THE 'VIDEO-NASTY' FIASCO IN BRITAIN-
(or- why I grew up to hate the Daily Mail!)
There were a large amount of disparate threads that came together to form the self-righteous barmy army of censorious fools and preachers who shaped the battle against the evils of video, but perhaps the one thread that is more overwhelmingly significant than the others was Britain’s continuing dependence on isolationism. Being an island there has always been a tradition of being, at least, deeply suspicious of outside influence, especially when it may challenge authority and order. This being even more so as Britain continues as a Monarchy (albeit a monarchy with symbolic power) and remains to some extent a class driven society. There has always been a suspicion by the ‘ruling class’ that the ‘common’ man is unable to view certain material without it having an adverse effect. Throughout history, and not just in England, media has been cited as a harmful influence to society; the Penny Dreadful in Victorian England, to the publication of ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’, the demonization of E.C. comics and the obscenity trial brought against William Burrough’s ‘Naked Lunch’.
The video explosion at the beginning of that decade gave the population at large a chance to see films that had not been censored (although paradoxically quite a few of the movies that ended up on the banned list had actually been granted a BBFC cinema certificate; Fulci’s HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981), UNHINGED (1982) and ZOMBIE CREEPING FLESH (1981) as a few examples!). Britain, true to its island mentality, had been one of the most censorious countries in the world prior to the video revolution- now hundreds of uncensored exploitation tapes were flooding into the country. As I mentioned before it was actually the promotional art for many of the films which first brought them to the attention of the authorities, SS. EXPERIMENT CAMP may have been first but even more lurid, and to my mind wonderfully so, covers began to blaze forth from the top shelves of local video emporiums. Titles such as DRILLER KILLER (1979) with its ultra gory cover and the barf- promising gut-munching which was gleefully depicted on the artwork for CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) not only attracted the punters, but also the attention of those who, true to their Victorian values, were certainly not amused. Mirroring the hyping antics of some distributors in America, infamously the makers of SNUFF (1976)- another film to get banned here, who hired protesters to picket a movie house in New York to whip up some interest, some of the video distributors here tried similar antics which, whilst originally successful in their aims, back-fired quite spectacularly. One such publicity stunt was the famous guess the weight of a (real) human brain in a glass jar gag- to promote NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN (1981), another, and one even more fool hardy was the promoter who wrote to moral and religious campaigner Mary Whitehouse, under the guise of someone who had been appalled by their film. Whitehouse and her legion of militant blue rinsed octogenarians seized the moment and tirelessly battled against this type of ‘filth’. Mary Whitehouse famously never bothered to watch any of the ‘nasties’, but this didn’t stop her compiling a compilation of the most violent scenes- which were naturally out of context, and showing it to a flabbergasted audience of Conservative MP’s, who not known for their cineliteracy and in desperate need for an angle on Law and Order decided with glee that they had found a suitable scapegoat. The streets of Toxteth, Southall and Bristol had recently been shaken by violent riots, if the Government could ban a few gore movies all would be right with the world- or at least if they could get themselves and the media to believe that then they might just be able to hobble through the imminent election. Finding an alli in the press was not too difficult, and they found it in the reactionary, self-righteous 'Voice of England'- The Daily Mail, a paper so geared to the classic nuclear family that anything that did not fit into that narrow category found itself condemned. Naturally the ‘video-nasty’ became public enemy number one. With the press, pressure groups and the Government all baying for blood, it was unsurprising that the horror film in general found itself under attack. Naturally, the majority who had not seen any of these movies would read graphic descriptions of the acts of horror contained within and would foam with indignation in their padded armchairs, but it doesn’t take a genius to realise that these people were imagining scenes a lot worse in their heads than were actually shown on the videotapes themselves- if you read a break down of the gore scenes in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ BLOOD FEAST (1963) they sound most appalling, however if you actually sit through the thing you have to try and see through the tears of laughter rolling down your face!
