@RJBayley gets nasty...well he reviews Video Nasties: Draconian Days
It’s very rare to get a sequel to a feature documentary. For the most part that’s because historical documentaries have the ability to look back and pluck the choicest meat from the subject’s whole body to create one definitive portrait. After all, contrary to what Hollywood blockbusters would have you believe, a sequel is never a sure thing. Especially in the documentary genre. And when you’ve had the best bits, do you really need to go back for unengaging scraps?
What could possibly come of a follow up to truly great documentaries like Mugabe and the White African or Senna?
Director Jake West clearly knows however that the story of the video nasty list does not end in the 80s with Mad Mary Whitehouse. There’s a great deal more to explore here, and he does a lovely job of presenting and dissecting this baffling and scary period of cinematic history.
Video Nasties: Draconian Days picks up with a number of important moments in British cinema. First is the British Board of Film Censors’ transformation into the British Board of Film Classification. It also looks at the birth of the Video Recordings Act and the new rules it brought in. These elements are woven around and intertwined with what is centrally a look at James Ferman, head of the BBFC.
The talking heads all come down hard on the late James Ferman. The film doesn’t come across as a full on character assassination but it would’ve been good to get a little more on Ferman’s motivations, instead of mere hinting at them. Early on this sticks out like a sore thumb, with former BBFC member Carol Topolski mentioning that the infamous 1987 Hungerford massacre seemed to be a turning point for Ferman. Topolski mentions she believes he was under a huge amount of pressure given the press making egregious links between the massacre and the film First Blood. From whom? The government? Campaigners? The press themselves?
We’re also told that Hungerford troubled Ferman personally as well. Again, it would be nice to hear more about this, rather than just its brief mention, given the controlling tyrant Ferman would become. There’s a lot of what Ferman did, but not why Ferman did. Still as the film progresses it does begin to work in its favour. Ferman becomes almost like the misguided villain, a mysterious character. The cast of talking heads the film chooses are most definitely the stalwart defenders of the gore genre and its sibling genres, not fusty academic types. As such Draconian Days has a very ‘us versus them’ feeling, with Ferman as the BBFC’s shadowy leader.
At the other end of the documentary, again, it would have been good to know more about Ferman’s downfall than the brief glossing over it’s given here. It’s actually an ending straight out of script, with Ferman finally, in a way, embracing what he largely fought against, only for the way he goes about it to be his undoing. A real life ending that perfect really is begging to be given plenty of screen time, so it’s a disappointment when it’s not opened up.
Draconian Days is specifically about video nasties, but it’s been made evidently clear that Ferman makes up such a huge part of that subject that a better look at his removal is entirely warranted. Even if that strays more into the grounds of pornography than horror.
Overall their treatment of Ferman works for the main trunk of the film, but to the disadvantage of the documentary’s bookends. What the film delivers on more convincingly however is the all-out authoritarian assault on extreme cinema and the culture around it. The sensationalising and scapegoating of the media and government is thoroughly dissected and rubbished. With the unarguable supporting evidence of the media’s own words, we’re shown how ridiculous the conclusions jumped to are.
Not only are we shown that the link between violent movies and the Hungerford massacre hangson the fact that Rambo and the killer both wore bandanas, but the central pivot of the film goes into detail on the furore surrounding Child’s Play III and the murder of James Bulger. Here we’re given period and contemporary evidence that makes a mockery of the ineptly made connection between the murder and Chucky’s third outing. Most of the talking heads like David Flint won’t be known to all but the most diehard horror fanatics. However it’s great to see people like Kim Newman popping up occasionally, not only to say that the railway death in Child’s Play III and the one in reality is linked only by that circumstance, but that the film is incredibly tame and run of the mill, nothing hideously psychologically damaging.
Not only does Draconian Days do a fine job of rebuking the accusations thrown at video nasties in the 80s and 90s, but it’s also a celebration of those that partook in the horror movie black market. It’s a wise choice to give us a welcome breather from heavy and disturbing subject matter, and it’s actually a little bit thrilling to hear tales recounted of people getting raided for horror movies and smuggling VHS tapes across borders. There’s something of prohibition era America about it all, except without violence and gangsters and just obsessives in their flat with VHS copiers.
The majority of the talking heads are not well known horror figureheads, but the film doesn’t need them to be. Through this section of the doc it’s made clear that these people risked criminal prosecution, Robin Hoods of gore, which eventually won the battle against censorship and crucially kept these movies alive. After that it’s clear that these people are just as important as any lauded film critic or historian.
Video Nasties: Draconian Days is an expansive and generally excellent documentary on one of the most fascinating, controversial and important times in cinema an essential watch for the horror fan, and absolutely required viewing for the gore hound.
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