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HORROR WEEK! Movie Review No.79: Video Nasties, Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape


So you know how videogames get blamed for every evil in the world these days? And how apparently murderers and pedophiles didn’t exist until the internet made them? Well that’s all lies. Shocking I know. You see the truth is horror movies are to blame. At least they were when I was a kid. They were labeled by popular British comics such as The Sun and the Daily Mail as “Video Nasties” and that was a phrase I knew very well as a child. Video Nasties the documentary covers the period in British film history when 72 films were banned and removed from sale, when people were arrested, fined and jailed for selling them and when a group of attention seekers and politicians decided to make it their goal to milk this campaign for all it was worth. Read on for what is likely to stop being a review of the documentary and likely to end up being me bitching about how stupid this all was and how we’re still letting people repeat the same mistakes.

So here’s the basic details of what happened in the UK between the closing years of the 70s and the early 80s. Thatcher was in her second term of leadership and the opinion polls were turning against her. The Conservative Government had at the time openly called the public a society being in decay. There had been riots and a few violent crimes covered heavily by the tabloid press. To add to that we were in the middle of a recession and people weren’t happy about much. Sounds oddly familiar. If you’re not sure what I mean by familiar go look up any British news reports from early August from this year (2011 BTW). The government was looking for something they could pin blame on and thanks to the campaigning of one religiously self righteous old bat named Mary Whitehouse they ended up pinning the blame on horror movies.

The VHS and Beta Max market at the time were booming and people could get their hands on all sorts of films. There were a hell of a lot of small businesses buying any films they could get their hands on and publishing them on video. You have to remember that prior to the dawn of home video the only ways to see films were either by hoping they were on at a nearby cinema or buying Super 8 condensed films, which were essentially highlight reels. There was no regulation on these films to determine what films could be sold to who so as a result all sorts of violent movies were doing the rounds. This offended some people who came to the conclusion that these horror films were going to cause the downfall of civilised society. You know, just like the horror comics of their childhood did. They sought regulation of the films and a ban to any films that could be deemed as obscene.

Mary Whitehouse is the first adult I remember thinking was wrong about something. She was a blight on a persons right to choose their own entertainment.

In the Uk we have something called the obscene publications act. This was a totalitarian law put in place to make sure the teenagers of the UK weren’t getting any saucy ideas from reading sexy novels in the 1950s such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. After a campaign lead by Mary Whitehouse and a spineless fool of a politician named Graham Bright the Director OF Public Prosecutions (the DPP) wanted to see if it would be possible to try the films they wanted to see banned under the Obscene Publications Act, an act that had previously only been applied to books containing sexual themes. He tried a handful of films and they were successful. Shortly after a list started being drawn up to determine what films would be deemed offensive and were to be withdrawn from sale.

No word of a lie, in the early 80s countless police officers were assigned to raid any video retailer they thought were selling obscene films and confiscate all their stock. they then had to sit and watch every single tape because, as they put it, “just because it says Bambi on the front doesn’t mean it’s Bambi in the box”. There’s a good use of police time. What didn’t help matters was that because a lot of these films sold well because of their violent content they nearly all had covers that advertised this fact as boldly as possible. As such any film that appeared to be violent was targeted including, and again I’m not making this up, classic war film The Big Red One and Dolly Parton starring musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. It was quite clear that the people running this operation had no idea what they were seizing. From his interviews on this documentary the at the time chief of police Chief Constable James Anderton had no idea either. Himself and Mary Whitehouse were the sort who openly would say that they didn’t need to see these films to know that they were filth.

Oddly Texas Chainsaw Massacre was never actually on the list despite it's common association with the video nasties era.

