Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide (Jake West & Marc Morris, 2010)

In the early eighties, video was in its infancy and not subject to classification by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification).  As such, a flood of European (mainly Italian) and American horror pics made their way to video uncensored and into the small rental collections of auto garages, sweets shops, sporting goods stores, and new agents for children to watch after school and at parties which were usually capped off by a gang rape or acts of mutilation or multiple murder… or so the moral majority would have you believe.  The Video Nasties debacle of the 1980s in Britain was as much about political posturing as it was about concern over a supposed increasing moral decline.  Moral crusader (read: spoilsport) Mary Whitehouse started the “Clean Up TV Campaign” in 1964 and proceeded to attack DOCTOR WHO, Benny Hill, and the show TIL DEATH DO US PART (the inspiration for the American TV show ALL IN THE FAMILY).  She extended her attacks to gay publications, the theatre, and finally video under Thatcher’s government (thank you, wikipedia).

The term “Video Nasty” made the mainstream in an episode of the sitcom THE YOUNG ONES in which the gang plan to watch NIGHTMARE MAKER.  The video company that released CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST didn’t help things by sending a copy of the film to Whitehouse hoping to get some notoriety out of her reaction (which worked – Ed).  The artwork for that release soon gained an iconic significance for the opposition (illustrating several conservative-minded articles).  When it was determined that the Obscene Publications Act could be applied to video seen as “intending to deprave and corrupt” the Director of Public Prosecution drew up a list and videos were soon seized from shops across the UK.  Video Nasties became an easy scapegoat for all and any, and it wasn’t just the  politicians, either. The police could use it to explain the crime rate, parents could use it to explain unruly behaviour, and the legal community could use it as a defence in cases involving heinous crimes.  Police would seize the entire stock inventories of some video stores and made overtime pay reviewing each and every film!  Distributor David Hamilton Grant was arrested for distributing a video release of Romano Scavolini’s NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN that ran a few seconds longer than the BBFC approved cut.  Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson represented Grant and brought in respected film critic Derek Malcolm to assess the merit NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN but the judge was unsympathetic and Grant got eighteen months in prison.  Palace Pictures’ Nik Powell had better luck when he appeared in court to challenge the ruling on THE EVIL DEAD (which had already been awarded an “X” certificate by the BBFC for its theatrical showings, TENEBRAE was also certified before it made the list).

Whitehouse approached MP Graham Bright who put the Video Recordings Act before parliament.  Journalist Martin Barker – who had – was asked to write an article on Video Nasties.  When his article was not suitably condemning, he was harangued by phone at work and at home.  On behalf of parliament, an unconnected committee appointed itself to study the effects of these films on children, sending questionnaires to schools all over the country.  The Oxford-produced data was reportedly seized illegally by the committee and a report published by the committee stating that 40% of children were watching Video Nasties.  Barker followed up on the study and was able to obtain backups of all of the work.  He discovered that there were only forty-seven respondents to the questionnaire (Barker points out the rudeness of these moral representatives when trying to have a reasonable discussion with them while Beth Johnson points out their superior attitude, suggesting that they can watch these films and not be corrupted but not the masses – which brings to mind an infamous comment James Ferman made about TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE).  Despite publication of these facts, the official results had their bearing on the passing of the Video Recordings Act.

It is easy to side with anyone from the critics to Barker and Robertson but director West lets Bright dig his own grave – Kruger seems neither proud nor regretful of his actions – and the clips of other participants like Whitehouse speak for themselves.  For all the comments speculating on the type of people who find some of the lesser examples of these films objectionable, the arrogance of Whitehouse and the ignorance of Bright (and one or two other MPs), the matter-of-factness of Kruger and Ferman, and the relatable exasperated bewilderment of Robertson and Barker, Brunel University’s cult film lecturer Xavier Mendik reminds us that the Video Nasties debacle actually ruined lives.  People were fined or jailed, had all of their merchandise seized (including non-list titles to make sure for example, that BAMBI was actually the film on the cassette), and business owners their reputations sullied by visits and raids by the porn squad.  Barker reminds us that these representatives of moral standards committed fraud and were more concerned with winning an argument (I do question the use of uplifting music during Barker’s closing speech which is relevant and powerful without the need of musical editorializing).

