Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide (2010)
By: Mr Intolerance on December 6, 2010  | 
DVD
Nucleus Films (UK) | All Regions, PAL | 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 2.0 | minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Jake West
Starring: Kim Newman, Stephen Thrower, Alan Jones, Allan Bryce, Marc Morris, Julian Petley, Geoffrey Robertson QC, Martin Barker, Andy Nyman, Emily Booth, Xavier Mendik, Neil Marshall, Christopher Smith
Screenplay: Jake West
Country: UK
External Links
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The era of the "video nasties" has been one that has always fascinated me. A "but won't somebody think of the children" right-wing crusade of hysteria that infected the UK (already one of the most notoriously censorious nations on the planet), captured the imagination of the public via the hue-and-cry tabloid newspapers, and assaulted the entertainment industry and the rights of the individual with a vigour that made HUAC's investigation into Communism in Hollywood look like an episode of Scooby Doo. The fact that people could actually believe that watching video cassettes of low budget horror and exploitation films could actually "deprave and corrupt" another human being into committing the activities they have just witnessed is not only ludicrous, but actually insulting.

With the advent of home video in the UK at the beginning of the 1980s, VHS and Betamax tapes became commonplace sights in a range of different vending outlets – the mom-and-pop video store (sadly now a thing of the past), newsagents and other places that you might not at first think would stock them. A largely deregulated "industry", the content of said videos lay outside the bailiwick of the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors), and in advertising these titles, the various distributors resorted to carny-style huckstering – lurid titles and even more lurid artwork guaranteed to titillate and beckon the unsuspecting viewer into watching something that may not have lived up to the hype it gave itself. To paraphrase David Friedman, exploitationeer extraordinaire, exploitation sells the sizzle, not the steak. Nevertheless, if you were on the way back home from the pub, via the off-license, the sweet-shop, the sports shop, the garage and were confronted with titles like Cannibal Holocaust, The Gestapo's Last Orgy and The Driller Killer (three of the main video nasty whipping boys), you'd be lying if you said you weren't at least curious as to what content the films actually possessed.

What this actually did however, was to draw the attention, and then the ire of the tabloid media, the Festival of Light, several MPs in both the House of Lords and House Of Commons, the BBFC – anyone with a passing interest in preserving the moral fortitude of that green and pleasant land. Full-page ads of a photograph of a hand-held power-drill being forced into the top of a screaming man's head, accompanied by the copy: "The blood runs in rivers…and the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone" weren't going to be something the average person could ignore, and so with strong support from a largely unenlightened public, the witch-hunt began, culminating with the Video Recordings Act of 1984.

This truly extraordinary three disc box set analyses not only the phenomenon from its beginnings through to its shameful end, but also provides first hand interview footage from people from both sides of the argument – those pro- and anti-censorship – in order to present the most complete and objective analysis of a unique and really quite frightening time in UK history.

Disc One: Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape

The main feature on this disc is Jake West's acclaimed feature length documentary on the video nasty era. After a brief series of interview snippets to set the tone for the next 90 odd minutes of your life, West gives us a montage of scenes from each of the 72 films that made the video nasty list, the 39 that were successfully prosecuted as being able to deprave and corrupt, and the 33 that were originally banned, but later acquitted – many of the scenes were ones which would have been likely to be responsible for the films' banning in the first place, but he gleefully shows them to us to the tune of The Damned's "(I'm In Love With A) Video Nasty", which audiences of a certain age would remember from the episode of TV's The Young Ones called "Nasty", and which concerned itself with the main characters' efforts to watch a video nasty themselves.

The documentary moves at a fast pace and in a chronological manner, starting with the first faltering steps of video recordings, the problems with VHS quality films having been watched many, many times (picture roll, snow, tracking, degradation of the image after having been copied from the copy of a copy, etcetera), and yet at the same time that kind of added to the tone of the film (Cannibal Holocaust is used as a case in point), or helped as Neil (The Descent) Marshall states "to disguise some bad effects". Or in other words, to enhance the credibility of the film through an obscuring of something that might actually jolt us out of it. What's kind of neat is that at various points throughout the documentary (and this is one of them), the picture is graded to look like an old, much-watched VHS/Betamax to give a younger, post-VHS audience an idea of what the picture would have looked like – for an older audience, it's kind of nostalgic.

But quite early on we're also told of a precedent in UK law to ban materials liable to "deprave and corrupt" (these were key terms used by the DPP – the Director of Public Prosecutions, who you'd think would have something better to do with his time – to successfully ban 39 films) – the successful banning of US horror comics such as Tales From The Crypt, Vault Of Horror and Haunt Of Fear under the Horror Comics Act of 1955. I guess it's just because we're told so often that we live in a democracy that it becomes difficult to believe that freedom of expression is so easily quashed, and that government can mandate what fictional material we can and cannot have access to for entertainment. And of course, Australia is no exception – in some regards we're worse – just look at the waste of taxpayers money and government time that occurred with the 2 disc release of Pier Paolo Pasolini's masterwork Salo earlier on this year. I always find it difficult to fathom when a bunch of people who've not even seen the film in question work quite so hard to have it banned, despite its accepted status as a serious work of art. This is a theme we'll see come up again and again in this documentary, depressingly enough – Ignorance and Uninformed Opinion; and as usual, they're accompanied by their good mates Hypocrisy and Double Standards.

