originally published November 10, 2012
Back when VCR technology was a fresh-smelling infant, cooing lovingly and crawling its way into our living rooms to spit-up its offerings of pre-recorded fare onto our garishly large tube televisions, the laws around what could and could not be released on the medium had yet to be written. Needless to say, low-budget filmmakers had a lot of fun with this. In the UK, they wasted no time in kick-starting the 80s trend of the Video Nasty.
The Obscene Publications Act of 1959 was tweaked in 1977 due to the increasing demand for erotic cinema. But the official British censor system was only in place for publically-shown movies in theatres. With video, there was a lot more grey area as filmmakers found new and inventive ways to push the limits of the system. They got a boost from the mainstream studios, who were slow to adapt to video in fear of piracy.
(pirates in the late 70s were either into copying movies or staging chipper pop-music dance numbers)
Throwing together a low-budget horror flick became a more appealing idea when the home market appeared and the only thing people could do with a VCR in England was record BBC broadcasts of Trouser-Bullocks, Bangers vs. Kippers and Paddy In The Loo. There wasn’t a lot of competition in the world of store-bought movies on tape, nor was there any finger-wagging from a censorship board if the movies got a little raunchy.
If a particular video ran afoul of the Obscene Publications Act, its producers could still be prosecuted. But each film had to go to court one at a time, and there were a lot of cheap-o flicks showing up on store shelves. Cops were confiscating videos based on the cover alone, which explains why in 1982 some eager officer in Greater Manchester swiped a copy of the Dolly Parton musical, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, believing it to be a heap of probable smut.
The folks who were trying to oversee this fledgling new industry were displeased with this process. They wanted a heads-up on which titles were likely to get pulled off store shelves; up to this point it was up to individual Chief Constables to make the call at a regional level. The Director of Public Prosecutions agreed the system was flawed, so they published a list. This list became known colloquially as the ‘video nasties’.
The makers of the 1979 film The Driller Killer, a delightful romp about a guy who kills people with an electric drill, took out full-page ads in various magazines, which drew attention to the availability of these titles. Then, in an act of brilliant marketing, Go Video, the distributors of the 1980 Italian masterpiece Cannibal Holocaust, contacted this woman:
That bucket o’ fun is Mary Whitehouse. She was the founder and president of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, a group who felt that British mainstream media was turning everyone into a bunch of amoral whores and rapists. Mary campaigned vehemently against controversial movies and television, trying to rid both platforms of violence and sex. Oh, and gay stuff too; she didn’t like the gays. Charming woman.
Anyway, Go Video got Mary ruffled, and she took up the cause against Cannibal Holocaust and other video nasties (she actually coined that phrase, so congrats to the intolerant, controlling prude!). This brought the film some great publicity, but it also kind of backfired.
Director Ruggero Deodato had arranged for his four actors to sign contracts that prohibited them from acting in any other media, films or commercials for a year after the movie was released. This was done to create an air of mystery about the movie, which was one of the first ‘found footage’ horror films, a-la Blair Witch Project.
Thusly, Deodato – recipient of tremendous publicity for his video nasty – was arrested on suspicion of murder. The film became known as a snuff film.
The film’s director voided his actors’ contracts and encouraged them to come forward and prove their lack of death to the courts in order to spare him from life in prison. This was turning into one hell of a nasty video nasty.
By September of 1985, the British Board of Film Censors had to sign off on all video releases as well, bringing the golden age of the video nasty to a swift close. If anything, restrictions on video releases were more strict. Some films which had passed certification to get released in theatres would have to be re-cut for the video market. It’s easy to keep kids in the Disney line and out of the lineup for Slashing Robo-Vampire Virgins, but once a video lands on someone’s shelf, a kid could easily pop it in the machine and get traumatized for life.
If only these poor kids had someone in the house, an older person perhaps who could, I don’t know, “parent” them and teach them right from wrong. I guess that notion hadn’t been invented yet.
Eventually England lightened up on the censorship thing, but not by much. It took until 2000 before restrictions were officially softened, and some of the original video nasties were released on DVD without the mandatory cuts. There are still films that push close to the edge, and it doesn’t look like sexual violence or animal cruelty is going to make it onto British screens very often in the future, but do we really that stuff?
There were 72 video nasties that appeared in Mary Whitehouse’s crosshairs, 39 of which were successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. A lot of these films – even the ones that ran through the courts – have been released re-cut so as to appease the censors. Ten of them remain banned in England because nobody bothered to re-cut them, or they just weren’t re-cuttable.
(yet somehow the disturbing shower scene in Ernest Goes To Jail passed untouched)
So did any of these video nasties become worldwide hits? Hell no. But the censors did ban some significant releases for a while. Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman was released in 1971 but didn’t make it to British video shelves until 2002. Even The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were held in limbo until the late 90s.
Britain is now thankfully free from the worst of this censorship, happy to revel in as much torture porn (the Saw series, Hostel, etc) as they want. But what about those original nasties? What were they?
That’s a topic for another day. Luckily, I have lots of other days. Check back on Monday… if you dare!
(did that sound scary enough? Should I have bwa-ha-ha’ed afterward?)