Nucleus Films' exhaustive documentaries on the UK "Video Nasty" debacle hit American DVD in two separate, extras-stacked three-disc sets courtesy of Severin Films.
Since the 1990s, conservatives in the United States have tried to link the spate of school shootings in high schools and colleges to violent videos, even suggesting sometimes in the face of no evidence that perpetrators were fans of a certain film or video game. Fortunately no one relevant listens to them; but if they did, it would be unlikely that any of this media would or could be banned. The "Video Nasty" debacle in 1980s Britain on the other hand, lead to the outright banning of thirty nine films, and the brutal censorship of countless other films (including many that films whose uncut status in the DVD age is usually taken for granted in this country). The viewing of violent videos became a convenient scapegoat for police to explain the crime rate, parents for unruly behavior, and defense council in cases involving heinous crimes. The documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (72:24) – which occupies the first disc of the three-disc set VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE – explores the debate from both sides.
In the early 1980, home video was in its infancy. To compete with the major studios, smaller labels unleashed a deluge of exploitation titles from Europe (mainly Italy) and America, uncut and uncensored, with typically outrageous box art. Cheaper than the major competition, these releases populated the rental walls of sweet shops, news agents, sporting goods stores, and auto garages, and made their way into the hands of children who were supposedly moved to acts of rape and murder as the capper to viewing parties (or so the newspapers said). The term "Video Nasty" entered the lexicon by way of an episode of the sitcom THE YOUNG ONES in which the gang plan to watch NIGHTMARE MAKER (aka NIGHT WARNING), catching the attention "moral crusader" Mary Whitehouse whose "Clean Up TV Campaign" had attacked DOCTOR WHO, TIL DEATH DO US PART (the UK inspiration for ALL IN THE FAMILY), and THE BENNY HILL SHOW among others. At the time, video was not subject to classification by the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification). When it was determined that the Obscene Publications Act could be applied to video seen as "intending to deprave and corrupt", local authorities began raiding video shops and confiscating titles for review. The Director of Public Prosecutions drew up a list of seventy-two titles that were believed to violate the Obscene Publications Act.
An emboldened Whitehouse approached MP Graham Bright who put before parliament the Video Recordings Act which required commercial video recordings to carry a classification. An unconnected committee appointed itself to study the effects of these films on children, sending an Oxford-produced questionnaire to schools all over the country. The data was reportedly seized illegally by the committee and a report published by the committee stating that forty-percent of all children were watching Video Nasties. Journalist Martin Barker, who was harassed at work and at home by phone when an article he wrote on Video Nasties was not suitably condemning of the films, was able to obtain backups of all of the work and discovered that there were only forty-seven respondents to the questionnaire. Despite publication of these facts, the official results had their bearing on the passing of the Video Recordings Act. The British Board of Film Censors – which had been rechristened The British Board of Film Classification – under Secretary James Ferman would be in charge of classifying all new video releases, and everything that had been released before would have to also be submitted. The classification of video releases was stricter than that of the cinema releases – leading to differences between the content of the films in either medium – for two reasons: 1) children could potentially see the films in the home, and 2) violent scenes could be watched in extract thanks to fast-forwarding and reviewed multiple times via the rewind button.
Besides some contemporary and archival interviews with Bright, Ferman, Kruger, and Whitehouse, the seventy-two minute documentary also features contributions from filmmakers Chris Smith (CREEP), Neil Marshall (DOG SOLDIERS, THE DESCENT), and actor Andy Nyman (DEATH AT A FUNERAL) – who were kids during this period and whose work was inspired by the Video Nasties – Nucleus Films' Marc Morris (who researched and photographed the documentary), as well as British fixtures of international exploitation criticism and scholarship including The Dark Side magazine's Allan Bryce, Alan Jones (who can be heard stateside on commentaries for THE BURNING, CALIGULA, THE CARD PLAYER, TRAUMA, and SANTA SANGRE), journalists Kim Newman (co-editor of the British film magazine "Empire", Video Watchdog contributor, and author of the novel "Anno Dracula") and Brad Stevens (who has penned books on Monte Hellman and Abel Ferrara), and Stephen Thrower (author of the indispensable "Nightmare U.S.A."). Also interviewed are Video Business magazine editor John Hayward, Keele University film studies lecturer Dr. Beth Johnson (who has written extensively on hardcore pornography, sex, mainstream cinema and appeared in a number of featurettes for films like NEKROMANTIK), Anglia Ruskin professor Patricia MacCormack (who has written on extreme cinema), Brunel University censorship scholar Dr. Julian Petley, Brighton University lecturer Xavier Mendick (co-editor of "The Cult Film Reader"), BBFC examiner Craig Lapper, and The Guardian critic Derek Malcolm. TV presenter Emily Booth appears in interstitial bits including an opening in which she gets attacked by a videotape.
