Film discussion

Video Nasties – Censorship and Moral Panic in the Eighties

It’s hard to believe that in 2019 we have pretty much seen it all when it comes to horrific things on screen, through cinema and film in general. Fairly recently, films such as Hostel, Saw and the Wrong Turn series, and before that the slightly tamer Final Destination series, really caught film fans’ imaginations, and horror fans with a penchant for gore and torture seemed satisfied with their regular dose of blood and guts.

In 2010, A Serbian Film was released. Often cited as the most controversial and shocking film of all time, with many taboo subjects raised – and often shown – in an alarmingly well shot, lit, and acted manner, of course it caused a storm. It was released in an edited version (with uncut versions readily available) and still provokes and triggers debate on- and offline. Add in The Human Centipede trilogy and the recent black metal biopic of sorts, Lords of Chaos, along with cult film studio Unearthed Films giving us the likes of The Vomit Gore Trilogy, and you have a bunch of films that certainly conjure up the word ‘nasty’.

But of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as over the years we have been inundated with a slew of films, not just from the horror genre, that explore and push boundaries when it comes to blood, gore, sex, nudity, human nature, taboo subjects, and simply fear, the psychological and the realms of decency in general. But where did this now seemingly endless parade of films come from? How did it start?

The likes of Eli Roth (Hostel), James Wan (Saw) and Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween 2007) must have got their inspirations from somewhere other than the likes of the legendary Wes Craven (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) and John Carpenter (Halloween). Other than sneaking downstairs around midnight to catch whatever old school horrors happened to be showing, video rental stores were stocking some of the most obscure, gory,  nudity- and violence-filled films ever to grace the silver screen. In the UK this was proving to be something of a bugbear for our then Conservative government. VHS titles such as Blood Feast, Cannibal Holocaust, The Driller Killer, and I Spit on Your Grave were being distributed by all sorts of sometimes dubious-looking companies and then sold to and stocked by your local corner shop, who then rented them out to any Tom, Dick and Harriet (because it can’t have been only boys that watched them!) that wanted to see them.

And of course, this was before any official film certification was sanctioned for video tapes by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) so you had school kids getting hold of the likes of Faces of Death, and SS Experiment Love Camp, and sneaking home to watch them after school before their parents got back. Nothing more than naughty junior japes,  you might think, just a bunch of kids sitting around laughing at clearly fake blood and guts, and some boobs and bums bouncing up and down. But no, not for certain members of parliament who believed that not just our children, but the British public in general, were being corrupted and manipulated and possibly influenced into criminal activities by viewing these “vile and depraved”  films. The only solution? Review, cut, edit and/or completely ban these films, and arrest those trying to stock and rent/sell them to the public. This era of censorship, moral panic and the brainwashing of the general public became known as the Video Nasty era, and looking back it seems even more ridiculous now than it must have done to many film fans back in the eighties when it was introduced.

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It might be hard to imagine now with our streaming-obsessed generation, but when VHS players were first released in the UK around the late ’70s/early ’80s, like anything new, everyone wanted one, despite the clunky look of the players and the grainy, fuzzy look of many of the films that were being rented and sold. Especially the ones that attracted the younger and more gore-loving film fans.

Films that were from unknown corners of the globe film-wise, like Italy, for example, which made a massive contribution to horror in general with their gore and sex soaked zombie and cannibal movies, along with the Giallo sub-genre made famous by the likes of Dario Argento, Mario Bava, and Lucio Fulci. Hugely influential figures now maybe, but back then just names on a list of film makers who pushed the envelope and addressed subjects that were controversial and horrific but also sometimes brave and exciting. And that’s part of the irony and hypocrisy of the Video Nasty era and the list of films that ended up on the lists written under the Obscene Publications Act – films that could possibly lead to prosecution if found upon your person.

The films that were added to the list were a mix of mostly low budget, surreal, strange and gory shockers that were clearly of poor quality, to films that have rightly gone on to classic and cult classic status. It was clear that the police, who the government got involved to help seize and destroy various Video Nasties, didn’t know exactly what they were looking for. This led to some quite humorous instances, such as Apocalypse Now being taken off shelves, as well as war movie The Big Red One, and western comedy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas being targeted because, you know, what else could those films possibly be about?! But this is an example of how inept the process was, and if your aim is to create an act in order to protect the public from harm, no matter how patronising and intrusive, then surely accurate research should play an important role in this protection.

As time went on, the press were attempting to send the country into a moral meltdown with made-up or under-researched statistics, and news stories and TV spots were escalating the paranoia even further. Politicians like Graham Bright, and most famously activist Mary Whitehouse – who even said in an interview that she’d never even watched a single video nasty – were taking part in campaigns and protests against them. Bright’s stubbornness was such that in one television interview he claimed that not only would a young person be affected by viewing Video Nasties but that he believed that dogs would too! If that isn’t proof that this era is actually scarier than the films itself then nothing is!

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But of course chaos reigned for a while longer, with Video Nasties being blamed for robberies and petty crimes, right up until the tragic murder of the toddler James Bulger by two ten year old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in 1993.  Media attempted to blame Child’s Play 3, as the father of one of the boys had rented it out. Despite there being no actual proof that Venables and Thompson had viewed the film at all prior to James Bulger’s death, the media saw the opportunity to stoke the fire and push people’s buttons even more, making angry people even angrier. And what was there in front of them to lash out at? Video Nasties, obviously. A shame, but also an example of how the media was able to push their ideals and hypocrisy upon the public for their own means, without ever looking deeper at the real issues.

Ultimately, for future British film makers like Christopher Smith ( Severance, Black Death, Triangle) and Nigel Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday) many of the films on the Video Nasties list contributed in some part to them becoming horror fans first and foremost, and then highly acclaimed directors in their own right. For them, and many others like them, be it writers, journalists, critics, editors, actors etc, the Video Nasties era was a journey of self discovery and an exciting time to be a film fan. At a young age, being told you’re not allowed to do something can make you want to do it even more, and for people that have made a career from horror, this was definitely a good thing. And for horror fans, and film fans, old and new, this era is essential research into censorship and the potential furore surrounding it, and the lengths some will go to to get their way, and cut and ban what they think is wrong regardless of what others may think. It’s also an important lesson in media influence and manipulation that goes on to this day.

As film fans, we are lucky to have so many options in which to view our favourites, and not only that, but how open the censors seem to be – in certain aspects – when it comes to censorship in modern times. The Video Nasties list/s are available to view everywhere online. Take a look and then consider what modern movies, not just horror, might end up on a “New Nasties” list. It would be pretty expansive. Despite the ridiculousness of the original era, it certainly taught us an important lesson about censorship, free speech, and human rights.

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