The Video Nasties debacle is a labyrinthine story that has spawned several books and documentaries.  I haven’t read or seen most of them but Jake West’s VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP, AND VIDEOTAPE not only seems fairly comprehensive but also an engrossing 71 minutes.  The interviews are cleanly shot while the archival footage varies in quality understandably.  While the archival footage exhibits real overscan tracking lines at the bottom of the frame, West and his editors do indulge in recreating the VHS tracking, dropout, and generational duplication defects to goose up the visuals and the results look authentic (and pleasurable here as opposed to their appearances on the actual movies).  The stereo soundtrack is mostly dialogue (and trailer excerpts and news footage with mono sound) but there is occasional musical accompaniment where the soundscape becomes more active (notably The Damned’s “Nasty”).  The disc also includes a logo “Ident-a-thon” which features an alphabetical sequence of classic video logos both familiar and unfamiliar.  The scene menu screen breaks the logos up into A-C, D-F, and so-on.  There are two Easter Eggs on this page which link to excerpts from the documentary’s premiere panel.  There are two more Easter Eggs on the main scene selection page which I’ll leave the viewer to discover.  Also interviewed are filmmakers Chris Smith (CREEP), Neil Marshall (DOG SOLDIERS), and stage director Andy Nyman, all of whom were kids during the Nasty panic and were inspired in their own work by the Nasties.  Actress Emily Booth appears in an amusing opening and some interstitial bits (including one well-done sequence where she gets attacked by a videotape) but most of her participation is on Discs 2 and 3 for the documentary is only the first disc of a three disc extravaganza.  Disc 2 features trailers for all 39 of the Video Nasties with contextual introductions as well as an artwork gallery.  Disc 3 features the trailers and introductions for the 33 titles dropped from the list.

Some titles made the list on the basis of certain buzzwords.  While CANNIBAL HOLOCUST, CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE, and CANNIBAL FEROX feature objectionable content, CANNIBAL MAN seems to have made the list through association (and the opening which features some slaughterhouse stock footage) as well as the eventually dropped DEEP RIVER SAVAGES, “cannibal lite” PRISONER OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (whose animal violence was more objectionable) and the ridiculously stupid CANNIBAL TERROR while the ludicrous DEVIL HUNTER (the pre-cert of which still fetches ridiculous prices) remains on the list.  DON’T GO IN THE WOODS somehow wound up on the list (I know there are about 30 kills in the first half-hour but, wow, this one is incompetent) and three other “DON’T” titles were investigated.  While DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE was eventually dropped from the list despite some strong content, the loopy but harmless DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and the downright stupid DON’T GO IN THE PARK probably gained more of an audience for their brief listings.  Although TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE was never on the list, its notoriety lead to scrutiny of Hooper’s compromised EATEN ALIVE (under the title DEATH TRAP) and his very mainstream THE FUNHOUSE (although commentator Allan Bryce suggests that the latter may have also attracted attention because of the alternate title to Roger Watkins’ LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET).  Also perhaps through association with Hooper’s horror debut, the depiction of tools in the artwork or the title made titles subject to the wrong kind of attention for fear of imitative violence.  As such, AXE and THE DRILLER KILLER (the artwork of which is used as an example by one of the detractors in the documentary), as well as the dropped PRANKS (with its baseball bat artwork) and perhaps UNHINGED with its scythe-swaying grim reaper cover.  HUMAN EXPERIMENTS was also briefly on the list and Newman speculates that the word “experiments” likely drew association with the several Nazisploitation pics on the list (BEAST IN HEAT, GESTAPO’S LAST ORGY, LOVE CAMP, and SS EXPERIMENT CAMP).  BLOODY MOON featured many power tool deaths too but it also featured some taboo “blood and breasts” imagery.  The listing of EVILSPEAK may be mystifying to American viewers since the distributors hacked every single bit of gore out of the US version to gain an R-rating (although the US and UK DVDs are now uncut).  Ovidio G. Assonitis’ MADHOUSE seems to have only made the list for the “drilled dog” scene (which is still cut from the awful UK DVD) despite how fake the dog head looks in the scene.  Bright and company apparently bought the claims that SNUFF was a real film (Bright is quoted in the documentary as saying that some of the Nasty films were made in South America, which, alas, did not cause an international incident).  The listing of FOREST OF FEAR, known to Americans as TOXIC ZOMBIES or THE BLOODEATERS, seems to be just as puzzling to the Brits as it is the US viewers (particularly since the FOREST OF FEAR cover art was not even remotely provocative).  THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS and THE BIG RED ONE were also seized on the basis of their titles.

