The film world in Britain during the early 80s was grim. Most of the grand cinema palaces of yesteryear were, if not already transformed into bingo halls, falling apart, offering a less-than-enticing combination of bad projection, uncomfortable, dirty seats and programmes which required the audience to sit through endless amounts of commercials and unwatchable travelogues before finally being allowed to see the main feature. With unemployment at an all-time high, people were more inclined to stay home and save their money, watching any of the three TV channels available until closedown before midnight.
Yet, as the decade began, an alternative appeared that would chance viewing habits forever. The video recorder. Although they’d been on the market for a few years, it was in 1980 that the VCR first began to be more than just a rich man’s toy. Although still relatively costly to buy, many electrical stores offered reasonable monthly rental schemes for VCR’s.
Seemingly overnight, every household in the country had a video recorder next to the TV and an expensive family night out at the pictures suddenly seemed less attractive when you could choose from a multitude of feature films for the same price and watch in the comfort of your own home, as the number of films available to buy or rent exploded.
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Most major distributors looked upon home video with suspicion, and were reluctant to release their biggest titles onto this new format when there was still money to be made from theatrical reissues, and so the rental shops which began to spring up on the high street were, for the most part, filled with low budget, independent films from a multitude of small distributors who appeared to cash in on the video boom. And it quickly became clear that there was a substantial audience for the material which the British Board of Film Censors had long fought to protect us from.
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The more lurid the cover art, the more sex and violence promised by the blurb, the more the public wanted it. Labels like Go Video, Astra, Intervision and Vipco emerged to release films from all over the world, with horror being the most reliable genre. Big hits were made out of films which had barely ever seen the light of a movie screen in the UK and directors such as Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci became as bankable in the VHS world as Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese. The video rental top ten was regularly packed with movies like I Spit On Your Grave, The Driller Killer and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Some of these were films which the BBFC had banned outright, heavily cut or which stood little chance of being passed if submitted for approval. But there was no compulsory censorship of video, so images that were forbidden in the cinema could be enjoyed in their full gory glory at home.
Fledgling video labels were buying up whatever salacious sounding titles that they could find and releasing them without even considering submitting them to the BBFC. And the British public could not get enough of it. Every street corner, it seemed, had a video shop. Even off-licences, newsagents and petrol stations got in on the action.
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Unfortunately, this frivolous phase of viewing freedom would not last.
It wasn’t long before rumours started spreading about the open availability of films showing extreme, explicit violence, torture and mutilation. Films too extreme even for an ‘X’ certificate were openly available to anyone, even children. The public could use the slow motion and pause buttons to get maximum perverse pleasure from their video sadism.
Worse still, it seemed that Cannibal Holocaust and SS Experiment Camp had apparently replaced balloon benders and clowns as a staple of children’s parties. Not innocent mind was safe from the onslaught of the ‘video nasties’, a term first used in the trade that would be a household word by 1982.
Once the press had their teeth into the story, there was no stopping them. “Ban the Sadist Videos!” screamed The Daily Mail, outlining the dangers that the uncensored world of home entertainment presented to the country’s moral fabric. Various politicians and pressure groups (not least Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association) were quick to take up the cause. Teachers groups expressed concern about the effect on impressionable children, and church groups were quick to complain too.
Faced with such moralistic pressure, the Director of Public Prosecutions agreed to the first obscenity charges to be brought against horror videos, and soon police forces up and down the country were carrying out random raids on shops, clearing the shelves of potentially obscene material.
As the whole concept of horror movies being “obscene” was so new, worried video shop owners had no idea which films they would be prosecuted for, so in an effort to clarify the situation the Department of Public Prosecutions issued a list of “nasties”, based on titles which had been successfully prosecuted or which were awaiting trial. The list would vary in length over the next few years, before settling on 39 movies.
In addition to the official Nasties list various local councils had their own selection of condemned videos to muddy the situation a little more. Shops found stocking the forbidden films during police raids – and police raids were a weekly occurrence – faced prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act.
When their day in court came most video shop owners pleaded no contest to the charges of issuing obscene material for gain in order to avoid a lengthy prison sentence – this meant that many movies were condemned as “obscene” without ever going before a jury, or even being watched by magistrates. Some distributors stopped distributing their horror titles in order to avoid the wrath of the DPP.
