The cult of Video Nasties

James Oliver

James Oliver on the controversial banned movies of the eighties

29 October 2018 08:00

If there’s one thing to be said for the twenty-first century, it’s that we at least seem to have fewer moral panics these days, which is curious given the circumstances: you might think that swirling political chaos and an all-pervasive internet would be a boon to such things, but apparently not. For sure, there is some pearl-clutching about social media and the like, but nothing like the hysterias we used to get in the days when it was all fields around here. 

Back then, with the tabloid press rampant, the country lost its shit with regrettable ease. If the Dangerous Dogs Act – Google it, younglings – was the most ludicrous manifestation of this, then the Video Nasties panic of the early 1980s is the most interesting. Certainly, it’s a bit of business that shows how much has changed in thirty-odd years, and reveals not a little about where we are now.   

It’s a story that’s especially instructive as it concerns something that we ourselves are wrestling with, to wit the impact of new technology in the home. True, the device in question was more basic than the iPad but, in its day, the video recorder was far more revolutionary: no longer did you have to watch a film or television show at someone else’s convenience. If you had it on tape, you could watch it at any time you liked. 

Video recorders had been around since the 1960s to those with a spare arm and leg to pay for them. By the early 1980s, though, they were affordable for more typical households, who proceeded to buy them in quantity. (How tantalising it is, by the way, that a machine that gave its owners new choice and control over their viewing should become readily available in an age where the dominant economic ideology emphasised ‘choice’ and ‘personal control’…) 

'Contamination' (Luigi Cozzi, 1980)

People needed to something to watch on their shiny new toys, so it wasn’t long before video libraries came in to being – with individual tapes still at the arm-and-leg stage, rental was the obvious solution. Here’s where things start getting interesting. The established film studios were decidedly wary of video, and understandably so. Their entire business model, after all, depended on people being persuaded to leave their place of residence and hand over money to see films in cinemas. Television had been bad enough, but this? Allowing people to OWN films? Maybe even PIRATE them?  

With the big boys cautious about releasing their product, a vacuum was created for smaller distributors to flourish. A whole range of video-only distributors sprung up and they were hungry for product. This they found in all sorts of places. It’s easy to forget that the early video landscape in the UK was much more than wall to wall gore. In fact, with the absence of the major Hollywood studios, and the concomitant reliance on movies from around the world, British video shelves between 1980-82 were more diverse than they ever would be again. Having said that, horror was extremely well represented and, more precisely, a very particular form of horror.  

It was only natural that the early British video industry should be drawn to low budget, high violence shockers. Quite apart from anything, they were cheap, a prime consideration for small fly-by-night outfits. What’s more, they were easy to sell – exploitation producers have never been able to afford lavish advertising and so compensated with promises of sex and violence to drum up crowds, and those qualities were as popular on video as ever they were at the drive-ins. 

So it was that the dregs of European and American grindhouses ended up in newsagents and corner shops up and down the land (the ‘library’ in ‘video library’ was always euphemistic). Many of these movies had never seen the insides of British cinemas, and they certainly hadn’t been cleared by the British Board of Film Censors (as it was then): at that time, their remit covered cinemas alone. Video was unregulated.  

Like hucksters since time immemorial, the video distributors flammed up their product to make it seem more outrageous than it really was. Titles were important: never mind that The Driller Kille(Abel Ferrara, 1979) is actually a slow, grungy post-Taxi Driver study of urban alienation, it is called ‘The Driller Killer’.  

'The Driller Killer' (Abel Ferrara, 1979)

Artwork was also key. To cite The Driller Killer again, the film is actually light on gore, but its distributors zoomed in on the few frames when a Black & Decker makes contact with flesh and popped them on the cover. Elsewhere, the box of Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) was adorned by one of the titular anthropophagi tucking in to some tasty entrails, something that served the Daily Mail well when they wanted to show how horrific ‘Video Nasties’ were. 

The beginnings of the backlash are obscure. Tireless censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse seems to have been the prime mover; she’d long been casting a beady eye over television and extended her remit to include video, deciding that something must be done. 

Ultimately, ‘something’ would be legislation: The Video Recordings Act of 1985, a product of a Private Member’s Bill. Until that was enacted, other tactics were used. The police (what is a good moral panic without getting them involved?) began seizing tapes with a view to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. Previously used to keep Britain safe from red-hot continental filth, the Obscene Publications Act prohibited work that would ‘deprave and corrupt’ the viewer. The Director of Public Prosecutions drew up a list of 72 titles believed to do just that.  

The films on that list are the gold-star Video Nasties. (And while we’re here, let’s just spare a second to savour the tabloid poetry of that phrase, ‘Video Nasties’. An entire worldview compressed into two words). Not that the selection process was particularly rigorous. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), a title that begs to be called a Nasty, wasn’t on the original list; Contamination (Luigi Cozzi, 1980) – so shocking that it’s now rated ’15’ – was.  

The panic subsided but, perhaps inevitably, the films themselves never went away. The DPP list, intended to purge our shores of disgraceful trash became a checklist and even a cult; a cult, moreover, that spread to other countries – a state-sanctioned selection of dodgy movies was irresistible to gore-hounds world over, highlighting films that would have otherwise remained unknown. (Some of those fans eventually made films of their own: Video Nasties have entered the mainstream through the works of Quentin Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn.) 

'Cannibal Holocaust' (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

In Britain, a thriving black market grew; it’s likely that more people saw these flicks when they were banned than ever did before. We can only assume they were disappointed, for many of these films are actually light on the red stuff, earning ‘Nasty’ status from garish titles or promotional material. Even worse, most are actually very, very bad: The Bogey Man (Ulli Lommel, 1980) or Evilspeak (Eric Weston, 1981) – to name two of the most tedious – would have been entirely forgotten but for the DPP. Instead they endure to bore new generations afresh because – well, why, exactly? Completeness? Cocking a snook at moral guardians who have long since died? Masochism?  

These films are freely available now, their status as Video Nasties as prominent in their advertising as you might expect. In fact, the majority of the DPP list isn’t just available, it’s available in bells ‘n’ whistles special editions. The great irony is that such treatment is denied to other, significantly better films. The worst sort of idiot fodder – Don’t Go In The Woods (Brother Bryan and James Bryan, 1980), perhaps, or The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981) – get deluxe restorations, while classics, masterpieces and non-Video Nasties are forgotten and overlooked. 

The cult of the Video Nasties is testament to branding as much as anything else. Why else would such disparate films – united only by an entirely arbitrary selection process – enjoy any kind of significance today? It’s not like they remain forbidden fruit: even Cannibal Holocaust, the most infamous of the Nasties, has been waved through with minimal cuts (and powerful stuff it is too).  

But don’t think these films are quite toothless. Modern viewers will find the rank misogyny more shocking than any gore; in film after film, female characters are humiliated and the actresses playing them debased, often casually, often as titillation. Some Nasties remain cut for that reason (notably The New York Ripper [Lucio Fulci, 1982], a more substantial film than is often allowed), but such things were evidently less problematical in the eighties. Today, though, it’s honestly not impossible to imagine that the misogyny might be seen as sufficiently offensive to justify some films being banned all over again. 

So not everything has changed. True, the tabloids are less powerful now, and their ability to amplify anxieties into full-blown moral panic is much diminished. But, in their place, we have demagogues, charlatans and ‘fake news’ that promulgate idiocy far more insidiously and effectively than the yellow press. Maybe the continuing interest in Video Nasties is nostalgia; yearning for that simple time when people thought problems could be solved by banning a few videos.