Graham Bright is the most entertaining of all the talking heads in this documentary (see I remembered this was a review all along) due to the incredible levels of patheticness he shows. At one point he claims that he knows for certain that after seeing scenes from these films that he saw real murders taking place on screen. Although I suppose that just helps prove that some people have real difficulty telling reality from fiction. it’s especially funny as quite clearly the special effects of these films were pretty shonky at the time. Another phrase he has, and also an amazing piece of public misleading is the time he said that he has no doubt that there are studies being conducted that he is sure will prove that video nasties not only affect the brains of children but also dogs. Yup, dogs too. Disturbingly this is the sort of man that quite often gets into positions of power in the UK.

Largely Video Nasties deals with the discussion of just how silly this all was, the troubles anyone that defended the films came up against and the aftermath. What came about from this was the the mandatory submission of films to be rated by the BBFC, recently re-christened the British Board Of Film Classification from the previous title of being Censors. No doubt a name change to avoid sounding like the pin striped trouser wearing men in suits of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not against classification. I honestly do stand behind the idea that small children should not be able to walk in a shop and purchase A Serbian Film on dvd. That’s just irresponsible. But it is up to the parent to decide if little Jimmy can watch such a film. Obviously no parent should be showing their kids A Serbian Film though. Not without warming them up with Human Centipede first. Gotta get them in the right mindset.

What’s amazing is that recently the BBFC have taken to denying films certificates, which whilst not being a ban, effectively stops the film from being released on the shelves in the UK. A Serbian Film, Human Centipede 2 and The Bunny Game have all fallen foul of this little move and as such have either been released with heavy edits or are still waiting for a decision to be made by the films producers. Essentially though denying a certificate is the same as creating a list of 72 films to ban because we’re apparently not capable of watching without turning into violent deviants.

Driller Killer was one of the poster boys from the anti video nasty campaign. It's actually a pretty damn good film.

The documentary does a good job of covering all those involved from both sides featuring interviews with people who sat on both sides of the fence and a few modern film directors such as Neil Campbell who’s work was influenced by these films. What it maybe lacks is the obvious parallels that could have been drawn to modern games and how they’ve been vilified by the same “newspapers” today for the exact same reasons. the same newspapers that would have gotten up in arms over the damaging effects of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the horror comics of the 50s. Obviously these news publishers aren’t very good at learning from past embarrassments.

I remember when I saw the Daily Mails front page headlines that read “BAN THIS SICK FILTH” in relation to videogames they felt were corrupting our childrens mind. Even though they’re all certificated and therefore only available to children who’s parents have purchased them for them, or they have friends with them. I guess no-one at the Daily Mail never went to a friends to to watch a horror movie as a child. I remember me and a few of my friends were particular fans of The Howling movies, The Evil Dead and Childs Play. I expect in 30 years when kids are all on their holodecks taking part in horror experiences the Daily Mail writers currently sitting at home playing Manhunt and Gears Of War will be right there calling for them to get banned.

Video Nasties is a very good talking heads style documentary that really does put a microscope on a situation that is as relevant today as it was back then. The targets may have changed but the reason for looking down the crosshair has not. Humans have an incredible ability to not learn from past mistakes and Video Nasties just makes that all the more clearer. When I was young I can clearly remember not liking that Mary Whitehouse and not understanding why people such as her were deciding what I could and couldn’t watch when my parents weren’t around. These days it’s the Jack Thompsons of the world calling for bans on entertainment and our freedom to choose. I especially suggest watching this documentary if you live in the US where the banning of videos is something you’ve managed to avoid thanks to your good old fashion freedom of speech clause. The reason I included this film in Horror Week is because this period was as important to British horror cinema as the Hammer Movies. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing what is possibly the quintessential horror movie. Come back to find out what it is!

One last thing, a quote from my God of cinema Stanley Kubrick which was in regards to his decision to block A Clockwork Orange from sale after he received death threats and the film had been accused of causing copycat violence of the ultra kind… “To try and fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around. Art consists of reshaping life but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film as at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis, in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures.”

Amen brother.

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About lvl54spacemonkey

Just a dude who likes movies and games and has delusions of working in one of those industries. Write screenplays and work on short films in my spare time. Most of which never get finished. View all posts by lvl54spacemonkey

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