Saturday, January 1, 2011

A Warning from History

VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE (2010)

Italian Lucio Fulci could boast three titles on the DPP Video Nasties list: ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (released in 1979 and on the list from October 1983 to December 1985), THE BEYOND (1981, November 1983 to April 1985) and THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981, November 1983 to December 1985).

IN early 1980s Britain, Margaret Thatcher found an escape clause for broken public spirit in the twisted world of VHS horror. These often poorly made features - mostly from America and Italy - could hardly raise to the expectations of their own garish box art, but there was no censorship, classification or regulation for the home video market, and items could be bought or rented from almost anywhere: newsagents, garages, even butchers and barbers. The Daily Mail published comment headers with such lurid headlines as "Rape of our children's minds", and the Daily Mirror published a report of sexual attacks on ponies where the Police stated that the acts "could have been caused by video nasties or a new moon." Not surprisingly, the country's social problems didn't disappear with the removal of these films, and the BBFC eventually allowed them to be presented either uncut or in more complete forms.

The hysteria over the Video Nasty scare was a melting pot of patronising lobbyists, tabloid sensationalism, clueless politicians and an out-of-their-depths Scotland Yard (who seized by mistake titles like APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), THE BIG RED ONE (1980), and THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (1982)). The mere act of selling or owning a suspected video on the infamous Director of Public Prosecutions banned list(s) became an extremely dangerous business, and this convoluted debacle is expertly portrayed in Jake West's documentary, which was first shown at FrightFest 2010. In no way is this piece merely for horror fans; it is required viewing for every politician, policeman, lawyer, sociologist and media studies student in the land, and should act as both a lesson and a warning on the very nature of censorship and civil liberty. Especially revelatory here is that the Video Recordings Act 1984 was never officially presented to the European Commission, therefore it was not enforceable in law: a particular hard pill to swallow for the people who suffered jail sentences, fines, or had their collections or stock incinerated in an event that was the 1980s equivalent of a Nazi book burning.

The self-appointed Guardian of National Morals - Mary Whitehouse - was particularly thankful for the Video Nasties panic, as it gave her a topic which people knew even less about than she did. Whitehouse never felt the need to actually investigate the material she deplored: "I have never seen a Video Nasty. I wouldn't ... I actually don't need to see visually what I know is in that film."

West may be better known as a director, but he also has a prolific concurrent career in promotional and featurette material, having been responsible for many of the extras on Region 2 DVDs. As such, he’s on familiar ground getting people talking about horror movies; contemporary directors like Neil Marshall and Christopher Smith alternate comments with genre critics such as Alan Jones, Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower. The most remarkable and powerful contribution, however, comes from lecturer and author Martin Barker, who recalls in moving detail the widespread condemnation he received for standing up to the charade, and even more notably, illustrates the magnitude of exaggerations and lies on which the campaign was built.

The documentary is not a loaded argument in favour of the nasties - it doesn't need to be. Peter Kruger - head of the Obscene Publications Squad at Scotland Yard between 1981-84 - and MP for Luton South Graham Bright - whose Private Members Bill directly lead to the VRA - are afforded equal screen time to illustrate their ignorance. Bright is an absolute goldmine; not only does him condemn the films as "evil" (at which point the documentary mutes into a wonderful faux Public Information Film where Emily Booth is bound, gagged and consumed by videotape), he acknowledges the whole snuff movie concept as fact, having "no doubt...that was exactly what was happening." And in the jaw-dropping highlight, Bright is seen in archival footage championing unfinished research that "will show that these films not only effect young people but I believe they effect dogs as well." 

One of the most notorious titles on the DPP's list, Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, was pre-cut by Go prior to its February 1982 video debut. The film still contained enough on-screen carnage (and marketing to match) to make sure this cover adorned most of the press outrage against the nasties. Go were not shy of promoting their release, even issuing free beer mats featuring this artwork to public houses.

As the documentary clearly shows, the early 1980s were not engulfed in the corporate mentality of today. The distribution of the nasties was viewed with suspicion by major studios, who rather than seeing the home market as an avenue for their product, instead treated the medium as a threat to their box office and TV revenue. Consequently, the majority of titles being released in the video explosion were low-budget exploitation, simply because they were the only titles most of the companies could afford to acquire. The intense competition was increased by the number of black market bootlegs, and the fight for shelf space equated to a blood-red marketing war: release your films under the most lurid packaging possible, regardless of accuracy to the film itself. Whatever happened with the whole video nasty phenomenon, it can be said that with such demented designs, the distributors should have seen it coming.

In a by-product to the VRA, the Video Packaging Review Committee was introduced in 1987. Formed as the result of another overblown reaction - this time to Michael Ryan's gun spree in Hungerford - the VPRC's brief was to ensure that such gaudy video covers would never be seen in Britain again. Problems with such marketing had been alerted by a May 1982 report by The Advertising Standards Authority - who specifically cited Go Video's full-page ads for SS EXPERIMENT CAMP (1976) and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979) in Television and Video Retailer and Music & Video Week - and it is ironic that the eye-popping artwork that had been so detrimental in the success of the videos would prove to be the initiator of their downfall.