VHS Revival chronicles the hysteria surrounding ‘Video Nasties’, and tries to discover which of the 72 deserved their notoriety.
Back in the early 1980’s, the UK press had a field day damning the content of video cassette tapes dubbed ‘Video Nasties’. These releases went under the radar of the British Board of Film Classification due to a loophole in distributing laws, and many decried their explicit content, relating them to various real-life crimes and claiming that their influence was responsible for warping the minds of the youth of society.
Following a moral crusade by social activist and National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association president Mary Whitehouse, the NVLA worked in association with local authorities in identifying obscene films, eventually releasing a list of 72 that the office believed to be in violation of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
Soon, the British Government would get involved, citing the movement as the reason for the rise in violence among adolescents, and introducing a Private Member’s Bill to the House of Commons in 1983, later passed as the Video Recordings Act of 1984.
As the labour unions crumbled under the ilk of modernisation, jobs became scarce for the working classes and as a consequence hooliganism and violence rose. But was the government’s decision to criminalise such films an essential act of morality, or was it simply an attack on civil liberties, a means to scare voters into submitting to the Conservative party’s call for a return to Victorian values?
Let us begin by studying exactly why and if each of the 72 banned movies were worthy of their notoriety.
Video Nasty # 1
Director: Joe D’Amato
Distributor: Medusa Pictures (UK)
A priest goes on the trail of a psychotic killer whose blood coagulates at a rate that makes him invincible, but while his body possesses a great capacity for regeneration, his brain continues to deteriorate in a manner that turns him increasingly violent, leading him on a path of nondiscriminatory murder.
Joe D’Amato’s Absurd is a transparent derivative of John Carpenter’s seminal slasher Halloween, only far less accomplished and infinitely less terrifying. After George Eastman’s deranged killer Mikos Stenopolis escapes the clutches of a priest not unlike Dr. Samuel Loomis, he manages to escape from a hospital ward and brutally slays several randoms before arriving at a home where two small children are in the care of a teenage babysitter.
The movie is almost completely devoid of tension save for a chilling original score by Carlo Maria Cordio, and while Halloween gave us some thinly sketched yet highly relatable characters, even the central protagonists in Absurd are impossible to invest in, which in itself is enough to rob the movie of any tension. The jump scares are few and far between, and except for one scene in which a blinded Mikos lurches in search of a cornered Katia (Katya Berger), technically it is pretty slack, with some drawn out sequences that were in serious need of editing.
Director D’Amato is credited for directing an incredible 195 movies, but from what I have seen it is most certainly a case of quantity over quality. Synonymous with the famous Italian horror filmmakers of the 1980s, D’Amato lacks the genius of Argento and the charm of Bava and Fulci, and made his name with the type of nihilistic sleaze he invariably produced.
Absurd is no different. The plot is inconsequential, the direction without finesse, and what we are left with is the kind of brutal, mindless killing that shocks and bores in equal measures. There is a sadistic quality to his work which is without art or charm, and it is easy to see why a generation might be offended by some of its content. There are no real story elements to consume the viewers attention, just long, drawn out murder, a scene in which a woman is forced into an oven for an excruciating amount of time proving particularly disturbing.
Some of the special effects on offer in Absurd are somewhat dated – a scene in which our killer holds his intestines in his hands and a relatively gore free doctor’s drill through the temple just two examples – but the idea of them is sadistic enough, while a band saw through the skull of an abattoir worker would have been astonishingly explicit back in 1981. A Hatchet to the head of a young woman is also rather graphic for its time.
Perhaps the most disturbing and relevant idea is an end twist in which our young heroine Katia appears with the severed head of her stalker, seemingly driven crazy by what she has witnessed with a moment of social commentary that is symbolic of the hysteria of the time. It is a cute concept, but it comes from out of nowhere, and is executed so rashly that it has little lasting effect.
Sometimes the notion of reality, of the events in the movie being likely, can have more of a disturbing impact than all the blood and guts in the world. Absurd is brutal enough, our killer human enough, but Eastman’s lurching beast lacks the ominous aura of Myers, or even the cold reality of someone like Henry from ‘Portrait of a Serial Killer.’
The fact that we don’t care about a cast of characters who are given little time to develop only adds to our sense of indifference.
A classic example of a movie which cashed in on the success of Halloween without quite grasping the reasons for its appeal, Absurd is suitably explicit, but the characters lack the depth or relatability to make our killer a true threat, reducing the impact of much of the action. Even so, D’ Amato’s lens can be bloodcurdlingly sadistic at times, while some of the murders are excruciatingly drawn out and still fairly disturbing.