Save Me From Myself: Video Nasties of the UK
I’m a new mom. Like, I could count it in hours new (although it would be a lot of hours). Protecting my kid has been in the back of my mind for a while now. But I’ve also seen people go way overboard. Let’s face it, there’s a point where we go beyond protecting the kids and saving us from ourselves. For that, one needs look no further than the “Video Nasties” phenomenon in the UK of the 80s.
In the late 80s, videotape players were multiplying in homes everywhere. For those hit by the failing economy of Britain, a wise move was to open a video rental store. They were a quick business to set up, and with very little overhead, someone could quickly establish a successful business. At the same time, the major studios were hesitant to embrace this new home viewership technology, fearing piracy would ruin their profit margin. To fill the gaps in the market, independent and micro studios began releasing their grindhouse and direct-to-video fare, usually low-budget horror. To make this complete, let’s add a socially conservative climate to the UK, and a woman named Mary Whitehouse whose personal mission was to clean up the culture and you have a perfect storm for misguided censorship.
Whitehouse, at the time heading the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (after heading a campaign to rid Britain of the evil “Doctor Who” series) was the public mouthpiece of a movement to ban horror and violent movies from video store shelves. Her claim was that, despite being rated from theatrical releases, small children could get their hands on movies like THE EXORCIST or SS EXPERIMENT CAMP. At first, the decisions of what titles to pull and what not to were left to the local police departments. While great in theory, in practice it was a nightmare. One town would be fine with video stores stocking FACES OF DEATH, while even two blocks away, they would be confiscating BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS thinking that, since it sounds like a porno title, it must be. A movie legal on one side of the street would get you arrested on the other. A central list needed to be made. Hence, the Video Recordings Act of 1984 was born.
Any film wanting to get a home video release had to be certified through the British Board of Film Certification, even if the Board had previously approved it for theatrical release. Then, one of three things would happen: it would pass, edits would be requested, or certification would be denied outright. It was illegal to release a video without certification. The studio behind THE EXORCIST didn’t even submit the film, and its viewing in the home was illegal until 1999. When all was said and done, 39 titles appeared on the list of banned “Video Nasties” which all had been successfully prosecuted.
There were some obviously violent movies on the list. FACES OF DEATH is the hardest to defend. For those unfamiliar, it was filmed in a similar vein to MONDO CANE but instead of cultural references, it portrayed scenes of death. It’s estimated that forty percent of it was recreations and “faked”. That means over half of the movie contains real-life death. To be fair, a large chunk of that is the death of animals, but there are still some scenes of human death. People hear of FACES OF DEATH being on the list and the usual reaction is an understanding nod.
The majority of the list was filled with what could be classified as “splatterpunk”, movies with high body counts or countless pints of blood. DRILLER KILLER, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Nobody can deny the intense violence of those movies, and you certainly won’t hear people say that children would be fine watching them. But then there were movies included like EVIL DEAD, Dario Argento’s INFERNO and ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN (aka FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN). Sure, there is more violence in those flicks than, say, WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. But the violence is not the purpose for their existence and their fame. EVIL DEAD was almost as much a comedy as horror, INFERNO was dripping with visual style and FRANKENSTEIN was a bizarre experiment in art-house horror and 3-D craziness (only the R-rated version was released in 3-D. There was a cut released as an X, but director Paul Morrissey decided that full frontal male nudity was too much to see popping off the screen). Yet, because these movies were also not appropriate for children, they were banned out of fear they would end up in kids’ hands. They had already been rated for theatrical release and if the ratings were followed, they would not end up in the hands of children. But a survey was done among grammar school children and they were presented with a list of Video Nasties and more than half the kids stated they had seen them. This was used as proof that the video stores or parents couldn’t be trusted to keep the children away from these tapes. Later on, one of the UK newspapers did a follow-up with the kids and it turns out that almost all of them will say they’d seen a movie more to feel “cool” around their peers and had actually not seen them. Yet it was still a decade and a half before the Video Recordings Act was altered.
The enthusiasm for banning these nasty videos grew and soon it wasn’t just splatterpunk and torture porn being banned. Sam Peckinpah’s STRAW DOGS was pulled from the shelves. This movie has been an influence on directors for years to come. Is there violence? Sure. But the point of the movie is to show how violence can negatively affect even the biggest pacifist. That is hardly exploitive, but the mere existence of the violence was enough for the board to turn up their noses. Similarly, Andrzej Zulawski’s POSESSION was banned as well. This surreal examination of the dissolution of a marriage through the dissolution of the psyche has some violence, but not nearly as much as most Australian Rules Football games. It won awards at Cannes and even scored the Cesar Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar). Yet nobody, not even the most responsible adult, was allowed to view it in the UK.
In 2009, the Video Recordings Act was finally updated. It allowed for an 18 rating and most of the Video Nasties eventually saw release, either in edited versions or fully uncut. However, there is still a law saying a movie must be submitted to the BBFC before the DVD can legally be sold there. Currently there is a campaign for a “Voluntary 18” for small distribution companies who cannot afford to go through the certification process, where they would voluntarily accept the highest rating without having to submit to the bureaucratic process. So far it has not passed.
Should any movies be on a banned list? Personally, I won’t be thrilled if my daughter came home with FACES OF DEATH. But you won’t see me telling another adult not to watch it. And you certainly won’t hear me calling to make it illegal; not because of any great FACES OF DEATH love, but because once we set that precedent you never what great work of art might follow close behind.
WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES: In the US, none of the Video Nasties were ever banned. In the UK, eleven of the original 39 are still banned:
THE BEAST IN HEAT
FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE
FOREST OF FEAR
GESTAPO’S LAST ORGY
LOVE CAMP 7
MARDI GRAS MASSACRE
WEREWOLF AND THE YETI
WOMEN BEHIND BARS
However, with the advent of the internet, I dare say that, if you want to see one of the movies, there will be a way one way or another.