The era of the video nasty

We head back to the 80s to look at how the Video Recordings Act inadvertently created the video nasty...

With the growth of the internet it seems everything you could ever want film-wise has become available online. Whether it’s tasteless, indecent or banned in your country, chances are you can find it with a few clicks of a mouse button.

But this was not always the case, and the UK still has stringent laws when it comes to censorship. Whether or not you agree with the need for censorship is another matter, but the history and requirement of media censorship is fascinating, especially when it comes to film and the horror that was the 80s era of the video nasty.

During the less affluent times of cinema – most notably the 1970s before the influx of multiplexes – film classification at its uppermost extreme limit was XXX, a special rating for those horror and adult-themed cinematic releases that, by today’s standards, are occasionally tame or laughable, but were seen by censors at the time to be suitable only for adults.

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In cinemas, film classification laws were comparatively easy to enforce, but problems arose with the rise of the home entertainment market. At home in front of a top-loading video player, there was nobody to ask you your date of birth, or to assess the suitability of the movie for its audience.

The decision was taken out of the hands of censors, and as with a great deal of new technology, the establishment was a little slow on the uptake. Directors and producers, therefore, did the natural thing when offered carte blanche on their material: they pushed the boundaries of taste and decency.

While the Young Ones never actually got to see the video nasty they bought (‘Have we got a video?’ ‘Yes Neil we have got a bloody video’), a lot of other people did. Whether it was from imports, the back of vans in a market or even from under the counter, people got hold of these new films, eager to watch and be amazed by films such as Driller Killer, Zombie Flesh Eaters or the near mythical Faces Of Death. And once the tracking and fuzz of the degraded copy of a copy of a copy cleared, the movie that your most recent copy of Fangoria wouldn’t even touch would begin.

And while not necessarily ‘splatter’ movies or ‘snuff’ (a term that was used at the time for any movie thought to be real or non-fiction –  inexplicably, no real snuff films have ever really found), many films really were not suitable for the majority of home viewers – most notably teenage boys – and were often produced on the cheap by Italian or Spanish production companies working in collaboration with American distributors.

As noted in our Cannibal Holocaust article the other day, several movies pushed the boundaries of innovation both with narrative and special effects, and while a woman on a pole on a bicycle seat might not seem like the most scary or damaging image ever produced on screen, the skills and techniques of location, camera trickery and a bit of fake blood fooled a lot of people.

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And while it is now recognised, after thirty years of reflection, just how innovative and boundary-pushing some of these film producers were, who inadvertently created guerrilla marketing, at the time the accusations and repercussions for the fledgling video industry were severe indeed.

With cinema dying and the ability to record and rewatch material becoming increasingly popular, film distributors saw video as a salvation for a flagging industry. Distribution companies such as VIPCO and Vampix produced low-budget horror movies usually based on a rampaging maniac, such as the aforementioned Driller Killer or Bloodbath.

Others were based on the subject of cannibals – Prisoner, Terror, Apocalypse, Holocaust and Ferox. Still others featured zombies, including The Beyond, Zombie (which has an amazing zombie versus shark moment), Forest Of Fear, and Creeping Flesh. Torture was rife in the likes of The Bogeyman, The Burning and Deep River Savages, and Satanism and possession abounded in Evilspeak, Devil Hunter, and the Alien/Exorcist fusion Xtro.

And while the slightly stinky walls of the video shop groaned under the weight of cheap releases from companies such as Medusa, Astra, Scorpio and Interlight, major film companies also had a major stake in this fledgling industry, with Rank, EMI and Warner creating their own video distribution subdivisions.

Ironically, it was one of Warner’s releases that became one of the main casualties for what happened next. In 1984, the headlines of newspapers around the country (with the Daily Mail leading the charge) were full of outrage, and campaigns against the ‘Video Nasty’ epidemic, which was blamed for numerous social ills of the time.

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The biggest voice and advocate of the banning of videos was Mary Whitehouse, whose influence led to the Video Recordings Act, which had numerous films banned and taken off shelves. Major titles such as The Evil Dead and Warner’s The Exorcist, for example, were hauled away by overzealous authorities, most notably in heavy-handed raids by Greater Manchester police.

Mary Whitehouse (CBE) was a campaigner whose focus was to bring decency and family values back to the British media. Focusing her attention on broadcast media, her efforts saw her  voice become a highly influential one, as she spoke out against the supposed lack of morality in films and television.

During her long campaigns she was seem as both an advocator of morality by some and a harsh censor by others, with many seeing her strong Christian belief being out of touch with the changing face of the ever-increasing consumption of broadcast content.

She was notable for interventions in theatrical, film and television productions of which she disapproved, becoming involved in numerous litigation cases. She also founded the National Viewers And Listeners Association, which began in Birmingham in 1964, and whose story was recently bought to the screen by Julie Walters.

Her Clean up TV Campaign obtained a total of 500,000 signatures – then a record for the UK. Near fanatical in her outlook, she’d spend hours each day writing letters to MPs to get cases looked into. For some time it was suspected that civil service workers in Downing Street intentionally ‘lost’ her letters to avoid having to respond to the deluge they received from her on a daily basis.

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Overall, there were just over 70 films that were banned during the Video Nasty implementation. Of these, about half were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. While some films were banned outright, such as Last House On The Left and I Spit On Your Grave, some movies which came under the act were eventually released, most with either edits and significant elements still deemed unviewable and remain excised even to this day.

However, for every film given a reprieve there are those films that will never appear, mostly due to the fact that some movies developed and released at the time were purposely designed to antagonize, and movies with titles such as SS Experiment Camp and Gestapo Orgy will, perhaps fortunately, never see the light of day.

There were, of course, those movies caught up in the melee which were eventually released when the BBFC realised they might have been a tad overzealous with the bringing in of the act.

Happily, some of these films were eventually allowed a reprieve – Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs was granted a certificate in 2002, as was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1999. The Evil Dead was finally released unedited in 2001, and The Exorcist was passed in 2000. (Incidentally, the DVD release, which came in the wake of the BBFC’s reassessment, is worth buying just for the superb documentary The Fear of God: The Making of the Exorcist, which provides an abundance of information about the film and its problematic release.)

After nearly two decades, many of these films are now easily available to purchase though legitimate means (with Amazon stocking nearly all of them), and to us, the hardened viewing public of 2010 bought up on Hostel, Saw and erm… Robo-Geisha, it might seem that the excess and outrage surrounding these films was unduly harsh, and that the act of banning them had more to do with tabloid knee jerk reactions than trying to protect the innocent.

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This thinking was backed up last year, as it was found that the Video Recordings Act of 1984 was essentially unenforceable – the government’s failure to inform the European Commission of the act in 1984 meant that any retailer caught selling films or games to an underage purchaser couldn’t be prosecuted. A new Recording Act was hastily introduced in 2010.

It could be argued, with thirty odd years of hindsight, that the so-called video nasties of the early 80s shouldn’t have been banned, that things got out of control and the situation was made worse. By simply letting them pass without comment, the majority of these mostly low-quality films would have faded into obscurity.

Instead, the act created a whole new genre, and a fantastic one at that, a genre that by its very nature was forbidden, illicit and shrouded in secrecy and mystique. By doing this, the Video Nasty genre still exists, and has forever been immortalised.