I just got back from a two week camping road trip (I did not follow the warnings). Since it left little time for movie watching or writing, I figured this would be a good time to start a little series I’ve been planning for a while but never got around to writing. So sit back and enjoy (?) the first plunge into the world of The Video Nasties.
For those who don’t know, Video Nasties is a term coined by the British media in the early ‘80’s. Specifically, the term refers to a list of 72 (mostly) horror movies that were banned by the British government for being "obscene". More generally, it refers to the entire misguided moral crusade to save England’s children (and adults) from the damaging and dehumanizing effects of horror movies. The movement is roughly equivalent to the PMRC’s fight against rap music and obscene lyrics in the States. In other words, it was a witch hunt designed to give the appearance that the government was looking after the public without actually having to help in any way. It all began with the rise of the VCR and the sudden availability of gritty, post-Vietnam era horror movies like DRILLER KILLER and LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Stuffy, old, moral conservatives like Mary Whitehouse heard about these films(she certainly didn’t watch any of them) and started a movement that led some equally conservative (and opportunistic) members of Parliament to create a list of movies deemed so obscene that retailers could be prosecuted for selling them. All of their research was unscientific and biased. For instance, they would poll a small group of kids on the playground and ask them if they had seen any of these horrible, forbidden movies. Of course they are going to say they have seen them. They want to sound cool and brave in front of their friends. The researcher might have well asked if they were scaredy pants little babies who do everything their parents tell them. No matter that the kids couldn’t recount the details of the movies or even get the names right. They were clearly being corrupted by works of fiction.
As with most moral crusades like this, the Video Nasties scare just sort of petered out after a while as society’s values and priorities changed. Most movies on the list are now available in the UK completely uncut. About the only thing it succeeded in was to leave a sense of mystique and social disobedience surrounding the original 72 films on the list. In many cases it’s way more than the movies deserved, but there is something undeniably cool and transgressive about being singled out by an ultra-conservative government as being bad for society. They were like Pokémon for the serious British horror movie fan in the ‘80’s, you had to collect them all.
Being an American kid, I missed out on all of this first hand. I only became aware of the phenomenon in the late ‘80’s after watching an episode of The Yong Ones (kind of a small screen UK version of ANIMAL HOUSE) in which the lads rented a VCR and planned to spend the night watching an orgy of sex and violence. They never got the chance to watch any movies, and the only one they mentioned by name was fake, but it was enough to make me curious. I was just getting into horror at that point, and the idea that there were movies that the government (or a government) didn’t want me to watch was irresistibly intriguing. This was pre-Internet days, so for the longest time, I had no idea what films were on the Video Nasties list. That just made the mystery sweeter. It was probably for the best. I was a lightweight back then, and watching something like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST would have left me rocking in a corner. Not that I would have been able to find it even if I knew what to look for. Living in a small Southern town with only a couple of video stores, the best I could get was the censored Blockbuster version of EVIL DEAD (unbeknownst to me; I did a legitimate spit take when I saw the full strength vine scene years later).
Even now, it’s relatively hard to find all the movies on the list. Thanks to niche market distributors like Shout Factory, Synapse, Arrow, and Code Red, a lot of the films have fancy Blu Ray releases, but there are still a few that aren’t readily available in any format. I haven’t even seen all of them. I thought I had, but it turns out what I assumed was Jess Franco’s WOMEN BEHIND BARS was in fact, Jess Franco’s BARB WIRE DOLLS, which he made at the same time with the same people, pretty much about the same thing. Jess Franco did that a lot.
These movies may be a kind of cinematic Holy Grail for me, but even I have to admit, some of them are garbage. I’m not talking about the entertaining kind of garbage, either. I think that’s why I’ve seen so many people start a Video Nasties review project only to let it go to seed five or six films in. There are a lot of total bummers on the list. Worse yet, there are a bunch that are straight up boring. Taken as a whole, the Video Nasties list is a fascinating subject. Movie by movie, it can be a slog. That’s why I’m breaking them into easily digestible chunks. Actually, a few of these chunks I wouldn’t recommend digesting at all. Maybe just give them a sniff and slide them directly into the trash.
It’s not all bad, though. Not even mostly bad, really. There are more than a few legit masterpieces on the list. I already mentioned Sam Rami’s debut film, EVIL DEAD. Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION is a Cannes Film Festival award winner. Believe it or not, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is actually a very well made movie. It’s really hard to make jokes about it, though, so I’m not about to write a whole piece on it. The crazy, unusual, or fun films will get their own posts eventually. Several already have (CANNIBAL TERROR, DON’TGO IN THE WOODS, INFERNO). The rest will get a sentence or two in this series. That is at least one sentence more generous than some deserve.
Let’s get the worst offenders out of the way first: Naziploitation. I have a question, History of Cinema: What the fuck, dude? Can there possibly be a more unseemly subject? Naziploitation films are essentially Women in Prison films, but with even less dignity. They are all about Nazis doing terrible things to almost exclusively women concentration camp prisoners. Movies about talking anal warts would be more wholesome than these. The sub-genre has it's roots in the much more artsy and narratively complex Nazi movies like THE DAMNED, THE NIGHT PORTER, and the utterly revolting SALO. The success of those movies led to cheap knock-off versions which ditched the pretense of art and just went for the subterranean sleaze. Four of them made it to the Video Nasties list: SS EXPERIMENT CAMP, GESTAPO’S LAST ORGY, LOVE CAMP 7, and (shudder) BEAST IN HEAT. The titles alone are enough to make you feel unclean. The only redeeming factor is that they are so incompetently made that they are not the slightest bit realistic. Prisoners are tortured by rats which are clearly guinea pigs painted black. German Shepherds look more eager to play fetch with inmates than terrorize them. Peter Seller’s Nazi scientist from DR. STRANGELOVE comes off as nuanced and understated compared to the overacting nitwit villains in these movies. The bad guys always get their gruesome and well deserved comeuppance in the end, but it’s not worth having to suffer through the first hour to get there. Unless you are a completest, and a seriously dedicated one at that, there is no reason to ever subject yourself to these movies. This comes from a person who owns CANNIBAL TERROR on Blu Ray. If I’m saying don’t bother. Trust.
On the bright side, that is the bottom of the barrel. Everything else on the list is a cake walk. I’m not guaranteeing the quality of the cake, but at least it is not covered in filth and rats. Or guinea pigs.
That’s four scratched off, three previously reviewed, and sixty-five left to go. Tune in for Part 2, whenever I get around to it.