VHS Revival delves into the murky recesses of censorship hysteria
The rape of our children’s minds. I thought that might get your attention, and though that headline may sound like unrestrained hyperbole from a writer of little restraint, it is actually a snippet from a ruthless media campaign designed to criminalise independent filmmakers. I’m talking, of course, about the ‘Video Nasty’ scandal, a pulpit for moral outrage that would play into the hands of Conservative politics.
The 1980s was a period of great economic upheaval in the U.K., the decline of the coal-mining industry leading to an astronomical rise in unemployment. Joblessness inevitably led to crime, while aimless youngsters turned to hooliganism as a way to vent their frustrations, leaving the country shrouded in a cloud of international shame.
In response, the Conservative Party would impose a police state mentality, raising the salaries of constabularies as Margaret Thatcher built herself a nationwide army to combat the country’s descent into violent outrage. But in order to convince the masses of her necessity, Thatcher would turn to the privately-owned tabloids to see that her message was heard: the nation’s children were out of control, and only a “return to Victorian values” would guarantee their safety.
In this article, VHS Revival explores the genesis of this censorship-imposed sub-genre, with a brief history of its roots and a rundown of some of the most controversial movies to make the infamous ‘video nasties’ list.
‘Video nasty’ is a generic term, but of the 72 films banned following the Video Recordings Act of 1984, it applies to movies which contain elements of slashing, mutilation, rape, exploitation, cannibalism or ‘real’ acts of murder ― productions that would become known in the industry as ‘snuff’. Though less extreme in their depictions, earlier movies would have a part to play in the genesis of their contemporaries. Here are just a few of them:
Peeping Tom (1960)
The ‘Video Nasty’ is perhaps most closely associated with the slasher movie. The sub-genre would come to prominence in the early 1980s, but the technical seeds were sown long before. Many credit Michael Powell’s infamous Peeping Tom (1960) as the slasher’s earliest influence. Released in the same year as Hitchcock’s Psycho (also credited as an influence), the movie would introduce horror fans to the POV killer, a motif that would become the hallmark of its contemporaries.
Peeping Tom‘s lurid depiction of sexually motivated murder did not sit well with critics, and though the movie has since been reconsidered as a seminal classic, the backlash it inspired at the turn of the 1960s would have a colossal impact on Powell’s UK career, the director quickly ostracised from the filmmaking community. In the first instance of slasher-related censorship, the Italian Committee for Theatrical Review rated the movie VM16: not suitable for persons under 16 years of age.
Featuring a human killer motivated by an early psychological incident, Peeping Tom‘s antagonist fits the slasher profile, as does the fact that he carries a murder weapon other then a gun (in this instance a voyeuristic spike attached to a camera). The fact that the killer’s victims were all sexually active females also puts Peeping Tom firmly in the slasher mould.
The First Slasher
So which movie is regarded as the first straight-up slasher? It really depends on who you ask. Many cite Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) as the true primogenitor. Also known as Carnage, Twitch of the Death Nerve and Blood Bath, the film has been described as “the spurting artery from which all future slasher films would flow.” Granted, gialli films are much less one-dimensional, typically possessing a strong element of crime and mystery, but Bay of Blood employs the kind of Camp Crystal subplot that would become a staple of the slasher canon, featuring a gaggle of promiscuous teens and a cabin in the woods. The movie is also graphically violent (by the standards of the time) and features several POV shots of an undisclosed killer.
On American shores, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas are credited as the first full-on slasher movies ― particularly the latter, which is hard to refute as the movie that would shape the sub-genre from a technical standpoint. For ‘Chainsaw’, Hooper would adopt the ‘based on real events’ angle that would add an extra element of reality to an already grimy production. The movie was loosely based on the murders of serial killer Ed Gein, whose farmhouse was crammed with depraved souvenirs such as ornaments made from human bones, the kind that litter the house of Leatherface and his family of domestic cannibals. The film would also employ the kind of shock title that promised controversy, a marketing strategy that would become commonplace among horror and exploitation vehicles.