The thirty-three titles eventually dropped from the official list; not because of official reactions similar to those of the commentators here, but because they felt they could not insure successful prosecution on these titles.  Like the thirty-nine trailers on the previous disc, the “Dropped 33” are a diverse array of art and trash, several of which provoke the same kind of bewilderment as some of the official Video Nasties.  Among the artier fare are Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION (which was considered trashy by much of the British press at the time despite Adjani’s Cannes and César Best Actress awards) and Dario Argento’s INFERNO (which had its objectionable cat-eating-mouse scene cut for the tape release but restored for its recent DVD and Blu-ray editions).  Among the trash is the dreadfully boring I MISS YOU, HUGS & KISSES with Elke Sommer (which was also titled DROP DEAD DARLING although I saw it in the US under the title LEFT FOR DEAD) and THE FROZEN SCREAM.   Curiously, a couple commentators on the titles starting with “DON’T” suggest that they were the likely inspiration for Edgar Wright’s fake trailer for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrentino’s GRINDHOUSE but it seems directly inspired by the narration for the trailer for Tony Maylem’s THE BURNING (which is featured on Disc 2).  Others like NIGHT SCHOOL seemingly made the list because of the imagery of women being menaced by figures with knives.  Jones believes that LATE NIGHT TRAINS (although its tape face label refers to as DON’T RIDE ON LATE NIGHT TRAINS, it has the familiar onscreen title NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS) should still be on the Video Nasty list (given the logic).  He follows up on comments Mendik made on HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK about social class here in discussing the subtle acting gestures of Macha Meril’s “Lady on the Train.”

Both Disc 2 (“The Final 39”) and Disc 3 (“The Dropped 33”) feature the options to play the trailers with or without their introduction as well as English subtitles for the trailer audio (with narration in uppercase to distinguish it from dialogue).  The introductions – which feature comments from Morris, Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Stephen Thrower, Xavier Mendik, Brunel journalism professor Dr. Julian Petley, and Dr. Patricia MacCormack of Anglia Ruskin University, and TV presenter Emily Booth – are sometimes strained but generally vary from truly informative to entertaining.  Kim Newman compares BAY OF BLOOD to LA RONDE and is understandably dumbfounded by FROZEN SCREAM (he points out that the complete synopsis on the back of the box was quite helpful when viewing the film).  Marc Morris gives us the backstory on FACES OF DEATH (the pre-cert of which was missing ten minutes, including the scene featuring the cover imagery) and puzzles the authorship of the jaw-dropping CANNIBAL TERROR.  On both discs, Stephen Thrower makes some interesting arguments for some unlikely films like the “melancholy” AXE and the deliberate artistic choices of DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE.  Allen Bryce gives a couple DVD cover art-worthy quotes such as “a very immobile vampire flick” for DON’T GO IN THE PARK and describes the Mykonos of Niko Mastorakis’ ISLAND OF DEATH as a place “where men are men and sheep are scared.”  MacCormack’s introductions are at times overly-academic but usually thought-provoking.  Her thoughts on REVENGE OF THE BOGEY MAN and FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN are interesting and it would have been nice to hear her talk about POSSESSION (although, as mentioned above, Thrower does an excellent job discussing the film).  Strangely, she does not have much of interest to say about THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA which has got tattoos and castration and I’m still puzzling her “baroque interpretation of the body” comment on THE BEYOND.  Mendik’s and Petley’s contextual analyses are a bit more audience friendly.  Mendik argues for the artistic merits of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE and the distancing effects during the rape scenes in HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (whose tape release was cut by 11 minutes).  Booth sounds as though she’s auditioning to be a TV horror hostess (fusing her somehow with MacCormack might make for an Elvira-esque figure), especially during her spoiler-filled introduction for KILLER NUN while WEREWOLF AND THE YETI is more suited to her gushing. (Emily Booth actually presented horror and cult-related shows on UK TV – Ed). There are some where the presenters were reaching for things to say about the films but those strained comments were appropriate to how bad the films were.  Morris, for instance, keeps things short and painless for the short trailer for the extremely painful MARDI GRAS MASSACRE while Newman points out the irony of the title ABSURD (the English export title for ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2) as well as its French title HORRIBLE but otherwise can barely sum up the energy to ridicule the film.