The advertising of the modern wave of horror films became so increasingly lurid that in order to sell their wares the distributors were going all out to promise blood, gore, torture, cannibalism, rape and the like, that they eventually fell prey to the forces of conservatism and basically ruined everything for everybody – including themselves. And so the witch-hunt and the court-cases began. Mary Whitehouse brought the nasties to the attention of the UK's sensationalist, tabloid bottom-feeders like The Daily Mail, and so the censorship began. And we're not talking a frame snipped here or there – we're talking upwards of five minutes of footage in some cases, and in some extreme cases (like Ruggero Deodato's home invasion hell House On The Edge Of The Park), over ten minutes were excised before release was possible. And the people championing this censoring either hadn't seen the films by their own admission (Mary Whitehouse), or like Sir Graham Bright, had a spliced together, out of context "greatest hits" package from the most excessive nasties Police Superintendent Peter Kruger could locate – now given that approach, of course you're going to be repulsed; imagine the most violent moments of death and humiliation from Island Of Death, Anthropophagus (which the UK press used as an example of a snuff film), Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit On Your Grave, Cannibal Ferox, SS Experiment Camp, and the like, all played out, one after the other, with no other context to give them meaning. It would have been a pretty horrible experience – but effective in getting support for your cause.

The utterly ludicrous case for the prosecution was more bizarre than anything in the films that they were trying to prosecute (Sir Graham Bright: "They (the video nasties) were evil") – The Daily Mirror ran a story about a sicko who had been attacking ponies in Dartford, which ended thus: "A police spokesman at Margate said the maniac could be affected by video 'nasties' or a new moon." Video nasties became the national symbol for the moral decline of the United Kingdom, blamed for causing riots, child abuse and copycat-slayings. To go against the accepted party line resulted in ostracism and abuse (journalist and author Martin Barker recounts receiving three days of outraged phone calls at home and at work because he wouldn't be blindly condemnatory about I Spit On Your Grave), and even liberal minded newspapers such as The Guardian wouldn't speak out in defence of peoples' rights or against the hysterical knee-jerk reaction of the right.

In steps the Director Of Public Prosecutions, and things then become scary. Immediately 22, 000 cassettes are seized by the police in the London metropolitan area alone under the Obscene Publications Act, and the quest begins, to find out which of these films are likely to "deprave and corrupt"? This is a great deal of taxpayers' money being spent right here, folks. And the seizures weren't exactly well-informed, either, with WW2 drama about the First US Infantry division The Big Red One (apparently the police thought it might be about a cock), the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton comedy The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, and accepted movie classic Apocalypse Now being amongst the tapes taken. And the fate of the tapes that the DPP thought would "deprave and corrupt" anyone who watched them? Destruction by burning, just like books in Nazi Germany, or school text books that teach evolution rather than creation in the Bible Belt in the deep South of the US. And as evil, unintellectual and unenlightened as either of those examples.

So, how did you know if the film you were stocking in your video store was a video nasty? Simple – you didn't. The DPP wasn't too keen to publish a list, and so the average Joe in the street had no real idea apart from what they would have read in the papers or seen on the TV. But, as author Alan (Profondo Argento) Jones states, all that the eventual publishing of such a list does is to give every horror fan a list of "must-see" films, even when some of the so-called nasties weren't actually that nasty at all (Axe is one that springs to mind – which had incidentally had an uncut theatrical release some years prior under the much more exploitative title The California Axe Massacre; makes you wonder how it would have fared under its original title Lisa, Lisa). And so the hypocrisy continued. Movies were on the list one week, off the next and vice-versa. Successful prosecution resulted in years of gaol-time and serious fines. David Hamilton Grant, small-time distributor of Nightmares In A Damaged Brain received 18 months at Her Majesty's Pleasure. But did Thorn EMI get successfully prosecuted for releasing The Burning, a film previously banned by the BBFC? No. And the lack of consistency in the trials continued with The Evil Dead over-turning its original obscenity verdict.

Sir Graham Bright tried passing a bill to protect young people from being depraved and corrupted by video nasties – this is what he had to say about research being conducted into the nasties: "I believe that research is taking place and it will show that these films not only affect young people, but I believe they affect dogs as well." So not only can he predict the future, but apparently he likens the minds of dogs and children. The research, by the way, was never finished. But the figures, such as they were, were still used. Out of 6000 targeted six-year olds, only 47 replies came back – 17 claimed to have seen a video nasty – 47 divided by 17 is basically 40%. So the claims began: 40% of six year olds have seen video nasties. Professor Guy Cumberbatch decided to do some research on his own, and found that two thirds of children claiming to have seen a video nasty were claiming to have seen films whose names he'd made up.