Black Christmas would also spark a seasonal trend of promotion. Set in a sorority house during the festive season, it is the story of a mentally scarred madman who stalks and murders a group of sorority sisters after plaguing them with prank calls. The movie would cause huge controversy, its TV debut cancelled after a real-life murder which saw notorious serial killer Ted Bundy bludgeon two sleeping Chi Omega sisters to death before attempting to murder two others. The movie is perhaps the first full-bodied template for the slasher flick, featuring all those elements that fans associate with the sub-genre.
It was also the influence for the genre’s indisputable high-point.
Although John Carpenter’s Halloween cannot be credited as the first ever slasher, it arguably had more influence on the sub-genre than any other movie, proving the inspiration for a half-decade of sleazy Sean Cunningham-style clones that would play a major part in Video Nasty censorship. A masterclass in brooding terror, Halloween would capture the imagination of audiences the world over, giving us one of the most iconic killers the horror genre has ever produced, and a large part of its initial impact has to be attributed to its title and setting.
The idea for Halloween was actually influenced by Bob Clark after Carpenter approached him with the suggestion of a sequel to Black Christmas. Clark, who was merely using horror as a way to establish himself as a filmmaker, had no intention of doing so, stating “If I was going to do one, I would do a movie a year later where the killer escapes from an asylum on Halloween, and I would call it “Halloween.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Movies of George A. Romero
Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932) may be considered the first zombie movie, but it was George A. Romero who would shape the sub-genre, establishing the majority of its tropes and motifs and expanding on the concept to reflect social and political climates. Romero’s walking dead would have an obvious influence on many video nasties in the zombie and cannibalism mode, but his influence was far greater than make-up and special effects.
As well as being responsible for one of the horror genre’s most subversive horror movies after casting an African-American in the lead role, Romero inspired many low-budget filmmakers to pick up a camera and follow his example. Made on a minuscule budget of $114,000, Night of the Living Dead would test the limits of independent filmmaking as a vehicle for mainstream success, influencing a whole host of soon-to-be-seminal directors, budding artists who would use the movie as a blueprint for their own ambitions. Two of those filmmakers ― Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter ― would rise to prominence in the slasher genre, their own influence resulting in an oversaturated home video market of ultra-violent derivatives.
It is perhaps Romero, more than anyone, who proved the inspiration for the video nasty with his bargain-basement model. The themes of his movies were hugely influential on the zombie and cannibalism sub-genres attached to the scandal.
Video Nasties: Choice Cuts
The Evil Dead (1981)
Many of the most memorable and notorious movies on the video nasties list featured zombies or variations of the undead. Perhaps the most infamous of those is Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. The story of a group of teens possessed by evil spirits while vacationing at a cabin retreat, the film has since been released uncut, but graphic moments such as a pencil twisted into a victim’s ankle and another chewing through her own hand are cringeworthy even by today’s standards, as are some of those low-budget practical effects.
The Evil Dead‘s most notorious moment featured a female cast member being raped by the woods in a protracted scene that still cuts to the bone, one that Raimi has since admitted to regretting. Much like Hooper’s The Texas Chanisaw Massacre, the movie relies just as much on sound to shred those nerve endings, with a relentless attack on the senses that leaves you feeling as possessed as the movie’s cast. ‘Nasties’ were notorious for their poor production values, but Raimi creates a grungy masterpiece that is notorious for all the right reasons. In order to sidestep censorship following the Video Recordings Act, he would direct quasi-sequel Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, an almost like-for-like retread with the kind of comical edge that would influence many post-‘nasty’ horror movies.
Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)
Of all the scenes deemed worthy of the video nasty treatment, the sight of a woman having her eyeball pierced by a shard of wood was one of the most talked about. One of the 72 films prosecuted for extreme content, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie 2 was finally passed uncut in 2005 after several different versions that would gradually reveal the extent of its most notorious scene.
Adapted from an original screenplay meant as a sequel to Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the movie was ultimately shunned as not belonging to the series, but the similarities are there for all to see. Boasting a breathtaking soundtrack that fully encapsulates the movie’s post-human themes, Sergio Salvati’s cinematography also features bleak flourishes of obscure beauty, most notably a scene in which a zombie wrestles with an underwater shark. As notorious as Zombie 2 was, Fulci was clearly having fun with this one.