The DPP began to prosecute video dealers (the Obscene Publications Act, which was naturally the first line of attack, was found not to apply to obscene materials, but to the ‘distribution’ of such material), and the farce began in earnest. The police began wholesale confiscation of tapes and, being (if it is possible) even more cineilliterate than the MP’s, showed their blind ignorance by seizing such depraved articles as the Dolly Parton vehicle THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982) and the war movie THE BIG RED ONE (1980), under the misapprehension that they were hard-core porn movies! However these warning signs that things were spinning dangerously out of control were ignored as the fervour increased and, presumably many of the people who had previously rented them, were believing the Daily Mail’s every word and calling for an end this degeneracy. Unfortunately any small voices questioning the eradication of civil rights, most importantly freedom of speech, were drowned out in the uproar. And anyway the pro-censorship lobby had an ace up their sleeves- the children. The effect of violence on children has always been a bone of contention, and it came to some kind of head with the media circus that surrounded the nasty. Cinemas, apart from the cartoon image of two kids- one on the others shoulder, wearing a large mac and trying to pass for eighteen, has always been the preserve of adults. With video, theoretically at least, a world of horror was there for the taking for the nations youth. I would not doubt that many, many kids saw banned films, but personally I doubt there were many more bad effects than a few sleepless nights....I mean look at me, I grew up to be a well-adjusted individual who spends much of his spare time watching films where teenagers are chased by someone with a big knife. Er, anyway....Whilst I don’t advocate censorship (obviously), I do believe classification is a justifiable answer- just as more advanced countries in Europe have; Italy and Denmark for example. Even so ultimately it comes down to parental responsibility and just because Ma & Pa can’t hire out BLOODY MOON (1981) for little Johnny from Blockbusters, they could still (with only a little effort) track down a copy for him to watch. And whilst the age certificates should act as a rule of thumb, little Johnny and all children have an advanced sense of what is real and what is make believe- once again a patronising attitude by the intellegensia. THE EXORCIST (1973) is still effectively banned in this country (regardless of its highly successful recent cinema re-release), the reason given- some bogus evidence that teen-age girls had reacted ‘badly’ to the film. Believe me, the only thing teenage girls would react badly to today if THE EXORCIST were to be released on video would be the size of Ellen Burstyn’s bell bottoms! Effectively what sealed the fate of the ‘nasties’ and eventually swept them from the shelves was not the prosecutions under the Obscene Publication Act- that had become an unmanageable mess run by vigilante do-gooders. (A film could not effectively be banned until it had been successfully prosecuted in court before a jury and, unsurprisingly, many cases were thrown out when they realised what they watching were generally inept, if bloody, horror movies and not the visualisation of the Four Horsemen stampeding towards the collapse of civilisation! However, a film could be continually prosecuted in different areas of the country- and often was, until one court found it legally obscene, in which case it would join the official banned list. Which was a prime example of what a dire state the country was in due to this moral crusade if a film could be acquitted numerous time without any hope of being free from prosecution. Justice- my arse!). The introduction of the Video Recordings Act, effectively meant that every video released in Britain had to approved by the BBFC as suitable for home viewing and certified accordingly. Unsurprisingly films were cut further for video than they had for cinema making them softer- even more so in the immediate years after the hysteria was dying down. And even more unsurprisingly the chance of any banned film being re-released on video without major cuts was hugely unlikely. The knock on effect of course was films like FRIDAY THE 13TH and other horror movies that didn’t get banned- through luck usually, had to be re-assessed and in most cases sustained heavy trimming- (the video industry was given a 12 month ‘period of grace’ to remove uncertified material from the shelves and submit individual videos for certification by the BBFC). But it didn’t end there, the public information blitzkrieg against horror movies had a lasting effect on the nations psyche and, usually fired by the Daily Mail (natch), every few years or so there is a moral panic against the genre. Further fuelled by one David Alton, a Liberal-Democrat MP who was so morally zealous against the humble VCR as to make Mary Whitehouse look like Marilyn Chambers! He actually wanted to ban all videos over the rating of PG..... Of course the effective banning of a load of ropy old movies hasn’t had any noticeable effect on the nations morality, as far as I can tell we are not living in a crime free Nirvana. Quite the opposite infact and I would quite happily argue that violence in society is perpetuated far more by repression than seeing some Italian barfo Zombie gut-muncher, until I’m blue in the face. The decrease, or to be more exact the lack of a decrease, in violence is never reported by the media as a defeat for the censorious; i.e. their theories were incorrect. No, if anything they insist on becoming even more censorious and continue to peddle this fallacy of a threat. The most logical point, and the one that is most often thrown at the censorious- without ever an adequate answer, is how do the censors manage to stay sane and not depraved by the material they sit through? It is a question they cannot answer without proving that they believe that there are some people who of such a sub-standard intelligence and/or precarious mental health that could be turned dangerous psychotic by certain unsavoury material. Or, and this really is the worse of it, subscribing to a cultural fascism where it is ok for certain members of the intelligentsia to view material which they in turn can patronizingly decide is ‘unsuitable’ for public consumption. It is of no great coincidence that censorship increases when there is an advance in a form of mass communication- in this case the readily available and affordable video cassette and, with unnerving echoes of the early 80’s there is more action (this time by F.A.C.T and the DPP) against that new and increasingly popular DVD format- many UK machines have been chipped to play region 1 discs, those without BBFC tampering. The power of the media to create disinformation is so great that the majority of the people in this country still believe that CHILD’S PLAY 3 had some direct influence on the boys who murdered James Bulger, even when the case judge stated that there was no evidence what-so-ever that the boys had actually seen the film. The reason being is that the media don’t like being proved wrong and it is much easier to have something tangible to blame rather than explore some other avenues- unemployment, widening in the class gap etc. Practically every sensationalised murder case has been linked to some movie or other- what isn’t so heavily publicised are the cases where they haven’t been able to dig up much ‘video-nasty’ dirt. For instance did you know that Fred and Rosemary West’s home was chock-a-block with Disney videos? Also, what is continuously worrying is that this disinformation shows no signs of abating, every few years or so the tabloids run stories about ‘sickening snuff movies’ being seized, everytime they turn out to be your common old ‘video nasties’- one such paper showed a still from Joe D’Amato’s ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) illustrating a subtle little bit of reporting - ‘SNUFFED OUT’. That was in 1992, but even more recently a member of the trading standards, on a tv consumer programme, whilst tracking down bootleg videos at a market cited Ruggero Deadato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST as a bone fide ‘snuff’ movie. So you can kinda see what sort of ignorance we are up against here....
I saw the best video stores of my generation destroyed by madness...: growing up during a moral panic
No knives, No powerdrills and definitely no chainsaws-
the slasher in the dock (coming soon) (3/3)
A-Z of Video-nasties