The list of seventy-two titles eventually was whittled down to thirty-nine banned titles after thirty-three had either been not prosecuted or unsuccessfully prosecuted. The titles ranged from Italian horror and gialli (including works by Argento, D'Amato, and Fulci), cannibal films, zombie films, Nazisploitation, rape-revenge, slashers, and gore flicks, with James Kenelm Clarke's EXPOSÉ/HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (also available from Severin) as the only British film to make the list. Even though most of these titles can be imported from other countries including the United States in uncut versions – at the risk of being seized by customs – the "Video Nasty" notoriety has been a selling point of British DVD and Blu-ray releases of these titles. Vipco capitalized early on with cut, usually poor-quality DVDs of these previously-banned titles, and subsequent submissions of titles on the banned list to the BBFC lead to a number of variant cuts (which proved frustrating to international buyers looking for titles that first hit DVD in the UK).
Of the thirty-nine banned titles, sixteen are out on disc uncut in the UK including LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (which was cut the three times Anchor Bay released it on DVD before Metrodome's uncut 2008 three-disc edition). Eight remain cut in their current releases, including Shameless' CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (which included a "reduced animal cruelty" version prepared by director Ruggero Deodato as well as the original version with cuts mandated by the BBFC), three different discs of I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, and HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK remain cut on UK DVD (although Shameless' release only lost forty-two seconds compared to the earlier Vipco edition which lost nearly twelve minutes). The unavailability of fifteen of the titles as well as the cut status of a couple of those nine available titles likely has more to do with the pre-cut source materials available to the UK owners (the UK release of EXPOSE/HOUSE ON STRAW HILL preceded the cleaning and restoration of the water-damaged negatives that resulted in Severin's stateside Blu-ray/DVD combo release) as well as the rights issues (the ANTROPHAGUS films are with MGM in the UK and Atlas International wants more now for THE CANNIBAL MAN and WEREWOLF AND THE YETI than they did during the home video days and at the dawn of DVD).
While it is easy to look at the Video Nasty witch hunt from a distance (both spatially and temporally for those of us in other countries), there were victims who were persecuted if not prosecuted. The police could seize the entire inventory of video stores and hold onto them while they reviewed each and every film (while making overtime pay) including films not on the list to make sure titles were not circulating incognito. Distributor David Hamilton Grant was arrested for distributing Romano Scavolini’s NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN in an edition that ran a few seconds longer than the BBFC approved cut and served eighteen months in prison despite the defense of human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson. Others had their reputations sullied by porn squad raids regardless of what they turned up. Furthermore, the utter arrogance and ignorance of those like Whitehouse, Bright, Peter Krueger – then-head of Scotland Yard's Obscene Publications Unit – and Ferman, who felt they could determine for others what was liable "to deprave and corrupt," is all the more galling in light of the damage they had caused – through fraudulent means – and what would follow in the subsequent years (more on that below).
Just when you thought VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE was pretty much… well, the definitive word, Nucleus and Severin give us VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE 2 with a brand new documentary "Video Nasties: Draconian Days" (97:03). While the 1984 Video Recordings Act was a serious blow for movie lovers, it was actually a relief for video venders after the chaos of raids and seizures. BBFC secretary James Ferman, who had been a television director – although human rights lawyer Robertson admits that Ferman was not as good a filmmaker as he thought himself (and we see an awkwardly-staged scene from one of his TV dramas) – not only found the cutting necessary to achieve acceptable classifications to be a creative challenge (with HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER being a notorious example of how he recut sequences to not implicate the viewer), he also took it upon himself to advise companies not to submit films that he felt would be rejected (leading to the myth that the screened for classification print of NEW YORK RIPPER was escorted out of the country, as well as making it known to the public and his staff of examiners what films would never see classification under him (including THE EXORCIST). His also overruled his staff of part-time examiners when it came to his personal aversions: the combination of breasts and blood (or sexualized violence in general), exotic weaponry including nunchuks and throwing stars (requiring the removal of sequences featuring them from not only martial arts flicks as notable as ENTER THE DRAGON but also films like TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES), as well as more commonplace items like chainsaws (which alone caused Fred Olen Rey's HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS to be retitled HOLLYWOOD HOOKERS on UK video) or other power tools (for instance, THE DRILLER KILLER and THE TOOLBOX MURDERS).