I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
On the subject of notorious entries, it’s hard to look past Meir Zarchi’s explicit revenge fantasy. The story of an aspiring author repeatedly raped at a remote writing retreat, I Spit On Your Grave was named as one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Ridiculously Violent Movies. Featuring just about every red flag waved by the censorship boards, this excruciating slice of exploitation would achieve cult status during its brief time on the shelf, as eager gore hounds longed for a re-release.
As well as a series of agonisingly protracted rape sequences, the movie features a series of extremely violent acts, including the particularly shocking moment when our vengeful protagonist slices off a man’s penis. The movie would also exploit the mentally challenged, as a dimwitted character is forced into an act of rape against his will. So shocking was ‘Grave’s’ content that director Zarchi was initially forced to distribute the movie himself under the titles I Hate Your Guts and The Rape and Revenge of Jennifer Hill. Increasingly explicit versions were sanctioned throughout the years, and despite claims to the contrary, the film has never been released in its full, uncut form.
One of two Argento movies featured on the infamous ‘nasties’ list, the second of Argento’s ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy focuses on the ethereal realms of witchcraft, and is arguably the most artistic of all the 72 entries. Much like Suspiria before it, Inferno eschews logicality for a far more visceral experience. A world away from its exploitative counterparts, it floods the canvas with moments of explicit beauty, with the kind of hypnotic images that pay homage to the expressionist cinema of the early 20th century.
Featuring graphic scenes which include a knife through the neck, a rather nasty throat-slitting and an agonisingly protracted death-by-guillotine, the movie was shelved for five years thanks to a change in management over at Fox. So minimal was the theatrical release that Argento noted “I think anybody outside of Italy was lucky to see Inferno.” Thanks to Argento’s current status as a visionary filmmaker, the movie has since been released in its full, uncut form.
Killer Nun (1979)
Nothing screams exploitation like the sacrilegious, and they don’t get any more transparent than this seedy little number from director Giulio Berruti. The story of a morphine-addicted nun who advocates lesbianism, torture and murder, this ‘nunsploitation’ entry would turn heads in the late 1970s with its overtly lurid depiction of Catholicism.
As well as the obvious iconography, a scene showing the torture of an old woman and a close-up of an eye-piercing were considered Killer Nun‘s biggest visual no-nos, but the films’s brand of softcore sleaze is far less explicit than its title or theme suggests. Instead, the movie relies on a controversy-creates-cash philosophy, and as a killer bit of marketing it doesn’t get much more ‘nasty’ than this.
Another movie to tug at the Rosary beads was Eric Weston’s tech-oriented possession flick. Starring a young Clint Howard, Evilspeak is the story of a bullied military cadet who unleashes the long-dormant spirit of a malevolent being, the seemingly limitless powers of his primitive Apple computer providing the conduit. Pretty hokey stuff, and though the movie meanders rather uneventfully for the first hour, its blood-soaked finale proves quite the shocker.
Most notorious for a deleted scene featuring a Black Mass, Evilspeak explodes into action with protagonist Stanley Coopersmith’s possession and church-bound slaughterfest, a ruthless act that sees a bully’s head explode like a watermelon. A scene that sees a statue of the crucifix come to life was also hugely contentious, particularly when one of the four nails used to hammer Jesus to the cross impales a priest’s forehead like a bullet.
Beware the power of the home computer!
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
The most infamous cannibal movie of them all, Ruggero Deodato’s bare bones horror was considered so realistic that the director was hauled into court on charges of gross obscenity after rumours surfaced that some actors were actually killed on camera. Though the charges were later dropped, the film was seized due to its graphic brutality and instances of sexual assault.
The story of a film crew who disappear while shooting a remote documentary, Cannibal Holocaust is still banned in many countries due to acts of animal cruelty that include the butchering of a turtle, and even by today’s standards it can be a difficult watch. The various revelations of Deodato’s cast hardly helped matters. It is said that native extras were unpaid for their involvement in a series of dangerous scenes, and actor Robert Kerman even described the director as ‘a sadist’, adding, “He was particularly sadistic to people that couldn’t answer back, people that were Colombian, [and] people that were Italian but could be sent home.”
