty. The film leads her to the mystery of her missing sister and soon enough the lines between fiction and reality start to blur.

It’s a mesmerising, dark nightmare of a movie that is a homage to Cronenberg and Giallo, almost as much as it is to the eighties and the video nasties of that era. If you have little knowledge of this or the term the video nasty, there’s plenty of material to read or watch. Including a favourite of mine – Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide documentary.

It was a time in the early 1980’s in Great Britain when typically low budget horror movies were highly criticised for their violence and gore by the press, social commentators and religious organisations, leading to prosecutions for people who were trading these tapes. The ‘Video Nasties’ were a list of films made by the Director of Public Prosecutions that could lead to prosecution or at the very least the tapes would be seized and destroyed. Looking back now, it seems even more ridiculous than it did at the time because some of the movies aren’t very violent or realistic at all. Often the decision was based on the violent-looking (and often very cool) VHS cover artwork.

And Censor covers this in a small part as the main character watches these video nasties and gets wrapped up in a case where one was apparently to blame for a murder.

But what I perhaps didn’t expect Censor to do was hit me square in the face with nostalgia for the VHS tape and the video rental shop.

The first I ever remember hearing about a ‘video nasty’ I was, I think, 11 years old. A boy who I used to walk to and from school with started talking about a film he had heard about. This film apparently featured real life deaths. Some animal, some human, some accidental but all somehow caught on tape. Although I don’t remember the details, I remember him describing the many deaths in the film but of course he did not own or had he seen a copy. I never actually knew the title, so I didn’t actively look for this film at any time until I was much older and it had always stuck with me. So when I was 18 and discovered Faces of Death, knew this was the film I had heard about all those years ago. Unfortunately it was a DVD copy by then and although it holds up pretty well, it didn’t shock me quite as much as it would have done seven years previous.

The video rental shop itself only features in one scene in Censor as Enid goes looking for some movies by a known ‘banned’ director. After proving her video nasty knowledge the shop owner passes her an under-the-counter tape that apparently isn’t the best quality and has its ending taped over. Despite it being a short scene, memories came flooding back.

I am a few years to young to remember the video nasty era as it happened. The list was first published the same year I was born, 1983, but video rental shops were still a hugely popular thing for a long time after and as I grew up. I remember many different ones, usually shops in different towns, depending which friend I was hanging out with at the time. There was a Blockbuster, I needed to catch a chain ferry to visit that one, (but maybe more on my childhhood on the Isle of Wight another time!), there was video rentals in sections of newsagents, there was even a mobile van that drove to your house where my Nana lived (I chose the 1960’s Spiderman cartoon series every time). But the one I remember most as a kid was on the corner of a street in the town of East Cowes, where I lived at the time. My parents took me and my brother there and we could choose whatever film we wanted. Well, not exactly, I’m sure they kept us clear of the horror section because the only films I remember renting were Problem Child 1 & 2. But it was the shop I remember so well. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, 100’s and 100’s of VHS tapes. The shop was tiny but it packed so much in and of course it was dark and dingy. Exactly how it should be.

The first horror film I remember renting, I didn’t actually rent. It was a friend who was a year or two older and clearly had parents who weren’t to fussed about age ratings. The film was Creepshow 2 in a big white, not quite clamshell, video case. I loved it and still do until this day. I am absolutely gutted to admit that I do not own that VHS anymore. This is particular devastating because I borrowed it off of this friend when I was about 12 and never gave it back. I have no idea if he got charged late fees for it but I still had the tape well into adulthood and watched it over and over again. Me and my brother quoted “thanks for the ride lady!” many many times. At some point though, the tape went missing. There’s a very small chance it is in a box in my loft somewhere and I do of course have a nice DVD version (I should get the blu-ray) but it’s just not the same.

Some people just don’t understand why people love watching or collecting VHS movies. The quality is of course very poor but that is honestly part of the fun. It adds something to the viewing and some of the artwork on the once banned tapes is 100% worth collecting. But the tapes can also take you back to those late nights, watching horror films when you definitely shouldn’t have been. It’s a great feeling. So anyone who feels the same kind of way as me, should check out Censor.

You can also read our review of Censor right here.


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