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Last October the home video company Severin Films released a horror picture called House on Straw Hill. Early purchasers received a bonus documentary about the notorious political scam of 1980s England known as the "Video Nasty" period. Now Severin is back with an elaborate three-disc video presentation called Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide.
Not nearly as well known in the United States as it should be, the Video Nasty craze of the early 1980s was ostensibly a public safety measure to save the children of the UK from the gruesome horror pictures being distributed on the then-new home video format. Even with the relaxed censorship of the previous decade, BBFC guidelines for theatrical films were fairly strict. But videos were an unregulated Free Range product. Thousands of independent stores, many of them tiny shops that stocked whatever videos were on the market. Extremely gruesome horror pictures quickly became a hot commodity.
Sensation-hungry newspapers presented a distorted image of the Video Nasties, which came along just as Margaret Thatcher's government needed a scapegoat. Thatcher was falling in popularity, even after the major boost of the Falklands War. Politicians could use the Video Nasty 'problem' to deflect attention from their own shortcomings, while pundits and bluenoses found a bulletproof soapbox issue on which to hang outraged campaigns against their eternal enemy, "permissiveness". It had worked in the 1950s with Horror Comics; now every deplorable problem of society that the Right didn't want to deal with could be blamed on the Video Nasties.
Many of the films were indeed reprehensible but there was certainly no evidence that they were harmful in any way. Authority figures, columnists and would-be dragon slayers condemned them sight unseen, and boasted that they didn't have to see them to know that they must be eliminated. The PR onslaught regarded the videos as if they were a plague. A complicated new Video Recordings Act was proposed as a way of harassing and threatening the video retailers, mostly small mom & pop shops that couldn't fight back. No counter-debate was tolerated; police were given the mission of rounding up and destroying suspected Nasty tapes. The 'secret' list of offending titles soon became known to horror fans, who finally had a directory of potential 'good stuff' to see. But many businesses were ruined, reputations destroyed. Fines and even prison sentences were doled out on behalf of a statute that (we are told) was never properly ratified. The Thatcher clan won their dubious 'moral victory'. A new ratings system for videos came into play that required a high fee be paid for every production submitted to the government censors. This had an immediate "Thatcherite" effect: small video companies were priced out of the market, clearing the way for the major film corporations to dominate the UK's video industry.
Disc One of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide presents the 73-minute Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, a 2010 documentary directed by Jake West. It starts out in a welter of video noise and tracking errors, so as to bring back the nostalgic (?) memory of VHS videos with their low resolution images and tendency to stretch, curl and otherwise present the viewer with a horrorshow of gross video errors. Then we get a grueling countdown of all 72 official video nasty titles, complete with fast cuts of some the more violent moments.
Then begins a comprehensive telling of the entire Video Nasty story, as related by knowledgeable critics but also Britons that found themselves in the trenches back in the Reagan/Thatcher years: video store owners, film distributors and even a couple of politicians, including the author of the actual Video Nasty legislation. Illustrating the story are hundreds of news clippings: 'shock' headlines positioning Video Nasties as a threat to Western Civilization, announcements of developments in the anti-Nasty witch hunt, and editorials by nabobs eager to jump on the band wagon.
Authoritative commentary comes from familiar folk like Kim Newman, who explains that he got a professional film writing foothold when he reviewed Last House on the Left for The Monthly Film Bulletin. We also hear words of wisdom from Julian Petley, one of the contributors to Phil Hardy's original Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror. Nobody claims that the Video Recordings Act deprived Britons of great works of art. The issue at stake was government control, as engineered by a coalition of conservative forces, bluenose pressure groups and opportunistic politicians who knew a good thing when they saw it.
Some of the best comment comes from journalist-author Martin Barker, who inadvertently added fire to the Right-wing onslaught when he dared to voice a moderate opinion about the controversy. Various faked studies announced 'scientific' conclusions meant to fan the flames brighter, such as the dubious factoid that 40% of small schoolchildren had been despoiled by the videos in question. Barker is seen on a TV show meant to be a fair debate. The leader of the pressure group NVALA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) Mary Whitehouse states her case. When Barker is given the floor, rude interruptions (including some from a clergyman!) prevent him from getting out a single statement. The documentary also contains testimony in which judges were said to have proceeded directly from unproven charges to a guilty verdict. It is reported that various Parliamentary shenanigans were utilized to sidestep debate on the proposed Video Recordings Act.