Sounds like a lovely fellow.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Wes Craven’s directorial debut is one of the oldest movies on the video nasties list and the first from the 1970s. A violent exploitation horror produced by a pre-Friday the 13th Sean Cunningham, the film was infamous for its scenes of sadism as two men rape and murder a pair of suburban girls before unintentionally taking refuge in the home of their parents. Unlike the majority of movies on the list, the film was received well by such critical luminaries as Roger Ebert, who was particularly impressed with the movie’s “powerful narrative”.
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, the film would become a test case for BBFC guidelines as late as 2002. Banned scenes included a woman being forced to urinate and the removal of another’s entrails. A powerful effort from one of horror’s cult directors, Ebert would describe The Last House on the Left as “a bitter little sleeper of a movie that’s about four times as good as you’d expect.” The BBFC classified the film uncut for video release on March 17, 2008.
Don’t Go in the House (1979)
A fair warning for a ‘nasty’ that has failed to cast off the shackles of banishment in several countries almost 40 years after its release. In many ways, Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go in the House is an archetypal slasher. The story of a traumatised boy who grows to develop a rather destructive aversion to all things sexual, the movie was cut by three minutes before its initial release, only to be re-released uncut two years later, but the film would quickly end up on the BBFC’s radar after being advertised as a ‘true nasty’, and they weren’t kidding.
Contrary to your usual slice-and-dice affair, Don’t Go in the House focuses on incinerator-bound torture, the kind of visual motif that would leave censorship advocate Mary Whitehouse choking on her own sense of injustice, but it is also the themes involved, namely child abuse, that leaves a particularly bad taste in the mouth. Featuring a wonderfully conflicted turn by a young Dan Grimaldi and some sumptuously cold aesthetics from future Face/Off cinematographer Oliver Wood, this is Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with the heat turned up to blazing. One of the few ‘nasties’ to live up to its censorship status for pure nihilism.
Faces of Death (1978)
Is it real? Of course not! Well, not all of it.
The movie that brought the much fabled ‘Snuff’ genre to the mainstream, Faces of Death was not banned in 40 countries as its tagline suggests, but it does feature some real-life footage of dead people, most of it culled from newsreels. It is, however, pretty disturbing, particularly footage from a road accident which shows human pulp and brain matter being scooped from beneath a semi-tractor trailer. Most of the scenes cut from the movie feature real-life acts of animal cruelty, clips that prove the most sickening and offensive.
Roughly 40% of the footage from Faces of Death is real, the majority of the action ― including acts of cannibalism and electrocution ― very obviously faked, and the plethora of sequels that followed would only dilute the ‘reality’ formula further, resulting in a series of movies that are severely dated by today’s standards.
More disturbing was 1993 copycat movie Traces of Death, which features considerably more real footage than its antecedent, but Faces of Death was the picture that ignited the kind of fabled controversy that played into the hands of conservative politics, providing us with yet another example of a movie whose reputation far precedes its material.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Released the same year as the Video Recordings Act, Wes Craven’s refreshing opus somehow avoided the censorship frenzy, and based on the BBFC’s list of no-nos, it’s difficult to understand why exactly. The fritter-faced Fred Krueger would grow into something of a self-parody as he established himself as one of horror’s most iconic figures, but the original movie was a rather nasty slice of vindictive stalk-and-slash. The story of a horribly disfigured child killer with a rapist’s wit, the character is perhaps more offensive than anything that made the ‘Nasties’ list, and the fact that his razor fingers served as a phallic extension of his evil only cranked-up the censorship factor.
As well as featuring a game-changing concept that saw Krueger inhabit the ethereal dreamworld of his victims, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a wonderfully crafted movie that announced Craven as a mainstream player, and fine filmmaking can go a long way in justifying acts of onscreen brutality. Still, Tina’s ceiling-bound slashing was extreme even with minor cuts, and our killer openly relishes in every last sadistic act.
Friday the 13th Parts V-VIII (1985-1989)
No character had his trajectory altered by censorship hysteria quite like Jason Voorhees. In the year that video censorship was officially implemented, director Joseph Zito gave us a near-perfect slasher. Advertised as The Final Chapter by a production company who were only just warming up, Friday the 13th Part IV was the last instalment to give audiences the kind of graphic slaughter that made the madman in the hockey mask such a global star, but Voorhees had already begun his transition to unlikely protagonist, and for him the fun was only just just beginning.