Besides the box art galleries for both sets of films and the collection of video logos on the 3 discs, there are some interesting extras to be found inside the trailer introductions themselves.  Alan Jones shows us his unused LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE vomit bag from the original press screening, a “guess the brain weight” press screening invitation to NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN, as well as the atypical gatefold sleeve for EXPOSE (the only British film on the list).  Petley tells us about the two alternate nude and non-nude SS EXPERIMENT CAMP covers.  The introductions to THE EVIL DEAD, TENEBRAE, DEATH TRAP and DEAD AND BURIED include rare UK TV spots.  Filmmaker Chris Smith (CREEP, TRIANGLE) makes an appearance during the discussion of UNHINGED which he rented as a kid for a party.  Fooled by the box art, the kids watched an hour and a half of talking and wandering around before all three of the potential final girls were dispatched.  Smith also turns up with some memories during the introductions to NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (re: the infamous motorcyclist’s death) and Fulci’s ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS.  A subtitled interview with Ruggero Deodato is excerpted during discussions of his Video Nasty list films CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK.   An additional titbit from Disc 3 is that MacCormack has a tattoo inspired by Lucio Fulci’s THE BEYOND while Jones has one inspired by Dario Argento’s INFERNO (two titles which were dropped from the final list).

The alphabetical ordering of the trailers makes for some awkwardness.  Discussion of ABSURD precedes ANTHROPOPHAGUS and Petley informs us on two separate occasions of the Nazisploitation preceding THE NIGHT PORTER and originating in the “women in prison” sub-genre.  The alphabetical ordering certainly makes it easier to search among the thirty-nine trailers (and the “Dropped 33” on Disc 3) but perhaps some alternate navigation could have been programmed into the DVDs to alternately organize them by “Zombies/Werewolves,” “Rape/Revenge,” “Stalkers/Slashers,” et cetera.  While clip-licensing might have been a big issue, the use of sequences from the trailers within the introductions sometimes undercuts some of the thrill of seeing the trailer itself (even if only a couple are truly rare and haven’t been seen on other trailer comps or DVD release of the titles).  While several of the trailers are easily source-able from remastered DVDs, several of the rarer ones have been meticulously recreated by Marc Morris (continuing his standout work from the GRINDHOUSE TRAILER CLASSICS volumes).  The fonts and compositing of the recreated titles sometimes stand out from the background video in an unconvincing manner and some text screens that could not be recreated result in the 16:9 trailers bouncing back to pillar-boxed 4:3 for these shots (for instance, VISITING HOURS and the rare French trailer for WEREWOLF AND THE YETI).  While there is some entertainment value in seeing trailers in scratchy and splicy condition on Something Weird Video releases and the like, the focus on this release is on the content of the advertising rather than nostalgia.  My review copies were single-layered but it has been confirmed that the pressed discs will be dual-layered which is a good thing because these discs are all seriously PACKED (Disc 2 is over 4 hours and Disc 3 is 3 1/2 hours when the trailers are played with their introductions).  The increase in bitrate may also make it easier to appreciate the spine labels of all of the rare pre-certs on the shelves behind some of the commentators (as well as perhaps eeking out a bit more resolution from some of the poorer-looking trailers).

(Eric Cotenas)