As a teenager I had two distinct talents. The first we won’t go into now, but the second was a talent for what I call ‘illicit viewing’. This involved an almost ninja-like ability to creep downstairs after dark without waking my parents and watch all manner of video tapes that I had managed to procure through a variety of nefarious means.
These were sometimes the latest instalment in the Electric Blue series of (ahem) art films, but often the film I was watching would be what would shortly come to be known as a video nasty. My parents would have been appalled but, light of foot and lithe of limb that I was, I got away with it.
I’d sit there in the dark for 90 minutes, enduring dodgy video tracking and poor colour saturation and, in a very strange and skewed sort of way, fall in love with what I was watching. It’s an experience anyone of a certain age who is familiar with the early 80s home video explosion may recognise. It is certainly one that is echoed in the recollections of many of the participants in Jake West’s superb documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape.
West’s documentary forms the centre piece of the three disc DVD set Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, and tells the story of the sudden explosion of horror films in the early 1980s and the ensuing media and political frenzy that led to bans, prosecutions and heartfelt pleas from Members of Parliament to consider the effects that all this depravity was having on the nation’s dogs (of which, more later).
And one thing captured superbly on all three discs that is often missing from more sober accounts of this episode is the sheer thrill of it all, the giddy excitement and illicit pleasures of watching films with titles like Don’t Go Into The Woods, Twitch Of The Death Nerve and Zombie Creeping Flesh. It was never the quality or even the content of these films that engendered, for many, a love of horror, but the experience of what it was like to watch them, a sense of expectation that this was edge of the seat stuff and that we could all soon find ourselves in very big trouble.
All of this is conveyed wonderfully in the first half hour of the documentary through recollections of various talking heads (Christopher Smith, Neil Marshall and Kim Newman, among them), some welcome footage from The Young Ones, and a dizzying segment that includes footage from all 72 ‘official nasties’ to a backing track of The Damned’s (what else?) Nasty.
None of which is to say that this is a film that will appeal only to those wishing to wallow in nostalgia. The subsequent account of political and media uproar is a fascinating and timely reminder of what can happen when headlines and hysteria fail to concern themselves with the facts.
A moral crusade led by a horrified Mary Whitehouse (President of the National Viewers and Listeners Association) and much of the tabloid press, all led to a chain reaction of events that saw MP Graham Bright’s Private Members Bill pass into law as the Video Recordings Act (1984). This basically meant that all videos needed to be submitted for classification before distribution, and if they weren’t, those responsible could potentially be prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act.
The documentary relates all of this with as much objectivity as it can muster, considering the sheer injustice of much of what was taking place, including some outrageous distortions of academic research in the pursuit of scaremongering headlines. It also throws in some amusing asides such as the fact that the porn magazine, Whitehouse, was named after the great lady herself. And yes, that really is an elected member of parliament seriously contending that research on the effects of these films will prove that such material has an adverse effect on dogs.
Some people may ask ‘What was the big deal? So a few horror films got banned. Was the world really any poorer for their loss?’ Well, firstly, this was essentially law being made by lynch mob, arbitrary moral judgements being imposed on the majority by the few.
Also, individuals were imprisoned and businesses were ruined, despite there being very little guidance on what was or wasn’t legally acceptable, with a bewildered Manchester Police seizing copies of Dolly Parton musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (not necessarily a bad idea, I grant you). And bear in mind that these were films that were legally defined as being ‘designed to deprave or corrupt’. As a friend to all mankind and a sensitive flower in general, I took particular exception to that.
But the reason why the story told in the documentary is still so important and relevant today is because it illustrates what can happen when those with power and influence feel threatened by ‘the other’, something that they feel will contaminate, threaten or change a world that they choose to see in very narrow terms.
But if Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape is the heart of this DVD, then the rest of the three disc collection provides ample quantities of lung, liver, intestines and spleen. Disc 1 also includes a wonderful collection of sleazy film trailers (be sure to catch Teaserama) and a 50-minute parade of film distributor idents. Only the most hardened fan would want to sit through the latter, but it does illustrate the explosion in the number of video distribution companies that were founded in an effort to grab a piece of the home video pie.
Discs 2 and 3 feature film trailers for each of the 72 films that were originally included on the Director of Public Prosecution’s list of what constituted a video nasty. What makes each of these such a treat is the fact that they are all preceded by interviews and analysis of the film in question, including why the film was selected for inclusion on the DPP’s list in the first place.
Many of the participants from the documentary offer their personal take on the merits (or otherwise) of each film, with standout contributors being film journalists Kim Newman and Alan Jones. Jones, in particular, offers some highly entertaining asides, including one about the time a hungover Lucio Fulci vomited over him prior to an interview about Zombie Flesh Eaters.
Combined with the trailers themselves, these two discs comprise over nine hours of additional material and what they offer is a celebration of films that are by turns absurd, bizarre, disturbing, and in some cases, really rather wonderful.
In many cases the intro and the trailer combine to whet the appetite for some of these films and there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself seeking out titles like The Beyond and The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue afterwards.
Finally, spread across all three discs are galleries of Video Nasty VHS cover art, all of which gives some idea of the sort of gratuitous depravity unsuspecting shoppers at the local corner shop might have stumbled upon when they nipped out for a packet of fags and a paper. All of this combined with the documentary and extras from Disc 1 amounts to a package that is about as comprehensive as any horror film fan could wish for.
I remember my dad’s bemusement at the height of the video nasties craze. “They must be sick in the head, anyone who’d want to watch that stuff. What sort of nutcase wants to watch that?” A curious mixture of shame and resentment built up in me as I thought, “Well, me Dad, me’.
After watching Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, there’s a fair chance that you’ll feel the same.
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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