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Credit: Dark Star Pictures / Bloody Disgusting

'The Last Matinee,' 'Censor,' and the power of retro horror done right

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Aug 23, 2021, 12:49 PM EDT

Nostalgia is not a new phenomenon in the horror world, and it's not going away anytime soon. Whether we're talking about the genre's ongoing love affair with '80s throwbacks or the increasing number of films influenced by the '90s, it's easy to see why the appeal of going retro with scary stories has such a grip on us, and I'm not just talking about using the past to erase the plot inconvenience of cell phones. For the right audience, that little warm ache that comes with nostalgia calls to mind a time in our lives when we were perhaps more innocent, more vulnerable, even easier to scare. Put us in that frame of mind, then hit us with the horror, and you've got a recipe for midnight movies that are both spooky and warm and fuzzy.

But there's more to nostalgia in horror than just using the right needle drops and wardrobe choices to pull us back into another time and place. When it's properly wielded, it's not just a charming piece of the background or a way to riff on a classic plot. In the right hands, nostalgia becomes a powerful tool for examination, picking apart not just the horror storytelling of the era in which the story is set, but our own preconceptions about that era. A good nostalgic horror film reminds us of what came before and makes us question it, while also questioning where we are now, as horror fans and as moviegoers.

We're living in a golden age of good nostalgia horror at the moment, whether we're talking about the genre mash-ups of the Fear Street trilogy or the meta deep dive of The Final Girls, but if you're looking for films that scratch that nostalgia itch while also sending a particularly icy chill down your spine, I've got a new double feature for you. It begins in the 1980s with Censor, then leaps into the 1990s with The Last Matinee, both films arriving in front of American audiences this year, and both films that pack serious style, stakes, and narrative smarts into their respective brands of retro horror.

So, what makes them effective? For one thing, both films have their own very specific perspective on the horror viewing experience. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, Censor takes place in the United Kingdom amid the video nasty panic (when censors were cutting apart and banning gory horror films left and right) of the 1980s, and follows a particular effective film censor (played with icy fire by Niamh Algar) as she begins to unravel after an unsettling recent viewing experience rekindles past traumas. The Last Matinee, directed by Maxi Contenti, moves its action from censor screening rooms and dingy video stores to a fading movie palace in Uruguay in the early 1990s, and follows a small group of characters as they watch (or talk through, as the case may be) a horror film even as they're living out one of their own, thanks to a hooded killer in their midst.

It might seem a small thing, but the attention to detail pulsing through both Bailey-Bond and Contenti's films means that by setting their respective stories in settings directly tied to the act of watching a horror movie, they've invited us to interrogate our own past horror experiences. For me, Censor called to mind not just what it was like to comb my local video store as a teenager, searching for the most gruesome slasher film on the shelves, but what it was like to take that movie home and slide it past disapproving parents. The Last Matinee took me not just to the cool darkness of movie theaters, but to very specific theatrical experiences in rundown auditoriums where the audience was either glued to the screen or completely disinterested in the film itself. If you've ever watched a movie in a theater with only a half dozen other people and felt like you could sense the conflicting energies of every single one of them, then you know the kind of atmosphere this film evokes.

But of course, these are just the setups, the laying of the table for the meal to come, and in both Censor and The Last Matinee, the meal comes with style to spare. Like its title character, Censor spends much of its runtime in reserved, patient contemplation, slowly sliding pieces into place with the practiced, deft hands of a horror scholar building out a thesis not just on the rise of splatter films in '80s horror, but on the prudish response to it. It's a restraint so delicate that you know it can only hold on for so long before it unleashes, and when Censor finally lets it all go, it's devastating. The Last Matinee, on the other hand, goes full-tilt operatic almost right away. There's a reason you can see Dario Argento posters in background shots. This is an homage not just to the most stylish slashers of the 1980s, but to the most brutal giallo films of the 1970s. There are gore shots in this film, which I wouldn't dare spoil here, beautiful enough to make Argento himself weep.

There's a third key ingredient to each of these films, though, that pushes them out beyond stories that simply evoke an effective rush of nostalgia, and that's a thematic resonance that makes the retro appeal linger beyond the style and setting.

Censor is about the ways in which one woman begins to come undone after her job gets under her skin, yes, but it's also about our relationship to screen violence, both individually and in a broader, cultural sense. It's an exploration not just of the video nasty panic's skewed sense of morality and reason, but of our own existential fears about what effective art might do to us, that voice lurking in the back of our minds going "What if our parents were right and this really will mess us up?"

The Last Matinee's own thematic concerns are perhaps a bit more ambiguous, though that feels more like a product of deliberate filmmaking than a missed opportunity. It's hard to dig too deep into what that means without spoiling the whole film for you, but by its very nature making a horror movie about someone who murders people while they watch a horror movie opens up some very interesting doors in terms of our relationship to scary stories and the voyeuristic aspect of violence on a screen.

Censor and The Last Matinee are, in many ways, very different films, beholden to different kinds of nostalgic aesthetics and concerns, but in the end, they both had the same effect on me because they are both, in some form, about the transgressive nature of the horror genre. Each reminded me what it felt like to be a young horror fan, searching for the limits of my local video store, whispering to my friends about how far these films might take me into realms that the adults in my life might not want me to go. With a couple of decades of scary movies under my belt now, that's a hard feeling to recapture, but the part of me that still relishes the idea of existing in an outsider fandom still chases it, and these films gave it back to me, each in their own way.

Censor is now available on VOD. The Last Matinee arrives on VOD on Aug. 24.