Admittedly, the series became a little tiresome post-Jason Lives! thanks to a new head over at Paramount, a person who detested the series and set about castrating it forever, but the plethora of gimmicks employed to keep the lolly rolling in were irresistible in their brazenness. A New Beginning‘s copycat killer would allow The Final Chapter at least a year of credibility, while the meta-infused Jason Lives! proved to be the Roger Moore of slasher movies. People may hate on the cut-to-ribbons seventh instalment, which saw Paramount shelve the long-anticipated Freddy vs Jason showdown for a more cost-effective Jason vs Carrie, but you have to love the sheer audacity of The New Blood‘s bonkers finale.
As for Jason Takes Manhattan… well, that was just flagrant false advertising.
Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987)
After directing one of the most notorious (and best) movies on the ‘video nasties’ list, director Sam Raimi refused to see his low-budget wonder banished to the realms of media-driven ignominy, and in response made an almost scene-for-scene sequel that would tone town the nihilism and crank up the splatter.
Subtitled Dead by Dawn, Evil Dead 2 would put a strong emphasis on comedy that the director would expand upon in 1992‘s Army of Darkness, and the resonance of his formula would be felt across the genre during the late 1980s and beyond.
Despite its plot similarities, Dead by Dawn is a very different movie, Raimi relying on the overtly grotesque and caricaturistic as he set about creating a censor-free antithesis that stayed true to his original concept, one that transformed maniacal protagonist Bruce Campbell into a modern cultural phenomenon. Dead by Dawn was the cinematic equivalent of a strapped-on chainsaw hacking through the brains of extreme censorship, and I enjoyed every last pulp-smashed minute of it.
Written and directed by Evil Dead II scribe Scott Spiegel and starring Sam Raimi himself, Dead by Dawn‘s influence was perhaps never more present than in supermarket splatterfest Intruder, a movie of such ceaseless and unflinching violence that it’s original Paramount release saw a whopping five minutes of footage sluice through the cutting floor, undoing much of the fine work of practical effects magicians KNB EFX, who delivered the kind of awe-inspiring deaths that are hard to stomach even by today’s standards.
The later, uncut version would give us such graphic treats as a meathook through the chin, a spike through the eyeball and the infamous bandsaw scene, an act of murder so graphic it made every video nasty on the list seem like child’s play, and I’m not talking about Chucky. The undisputed king of the supermarket slasher, this is a movie some of you won’t want to miss, though many of you would be best-advised to miss it entirely.
Dead Alive aka Braindead (1992)
Peter Jackson’s comical ode to Psycho and zombie movies in general is another example of splatter over nihilism that gets the balance just right, featuring everything from kung-fu priests to giant Freudian monsters that threaten to take the Oedipal complex to a whole new stratosphere. Perverse, comical and dripping with gore, the movie would exceed every extreme expectation, featuring a cast of twisted characters who only add to its carnival grotesquery.
Like many directors before him, the man behind the record-smashing Lord of the Rings series would use horror and exploitation as a way to crack the mainstream, going from low-budget savvy to commercial success via a series of grungy low-key treats.
Farcical horror at its very finest.
A Necessary Act or an Act of Necessity?
Trawling through the 72 banned movies that qualified for the video nasties list, it’s hard to justify the hysteria surrounding censorship beyond its obvious political purpose. Governments have been unearthing excuses to strip us of our civil liberties ever since beheading went out of fashion — and yes, I see the irony in that statement.
Video nasties were a very timely and convenient pawn in modern politics, and the whole scandal was one of the first examples of how the modern media can be utilised to create the kind of hysteria that leaves society powerless and willing to swallow any old rhetoric. While third world countries are oppressed and thousands of civilians are murdered for the sake of democracy, low-budget artists are hauled into the courts and demonised, victims to the kind of hypocrisy that is used to conquer nations.
Jason Voorhees may be privvy to an annual slaughter, but at least he was honest about it.
How many politicians can lay claim to that?