For the first eighteen or so years of my life I was a big baby when it came to horror movies, to the point where my friends still remind me that I came about as close to freaking the f*** out and hiding behind a couch and screaming “I HATE HORROR MOVIES!!!” to the lightning streaked heavens while watching stuff like Lake Placid and Mars Attacks which are, respectively, a monster flick about a giant alligator and a broad, albeit violent, comedy about an alien invasion which should give you just enough of an indication of how dumb I was (they’re also both terrible but that’s neither here nor there). That was the problem though: since those flicks and others like them were the only horror movies I was introduced to I think I was in the wrong for making none too subtle proclamations to the heavens. But around the time I turned eighteen I started watching stuff like The Evil Dead, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Re-Animator, Dog Soldiers, and The Mist which not only have become some of my favorite films of all time but also allowed me to finally acquire the requisite amount of brain power to be analytical about these films and figure out exactly what makes horror such a compelling genre.
One of the most interesting things about horror, to me at least, is the way it can become so malleable and accommodate the traits of other genres to prop itself up. Whether it’s wrapping itself around westerns, crime, war, or even romance it’s a genre that is at its most interesting when disguising itself as another genre. In the case of Chris Doherty’s Video Nasties,* it is a horror comic that wraps itself in the trappings of a coming-of-age story.
The whole thing revolves around a teenager named Evan, a young movie buff with a taste for horror films, who gets pulled into doing a video retrospective of three former students at his school who disappeared ten years earlier, possibly in connection with a series of pseudo snuff films. Doherty does something with Video Nasties that I think is very smart in that about 80% of it is just a straight up coming-of-age tale without any real horror elements.Evan goes to school, hangs out with his friends, pursues a crush, watches movies, goes to conventions, finds love, etc., etc., all that good stuff.
However, Video Nasties also utilizes a fair amount of flashbacks to show certain characters when they were younger and how they related to the students that disappeared and that’s when Doherty shows how twisted this story really is. He shows how a seemingly small act of violence can have far-reaching repercussions. How Doherty sprinkles these bursts of violence throughout the book gives Evan’s story a really skewed undercurrent of fear and paranoia for the reader as we wait for the events of the past to catch up to the present and see the other shoe drop.
Doherty’s art has a flat matter-of-factness to it that works for this kind of story. It sells the emotional and violent moments with equal effectiveness. It’s definitely a style that grows on you as the book goes on. It’s a bit rough at first but then, as things go further, you start noticing his attention to smaller details and how he constructs the characters’ facial expressions that just sort of instantaneously make you like or dislike a character. He uses this particular skill to grim effect the closer you get to the end.
The only real problem is that he isn’t great at differentiating a lot of the cast. The main seven or eight characters are clearly recognizable but so many different characters weave in and out of the narrative that it’s hard to keep track and Doherty doesn’t make it easier with their design (I’m specifically thinking of the daughter of a certain character who shows up for two pages and when a SURROGATE daughter of that same character shows up I kept thinking they were the same character for nearly forty pages, which is a problem). The story is elaborate and far-reaching and certainly facilitates this many characters, but perhaps it could be said that it was a bit ambitious in terms of actually designing that many characters.
Additionally, the flashback sequences, although definitely integral later on, come off as somewhat undefined. Could this be intentional as it’s in the realm of memory? Sure. But it didn’t necessarily read that way. That being said, Doherty utilizes a deft touch at maintaining the paranoid feel of the book while juxtaposing between the more traditional coming-of-age elements and the horror elements.
It’s also worth noting that despite Video Nasties ostensibly being about horror movies, it’s not a book that’s super referential. There’s a visual reference here (The video store where Evan hangs out is called Videodrome) and a quote there but for the most part the movies, and more specifically the fandom, are used as a backdrop more than anything else. And subtly at that. I think this element is the biggest sell of the book in that it’s a quiet exploration of whether or not consuming violent entertainment makes a person more violent. I don’t want to get into it too much because—spoilers—but three characters have either experienced violence first hand or ingested large amounts of violent entertainment. And as we come to see, one has, at least in Doherty’s mind, had far more damaging effects than the other, and it is shown in such a way that is pretty much perfect.
Video Nasties is a pretty ambitious story and it no doubt stumbles occasionally, but it gets so much right you have to admire it. These kind of stories are hard and often slip down into the gutter of morality plays but Video Nasties plays it smart by being brutally efficient and by not condemning or condoning any characters’ actions. It just forces you to watch.
TL;DR: Video Nasties is a brutal little gem.
A review copy of Video Nasties was graciously provided to Spandexless by the creator.
*Video Nasties is actually a term utilized in the UK which to be honest I’m not all that familiar with. However in the interest in education I asked my friend Film Critic and Horror Novelist Adam Cesare (whose latest book Video Night is quite good) if he could give us some background on the term:
“I’m by no means an expert on the Nasties, but if you’re looking for a good source I’d recommend David Gregory’s documentary Ban the Sadist Videos. I watched it some time ago as a bonus on a box set of Region 2 releases, better than most of the movies in the actual set, if I remember correctly.
Basically the VHS boom scared the crap out of British censors. Like the US, the UK doesn’t has an independent organization responsible for classifying films, but they’re historically less permissive than the MPAA. Home video was a grey area that they weren’t regulating like they were cinemas, so movies that never would have gotten theatrical play were now suddenly available via VHS. There was public outcry, overzealous punditry and the result was the banning of titles. In 1984 Parliament passed the Video Recordings Act which updated and extended their obscenity laws and provided for banning videos. Selling these films was a crime and vendors could be fined for possessing them. Some films earned their stripes as Nasties (Nazisplotation flicks, greasy gems like Don’t Go In the House), but some were quite tame, adding credence to those that realized the arbitrary nature by which the videos seemed to be banned.”