"Imitable behavior" was also a concern when it came to restricting content, but two of the biggest controversies the new BBFC were to face would come from films that had been passed uncut: FIRST BLOOD (with a 15 rating) and CHILD'S PLAY 3 (with an 18 rating). On August 19, 1987, unemployed Michael Ryan shot and killed sixteen people including his own mother before turning the gun on himself. Tabloids reported that he had an obsession with firearms and the Rambo film because he wore a headband while carrying out the killing, although there was no evidence that he owned a VCR or had seen the film. In 1993, tabloids also claimed a link between CHILD'S PLAY 3 and the abduction, torture, and murder of two-year-old James Bolger by two ten-year-old boys. Although the police found no evidence that either of the boys had seen the film – which had been rented by one of their fathers – an off-the-cuff remark by Judge Michael Moreland that violent videos may have been influential was enough for politicians to charge that the BBFC was not restrictive enough (although the film MIKEY was rejected and THE GOOD SON passed with cuts).
With video stores burning their copies, bishops making uninformed remarks, and conservative MP Teresa Gorman (now of the UK tea party equivalent) calling for the producers of this "child murder thing" to be pilloried (I'd say not literally, but I'm not quite sure), counter-remarks about the responsibilities of parents went unnoticed. Liberal Democrat MP David Alton – described by some as "the illiberal liberal" – put forth an amendment as part of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which introduced a new category of "not suitable for home entertainment" effectively banning videos anything not suitable for the potential audience of children, which raised the ire of adult viewers already annoyed with the restrictions on what they could watch in the privacy of their own homes. Censor Ferman argued that banning all videos unsuitable for children would include titles like SCHINDLER'S LIST (Ferman and Alton would tangle again over David Cronenberg's CRASH, which was released stateside with an NC-17 rating). A deal was brokered and the original language of the amendment withdrawn. The changes did require a crackdown on content with respect to "potential harm" but to also be more informative about content on the rating stickers.
The obsessed cineastes were already looking outside the country for uncut versions of the Video Nasties and other cut films (as well as ones not likely to be classified), and self-published fanzines were more informative than the BBFC about what was missing from domestic copies as well as what else was out there and where to get it. Importation of these forbidden films – either by mail or smuggled on one's person – was already illegal, but the exchange for free or profit of bootleg copies turned it into an illicit trade (with the authorities likening the fanzine trade lists to sex services in personal ads). Personal collections (as well as the video equipment used to reproduce the tapes) were seized as evidence and the offending tapes destroyed, prosecutions followed with some serving jail time and others paying fines (sentences were capped by fines were unlimited). David Flint, editor of the book "Sheer Filth!" was arrested by customs coming back from Amsterdam with videos and had his home raided in 1998 and had his porn collection seized (at the time he was writing the book "Babylon Blue: An Illustrated History of Adult Cinema") and waited six months for the case to be dropped. The Psychotronic Store owner Tony Clarke and Death Waltz Records' Spencer Hickman discuss the video trade and film conventions during the period, while FrightFest's Paul McEvoy talks about organizing some of the first all-night festival screenings of forbidden films.
Ferman's attempts to maintain control had thoroughly alienated his staff of examiners, and he would eventually replace them with what he probably thought would be a more compliant or malleable full-time staff. His ultimate downfall would be the R18 rating ("You've got to give the punters something") that allowed hardcore pornography (also subject to certain restrictions of content) to be sold from licensed shops. He had implemented this change without consulting parliament, and the resulting media outrage lead to Ferman being replaced by Robin Duval in 1999 (and subsequently David Cooke). Under Duval, films intended for adults would no longer be cut unless they broke criminal law. Besides the relative relaxation of censorship standards, THE EXORCIST was finally granted an uncut, certificated video release, and many Video Nasties and dropped titles saw uncut releases on video and DVD (of course, a few titles have been banned since like THE BUNNY GAME, HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2, and the Japanese film GROTESQUE while the restrained ghost story SOULMATE lost its entire opening suicide attempt sequence). Also interviewed are Barker, Bright, Queens University cinema and censorship lecturer Sian Barber, the British Video Association's Lavinia Carey and Video Business Magazine's John Hayward, filmmakers Marshall and Smith again, along with Alex Chandon (CRADLE OF FEAR), writers David Kerekes (co-author of "See No Evil: Banned Films and Video Controversy"), Kate Egan ("Trash or Treasure? Censorship and the Changing Meanings of the Video Nasties"), and Cathal Tohill (co-author of the Euro cult cinema book IMMORAL TALES with Mondo Macabro's Pete Tombs) as well as examiners Lapper and David Hyman as well as former examiner/psychologist/novelist Carol Topolski (frankly critical about Ferman while conceding his admirable stands against the media and politicians like Alton). Redemption Films' Nigel Wingrove also appears in an extended piece on the banning of his SACRED FLESH on the grounds of blasphemy (while Ferman defended the passing of Scorcese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST which the Church of England had actually found blasphemous).
VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE was first released UK in 2010 by its producer Nucleus Films in a deluxe three-disc set, and Severin's edition seems to reproduce the contents of that package apart from two Easter Eggs (both running under a minute). It's a PAL-NTSC conversion, but it was probably shot (or at least mastered in) standard definition PAL given the heavy use of archival video and film clips that either come from PAL sources or were converted from NTSC. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is mainly dialogue but has some musical accompaniment here and there. The first disc also includes Video Ident-a-Thon (53:08) – an alphabetical montage of video company logo splash screens – as well as a gallery of cover art for the banned titles (9:24), but the juicier bonus features are on the second and third discs.
Disc Two features trailers for "The Final 39" banned titles while disc three (202:24) features trailers "The Dropped 33", those titles that were either not prosecuted or had unsuccessful prosecutions with introductions by Booth, Newman, MacCormack, Bryce, Jones, Bryce, Newman, Thrower, Mendick, Morris, Stevens, and Petley. As on Nucleus Films' GRINDHOUSE TRAILER CLASSICS volumes, some of which have been transferred from 16 or 35mm while others have been reconstructed using newer digital masters of the features – either cutting in the text screens from the inferior sources or recreating them as digital overlays – and the results are often admirable. There are also some interesting variant trailers from what we are accustomed to seeing (ISLAND OF DEATH's trailer bears the title ISLAND OF PERVERSION rather than the CRUEL DESTINATION card seen elsewhere) as well as peeks at alternate-titled trailers (the trailer for Santiago's FIRECRACKER has the title NAKED FIST but we also get an excerpt from the FIRECRACKER variation) and US and UK TV spots within the introductions. Besides the combined introduction and trailer playback options, the trailers can be viewed on their own (246:16 on disc two and 202:24 on disc three) or the intros alone (89:44 and 76:48, respectively). Both discs have video cover galleries for their respective lists. Both discs also feature video cover galleries for the films covered (5:36 and 3:32, respectively).
Buzz words like "chainsaw", "massacre", "cannibal", "zombie", and even "blood" (not to mention the combination of blood and breast like BLOODY MOON) , as well as suggestions of rape, likely brought some of these titles to the attention of the police – along with THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS and THE BIG RED ONE – as well as associations with other films with the same cast, director, or on the same label, as well as the cover images (and hype about the strong content, even for releases that were already heavily cut), but trying to "second guess the mindset of an idiot" (as Thrower says while discussing RABID in the second volume) – especially when there were no set guidelines – proves futile. AXE was singled out for the titular, readily-available tool, although Thrower points out that it was released theatrically with an X-certificate as CALIFORNIA AXE MASSACRE (but probably would not have been noticed under its original title LILA, LILA) while also interjecting in Jones' introduction to BLOOD RITES about how unimaginative the title was while its original title THE GHASTLY ONES "is a gift!" Newman points out the irony of the English title of ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2: ABSURD (and the French title HORRIBLE), but also informs us that Medusa recalled the film and issued a trimmed version (the cover was near-identical so pre-cert sellers would dub the uncut version over and sell them as counterfeit Video Nasties). MacCormack is a bit over-academic in some of her introductions (it would have been interesting to hear her interpretation of POSSESSION but Thrower does a fine job of it) while Petley shows us the nude and non-nude covers for S.S. EXPERIMENT CAMP. Mendick argues the class commentary in HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (an argument expanded upon by Jones in his NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS intro). Smith makes a guest appearance during Mendick's UNHINGED introduction to recall how much of a turn-off it ended up being when he rented to watch with friends at a party as a teenager while Michael Armstrong appears in Jones' MARK OF THE DEVIL intro and Ruggero Deodato pops up during the intros for HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.
While fans may bristle at some of their quippy remarks or the downright slagging of some of their favorite titles – although the commentators often find these films endearing for their shortcomings – it just goes to show how ridiculous the hysteria really was over these titles. Whether they had artistic merit like Zulawski's POSSESSION or THE CANNIBAL MAN, were too goofy or amateurish to be disturbing or subversive (DON'T GO IN THE WOODS, NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES, NIGHT OF THE DEMON), or actually did have content that may be been disturbing (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, FACES OF DEATH), the ideas that adults were not free to watch something adult in the privacy of their own home still rankles as much as the idea that people in authoritative positions supposedly can watch the same footage and not be affected (or can see it from a more intellectual perspective than your average " factory worker in Manchester" (as Ferman notoriously remarked at a London Film Festival screening of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE).
VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE 2 was released by Nucleus Films in the UK in January of last year in a three-disc set which appears to be fully reproduced here. Although the newer parts of the documentary were probably shot in high definition while the archival video and most of the film clips are likely in PAL. Since the running time matches that of the UK release within a few seconds, it is a standards conversion. The archival video interviews and television panels are framed either in windowboxed 1.33:1 or around 1.66:1 with minute cropping or stretching and are of variable quality with additional unavoidable artifacting from the digitization. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is mainly talking heads and mono audio from the film clips, with some additional scoring here and there. The first disc also features three alphabetical "Fanzine Flashback" galleries of British horror magazines scans as well as galleries for the "DPP 72" – the thirty-nine successfully prosecuted titles and the thirty-three titles successfully prosecuted but subsequently dropped from the DPP's list (8:04) – and the "DPP 82" titles liable for seizure and prosecution (7:54), as well as a start-up trailer for the first "Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide" (4:36). Disc one also has three Easter Eggs from the UK edition, however the set also offers two more discs stacked with extras.
Discs two (294:18) and three (272:16) present trailers for the aforementioned DPP 82 titles liable for seizure and prosecution. Once again, these trailers are presented with introductions by Morris, Jones, Newman, MacCormack, and Thrower, along with newcomers Dr. Karen Oughton of Regent's University, Justin Kerswell of Hysteria Lives!, University of Salford lecturer C.P. Lee (a sole intro for Cliff Twemlow's shot-on-video action flick G.B.H.), Shock Xpress' Julian Grainger (who pops up only to discuss the homoerotic aspects of HONEYMOON HORROR), and journalist Evrim Ersoy. The informational and educational value of the introductions are variable, more so by title than by the presenter, as seasoned viewers will already know the background of some of these titles (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, DAWN OF THE DEAD, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) while others are indefensible even by presenters who claim to have a soft spot for them (Thrower for OASIS OF THE ZOMBIE and ZOMBIES' LAKE), but some of the introductions can interest the viewer in overlooked titles or look at some of them again. Thrower sells the arty qualities of THE BLACK ROOM while also describing it as a yuppie version of INVASION OF THE BLOOD FARMERS, and nails down the odd yet compelling qualities of THE CHILD, THE EROTIC RITES OF FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MAD FOXES. While Ersoy mistakenly suggests that Harry Reems used a pseudonym on DEMENTED because of the film's quality, his enthusiasm for Duke Mitchell's THE EXECUTIONER (coming soon from Grindhouse Releasing as MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE) is thoroughly infectious; and the same can be said for Kerswell as he proudly brandishes video covers as if he were still a kid who managed to score an original copy of one of the banned and destroyed tapes.
MacCormack discusses the giallo qualities of THE KILLING HOUR (as well as how they fail to coalesce in the style of a real Italian example), how THE NEW ADVENTURES OF CINDERELLA exploits the perversity inherent in fairy tales, and the thematic aspects of THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH, while amusingly explaining why the would be LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT-esque WRONG WAY leaves its audience as flaccid as the film's undraped male performers. Newman has some funny quips for films like MAUSOLEUM (which can be regarded as your "third essential mausoleum film" in the company of PHANTASM and ONE DARK NIGHT), how MASSACRE MANSION (or MANSION OF THE DOOMED) failed to exploit co-star Lance Henriksen's striking eyes burying them under Stan Winston "eyeless" make-up, and the forgettability of films like GRADUATION DAY and FINAL EXAM, while also pointing out that the video release of MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (under the alternate title TOMB OF THE LIVING DEAD) claims to be directed by "Eddie Romero of APOCALYPSE NOW (on which he was one of the producers) and suggesting that THE CLUB may have been meant to be PROM NIGHT V. In his introductions, Alan Jones dishes out some gossip about the filmmakers and actors he has interviewed (and suggests that Daria Nicolodi's beef on SUSPIRIA had more to do with Argento taking too much credit for the story than Jessica Harper taking the lead).
The trailers are in variable condition, with some coming from video, others from SD or HD digital sources, and some digitally recreated in total or in part (like restoring the ROSEMARY'S KILLER title to the trailer of THE PROWLER). As with the first set, the trailers can also be viewed on their own (197:45 on disc two and 187:06 on disc three), as can the introductions (96:27 on disc two and 85:09 on disc three). (Eric Cotenas)
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