Ludicrously, one distributor, David Hamilton Grant was sentenced to six months in prison for refusing to edit violent footage from his World of Video 2000 VHS release of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, despite the fact that it was not even the uncut version he was distributing (as much as the retailers, the distributors often had no idea of which version of a film they’d released and, of course, had no way to know that horror films would suddenly fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act).
London based Palace Pictures pointed out the absurdity of travelling up and down the country to defend The Evil Dead – which was released on video in the BBFC X-rated cut version – against various local charges of obscenity, so had the case centralised to a court in the East end of London — where the film was found not guilty. This, however, did not prevent other police forces from continuing to seize the film.
An acquittal under the OPA did not necessarily set a national precedent, and local sensibilities would continue to come into play (though notably, a single conviction DID seem to set some sort of precedent, conveniently).
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The British Board of Film Censors, who had seen their income drop to rock bottom during the video boom, were quick to back up the dangers of an unregulated system of distribution. The BBFC were soon appointed by parliament to govern the classification of all films to be released on video in the UK.
The 1984 Video Recordings Act ensured that Britain would never again fall prey to the immoral whims of smut peddling distributors hungry to make a quick buck. Over the course of the next few years, all unclassified videos would be removed from the shelves of British video stores. By 1988, it was illegal to sell or rent an unclassified VHS tape.
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Of course, it was not only horror and sex films that were released without BBFC certificates but films from all genres, including even children’s films. Many smaller, well established shops had to remove the majority of their stock, forcing a large number out of business. Many distributors could not afford the high price of BBFC classification for their films — particularly if the censors then demanded cuts, as was often the case.
By this time, the major Hollywood producers had woken up to the money to be made from video, and the public increasingly had the chance to take home a recent blockbuster instead of an obscure 1970’s horror film. Most small labels simply vanished. The VRA ensured that it was no longer the little guy making the money from the video industry.
Amazingly, as the hysteria died down, BBFC head James Ferman still felt compelled to overprotect the public from the dangers of violent imagery. Even though they were never on any ‘video nasties’ lists he refused to grant BBFC certificates to numerous films, including The Exorcist, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Straw Dogs. He had various forbidden images such as nunchakus (chain sticks) and blood on breasts, which he considered to be a trigger image for would-be rapists.
Although the Video Recordings Act was brought in to combat violent video, he was even stricter on sexual images – female genitalia was forbidden, as was any sex act involving more than two people. “Instructional” drug use and criminal activity would be cut, to prevent ‘copycat’ crime. And of course, most horror films had to be cut. As a result a strong black market grew throughout the UK for pirate videos of uncut horror or sex videos, and a huge underground fan base emerged, with fanzines, books and film festivals keeping the cult of the nasties alive.
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Strangely, the British public didn’t seem to mind the nanny mentality, happy to believe that censorship of material freely available in the rest of Europe was for their own good. This belief was encouraged by the newspaper tabloids, who were only too keen to stoke up public hysteria by linking headline-grabbing crimes to video violence, be it the Hungerford massacre and Rambo, or the Jamie Bulger case and Child’s Play 3.
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However, times change, even in Britain, and with a new millennium came a new maturity. The public no longer seemed overly worried by horror videos – possibly because new bête noires like the internet and video games have taken their place. Once James Ferman resigned from the BBFC at the end of 1998, British film censorship turned over a new leaf.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Straw Dogs, The Exorcist and The Story of O – all considered threats to public safety by Ferman – quickly received uncut certificates. When challenged at appeal over their refusal to pass The Last House on the Left uncut, the BBFC were publicly forced to admit that there was no legal reason for them to arbitrarily cut films that were once banned as Video Nasties – something they had always claimed was a legal requirement they had no control over – and subsequently a lot of the nasties have now been passed uncut… some with a 15 certificate!
With one or two exceptions, Ferman’s immediate successor Robin Duval managed to erase the strict censorship regime which emanated from the Nasties scare and now it is relatively rare for a horror movie to be cut or banned to protect the impressionable minds of the British public.
There are, of course, still exceptions – The Human Centipede 2 was initially banned before finally being released with extensive cuts. But by and large, it is now acknowledged that horror films are not a threat to civilisation with even the likes of Blood Sucking Freaks receiving an uncensored UK release.
We perhaps shouldn’t be too complacent, given British history and the current moral panic that is once again gripping the country (this time aimed at internet filth, yet perhaps likely to mutate as the moralists look to assert control). Thankfully, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see a return to the dark days of moral panic and overt censorship that characterised the 1980s.
David Flint, Horrorpedia