The basic premise of whether or not a video has a depraving or corrupting influence on its audience really does become moot, because if the person trying to ban them has seen the film, well, surely by their own logic, they're depraved and corrupt themselves? But what's really worrying is the fact that the people we vote into power can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy. And so the Video Recordings Act 1984 came into being – or did it? The whole fraudulent and farcical episode leaves a very bad taste in the mouth, and as Martin Barker points out in the coda to the film, "The Evangelical got away with murder." And it wasn't for the first time.

Disc Two: What you get on this second disc as a main feature are 39 trailers for the films that were successfully prosecuted by the BBFC, each given an introduction by various horror pundits, such as Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Stephen Thrower, Marc Morris and the like. There is a wealth of knowledge on display here – I personally found this quite riveting. But whatever you do, don't watch it if you haven't seen the films themselves, because you'll be seeing some spoilers, let me tell you (Xavier Mendik's intro to Dead And Buried gives away the ending dreadfully). I got the impression that some of our introducers hadn't watched the film they were talking about terribly recently (Allan Bryce seems to have confused Cannibal Holocaust and Cannibal Ferox at one point, and can't distinguish between Zora Kerova and Lorraine de Salle), but this is very interesting stuff.

Disc Three: Again, our main feature is a show of trailers – this time it's the 33 films that started out on the DPP's list, but were not prosecuted, or had their banned status overturned. Just as interesting as the discussion on the previous disc, and introduced by the same talking heads, of whom Stephen Thrower is easily the most listenable – he exudes a kind of quiet authority, and his knowledge of the films he discusses is quite profound.
Video
The picture varies, depending on what's on the screen – the trailers on discs two and three are in the OAR, but are quite dark and the colours are a little muted. Picture quality is not particularly sharp in the trailers, either. The documentary footage is fine, although I'd say from the look of it that the movie was shot on Hi Def digital rather than film.
Audio
There's some distortion present during the trailers on discs two and three, and on some of the archival footage. Again, the documentary footage is fine, although some people need to enunciate more clearly…
Extra Features
Disc One: The first main extra is kind of an odd one – it's a slideshow of the distributors' company ident graphics, whether animated or still-screen. I cannot imagine why somebody would want to watch this. But on the menu screen for this extra, you can access an Easter Egg, which is footage of the film's premiere at Fright Fest, by Marc Morris, the film's producer and co-author of The Art Of The Nasty, which also features a brief panel discussion with Tobe Hooper, Martin Barker, David Hyman (of the BBFC), Jake West, and Allan Bryce. There's another Easter Egg that allows you to see another bit of footage from the premiere, with West and Morris introducing. There's a gallery of artwork from what was called the DPP's Section 3 list, which was a further 80 titles of films the DPP couldn't get a prosecution on, but which could still be seized by the police. There are also animated menus featuring the yummy Emily Booth. You also get trailers for the following: The Playgirls and The Vampire, Night Of The Bloody Apes, Cannibal Girls, Teaserama, Varietease, Ghost Story, Grindhouse Trailer Classics 1, Grindhouse Trailer Classics 2, Bloodbath At The House Of Death, Death Ship, Fausto 5.0, Gwendoline, The Ugliest Woman In The World, Between Your Legs, Fantasm, Fantasm Comes Again, The Good Little Girls, Justine's Hot Nights, Scandalous Photos, Dressage and Education Anglaise.

Disc Two: There's that animated menu with Emily Booth again, hamming it up for the camera, and in terms of the feature itself, you get the option to just let the trailers run by themselves (without the introductions), with or without English subtitles, or to watch with the introductions, with or without subs on the trailers. There's also a gallery of art from the DPP 39. It was actually on this disc that I realised that I'd seen a lot more of the video nasties than I thought I had – for instance, I'd never realised that Blood Bath was an alternate title for Mario Bava's Twitch Of The Death Nerve.

Disc Three: And there's Emily Booth in the menu yet again. This disc is very similar in set up to the second disc in terms of playback options – with or without subtitles on the trailers, with or without intros. There is, as per the second disc again, a gallery of artwork from the movies in the main feature.

Added to that, with the limited edition set, you get postcards with reproductions of the VHS artwork for Zombie Flesh Eaters, Nightmares In A Damaged Brain, I Spit On Your Grave, The Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust and also one for Marc Morris and Nigel Wingrove's FAB Press reference tome The Art Of The Nasty. You also get a number stamped on the back of the package; mine's #4118.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is an essential purchase for the serious horror/exploitation film fan, and certainly for me, it's been the purchase of the year. As the title states, it is indeed "definitive" and I honestly don't see how much more insight we could receive about the whole "video nasty" episode of English legal history without the aid of a TARDIS and some kind of futuristic surveillance equipment. This has obviously been a labour of love for Jake West and Marc Morris, and the results really do speak very eloquently for themselves.

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