Mostly we become aware of the way reactionary groups eager to promote a spurious agenda latch onto whatever sensation becomes available. After a newspaper opinion piece is illustrated with a cartoon of a horned devil watching a Television, the witch hunters add themes of demonic possession and Satanism to their rhetoric. The entire episode is case of national vigilantism run amuck.
The docu is slickly produced and mostly successful. Visual gimmicks added to the images serve a real purpose, as when the quality of the video we see is reduced to a 5th-generation VHS recording. We're told that the anti-Nasty pundits actually believed they were seeing real killings on screen; when phony or amateurish makeup effects are screened in such deteriorated condition, they suddenly seem much more convincing. Docu director Jake West is fair to all of his interview subjects, even the pro-crackdown officials that now view themselves as righteous saviors of the realm. But some of the docu content hurtles along too quickly. The show could have used organizational chapters or another narrative device to keep the viewer aware of the chronology of events and to help place them in a cause-and-effect pattern.
And as a last thought, statements in the epilogue express the hope that the truth about Video Nasties will keep people on their guard against ignorant campaigns with ulterior motives -- in this case the making of political careers, the elimination of business competition and the ruin of liberal values. The problem is that this docu is mainly geared toward fans of gore horror -- no mainstream or conservative viewer would sit through a video that contains clips from the Video Nasty films themselves. Only confirmed horror-heads will venture beyond the sensational cover art. To actually advance awareness of the important issues at stake, another approach will be required. 1
Proving that the target audience for the DVD set is nostalgic VHS fans, Disc One finishes with a seemingly endless parade of animated video logos from dozens of obscure/familiar video companies -- 53 minutes' worth. It staggers me that there are Video Nasty fans out and about that have seen ALL of this stuff, and recognize most of the logos presented.
Discs 2 and 3 at first appear to contain long stacks of video trailers, but they're really a comprehensive encyclopedic resource to the 72 official Video Nasty titles. Disc two covers the 39 'depraved, corrupt' titles that remained on the list through the life of the Video Recordings Act, and Disc three moves on to the 33 other movies that were banned and eventually acquitted. 2 Each title comes with a introduction by a noted commentator, and most are thoughtful and informative. Emily Booth and Kim Newman have a major presence. Abel Ferrara biographer Brad Stevens details the amusing Driller Killer.
Pictures as unpalatable as Faces of Death are given reasoned consideration. We also find that Harvey Weinstein's first film production is on the Video Nasty list. One can skip the trailers if desired, as many do not flinch from the strongest gore content. Then again, another viewing choice allows the intros to be skipped, should you want to invite dear old Mary Whitehouse over to enjoy the trailers uninterrupted. Oops, too late for that idea.
One cute detail -- Severin Films joins in the fun of the Video Nasty era by inventing its own cheesy animated VHS logo for the front of the show. You will BELIEVE (for a moment) that you are watching a ratty rare video (that some fans still collect).
Severin Films and Nucleus Films' DVD of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is indeed custom-suited for fans and collectors of this era of sleazy horror. And they're indeed nasty; included are the notorious cannibal pictures and other frolics in appalling sadism that won't find a welcome in this film critic's personal house of horrors. Video Nasties are the life's blood of the current crop of film enthusiasts, and I know more than one English gorehound that is an expert on them. During those years I was a young father, and remember distinctly having to explain to my 2 year-old daughter a large billboard showing a man with an axe, carrying a woman's severed head by the hair. Maniac isn't an official Video Nasty, but I am told that it was banned in England just the same.
My love for horror rests in a more refined time when the genre could be more likened to art filmmaking, but that's my particular burden to bear. I do remember seeing Snuff advertised in a local Los Angeles newspaper, only to be pulled before it was shown (I think). And I distinctly remember crashing a special screening at MGM, when Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale showed the one ratty print that could be found of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The purpose was to introduce Steven Spielberg to Tobe Hooper, and his movie. I excused myself shortly after the lights came up, but not before the meeting that was to lead to the production of Poltergeist. For that matter, I later edited a horror movie with Chain Saw acting alumnus Marilyn Burns. I'd have to call it less of a Video Nasty than a Video Negligible.
Severin has also just announced new Blu-rays for July of Bloody Birthday, The Baby and the notable Video Nasty Bloody Moon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
2. I can't wait to remind friend Craig Reardon that Margaret Thatcher considered him a depraved, corrupt criminal, for his makeup work on Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse. Actually, the list of respectable filmmakers and artisans tainted by the Brit censors on this issue is by no means a short one.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.