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Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide
Awful politicians do awful things
Loves: Documentaries, my VHS childhood
Likes: Cult indie films
Dislikes: Gross-out horror, obsessive fans
Hates: Censorship, politicians
If you're at all politically aware as an American, it's hard not to be incredibly frustrated by the politicians elected to represent the people in government. Once in a grand while they do something right, but most of the time they are just pandering or working for the lobbyists, when they aren't being straight-up corrupt. Now, I suppose it could be worse. We could have proud crack-smoking mayors like our neighbors to the north, or we could go back and experience what was going on in the early ‘80s in England, where a tabloid-influenced public and Parliament, spurred on by an old biddy (impossibly-) named Mary Whitehouse, turned the sale of horror films into a crime, thanks to an official list of 72 "video nasties," home video releases that were banned by order of the government.
This documentary, cultivated by director Jake West (Razor Blade Smile, The ABCs of Death) and documentary producer Marc Morris, explores the origins of the movement ( including the forces behind it,) the results and the legacy, via interviews with people in and around the industry and a ton of archival news footage, as well as a bunch of clips from the movies in question. The most interesting involvement has to be on the part of the politicians and police who were behind the crackdown, a flawed operation at best. Despite its utter failure and incredibly corrupt story, they stand by it, talking with something akin to pride. One made-for-FOX-News MP, Graham Bright, who at one point passed a bill against the videos, saying uncompleted research would show that the films were dangerous not only to children by dogs as well, laughs about the whole thing, despite people going to prison and losing their livelihoods.
The assortment of experts interviewed offers a fine swath of perspectives, including critics from several British outlets, a lawyer who argued against the cases brought under the bill, modern directors influenced by the films (including Neil Marshall (The Descent) and Chris Smith (Severence,)) and a number of academics, most importantly Martin Barker, who was the editor of the 1984 book Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media. Barker, who was one of the few people outside of the video industry arguing against the bill, is seen going head-to-head with Whitehouse in archival footage; and puts the most perfect button possible on the film with his brilliant closing comments.
West puts a lot of style into telling the story of the video nasties, implementing a wealth of source footage (often featuring people who were interviewed for this film almost 30 years after their TV appearances) and includes footage from the classic sitcom The Young Ones, which had an episode farcically centered on video nasties. West also uses plenty of news clippings (The Daily Mail plays a large role in the whole fiasco), created a fake PSA warning about the dangers of the accused genre, and worked in some visual tricks to recall the quality of the videos at the center of the controversy. But at just 72 minutes (though an appropriate number), this movie moves quickly and there are plenty of people to hear from with an opinion or experiences from the time, so there's not a lot of dawdling. The only thing it doesn't do in that time span is explain much about the films in question. If only there were people who might want to discuss the 72 video nasties...
The film arrives as part of a three-disc set, which is packed into a double-width keepcase, with the second and third discs on overlapping hubs. The DVDs feature animated, anamorphic-widescreen menus with options to play all the content, select scenes and check out the bonus content (however, the select scenes only lets you choose between the documentary and one of the extras. There are no chapters availables.) There are no audio options, nor are there subtitles or closed captioning. In a nice touch, the disc opens with an FBI warning and a special Severin Films logo that fit the era of the subject matter, complete with tracking adjustments.)
There's a whole lot going on in the anamorphic widescreen transfer for this film, from new (well, as of 2010) interviews, to old archival TV footage to clips from ‘80s VHS films, and though there's some manipulation at times to make things look older and less hi-fi than it should, on the whole the movie looks solid, with appropriate color and fleshtones, solid black levels and no issues with compression artifacts. Though dirt and damage is inherent in the old films, the new footage is clean and offers a rather high level of fine detail (enough that as one attempts to read the box spines in the backgrounds of the interviews, most are quite legible.
Though the box says it's a mono track here, the disc reads as having Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. Don't expect anything too dynamic about this mix, but everything is rather clean and free of distortion, with the biggest negative perhaps being one of two interviews sounding echo-y (which is likely due to how they were recorded more than anything. This is standard documentary sound, with some very low-budget sound in the old film clips, but nothing stands out as an issue.
The first disc throws in a few extras, starting with the "Ident-a-thon" a 53:09 reel of company logo screens from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. As an American, this is interesting to see, as 90 percent of these animations (most of which are just so ‘80s) are likely a new experience, but one has to believe if maybe it had a few American logos it would have carried more of a nostalgic value.
Also available to check out on the first disc is an automatic 9:24 gallery of box art from 82 horror films that weren't mentioned in the film (because they weren't on the video nasties list) but which were still sometimes seized by police. There are some truly memorable designs in this collection.
Now, about those 72 video nasties… Though the documentary is solid, this is where this set truly shines. Split between the second and third discs are trailers or TV ads for all 72 films, including titles like The Evil Dead, Driller Killer, Snuff, Faces of Death, Cannibal Holocaust, Andy Warhol's Frankenstein, I Spit on Your Grave, Tenabrae and Last House on the Left, separated between those permanently banned under the bill and those that were at one time banned under it (and then sorted alphabetically.) This is a rather terrific resource in and of itself, as there's a lot of rarities included, and all are in at least good shape, but the real draw is that each film receives a video introduction by one or more expert in the field (all of whom are British (or in Britain), since this is a British story.)
These range from a brief few minutes for some of the less memorable films to more extensive discussions, and together, the complete set of intros and trailers runs seven hours and 28 minutes. There's a ton of great info in these pieces, from why the films were censored to critical assessments to interesting bits of trivia (like one film being the first effort from the famed Weinstein brothers.) Not everyone from the documentary is here (Marshall has gone missing, but has been replaced by well-known horror director Ruggero Deodato), and most of the presenters are entertaining, especially critics Kim Newman and Alan Jones and author Stephen Thrower, a trio who would have been great covering every movie. Though some of the participants are a bit smug and are trying a touch too hard, only one, model/actress/presenter Emily Booth, is a total dud, as she's in full TV presenter mode, whereas most everyone else is just an enthusiastic fan.
Also included on Discs Two and Three are automatic galleries of the box art for the movies spotlighted on each.
The Bottom Line
There's a real wave of nostalgia for the VHS era of horror right now, with several documentaries making their way out lately, but Video Nasties has a different perspective, focusing on the politics that surrounded the genre in England in the early ‘80s, which makes for an interesting film for American fans to explore. But however interesting the documentary is, it's the over seven hours of discussion on the films banned in Britain that makes this such a wonderful reference piece for fans of this cinematic realm. Severin is offering the package in fine condition and tosses in a few nice ephemeral extras in to sweeten the pot for horror and film fans who want to look back at a very different time for home video.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.