It’s a measure of just how damn compelling Nucleus Films’ 3-disk Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide package is that, deep as I am within the pre-Zipangu Fest organisational maelstrom, barely 3 days after getting my long-delayed copy in the post, I’m already about 75% of the way through its 13+ hour running time. For those that haven’t heard anything about it yet, the centrepiece of this monumental release is the feature-length doc Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Video Tape, directed by Jake West (Razor Blade Smile, Evil Aliens), with its cornucopia of extras including over 8 hours worth of trailers of the infamous banned films from the 1980s, each introduced by such luminaries of the horror field as Kim Newman, Allan Bryce, Alan Jones, Julian Petley and Stephen Thrower. I missed the main documentary when it premiered at London’s FrightFest at the end of this summer, but as those who’ve already seen it will tell you, it most certainly warrants repeat visits and, even if it didn’t, the overall package is well worth it for the extras alone.
Nucleus Films' Video Nasties cover art by the legendary Graham Humphreys
I really can’t emphasise too much how great this release is, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, it provides a nostalgic parade of guilty pleasures for those who were around during the era. Secondly, it’s simply a wonderful piece of social history, focussing on a time when movies were increasingly more likely to be seen in one’s living room than in actual cinemas, resulting in probably the most dramatic shift in consumption patterns in film history – a fact hard to appreciate in these days when streamable live-video is readily available in the palm of your hand. One also forgets how utterly sleazy the early unregulated videotape industry was in terms of marketing its product, with fly-by-night distribution companies cropping up all over the country trying to make a quick buck out of films that had had little commercial currency theatrically with some deliciously lurid ad campaigns such as Go Video’s ones for Cannibal Holocaust and SS Experiment Camp that ultimately landed the whole industry in hot water. And finally, it presents a terrifying wake-up call as to the processes by which the media can whip up a hysterical panic around a certain phenomenon, around which careerist politicians swiftly rally like flies to a dog turd and hurriedly force through unworkable, impracticable, and, as it turns out, legally unenforceable legislation with little regard as to how it will be implemented, totally bypassing all existing systems in hope of easy political victories.
Go Video's infamous box art for Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust
It might seem overly dramatic comparing the suppression of cheapjack Z-grade horror videos with, as many have done, the Nazi party’s notorious book-burning sessions of the early 1930s, but let us not forget, numerous businesses were closed down and people landed up in prison during the 1980s just for renting out videos of films that even their makers didn’t take seriously. Given the numerous other civil liberty abuses during this last period of Tory government, notably the vulgar overuse of police power during the Miner’s Strikes, it’s no wonder that a good number of people were very concerned, and we forget history’s lessons out our peril.
Sergio Garrone's SS Experiment Camp, one of a number of Nazi-themed softcore woman in prison flicks from Italy that were far more offensive in concept than in practice
The final irony about this whole hysterical period was last year’s revelation that the Video Recordings Act of 1984 was never referred to the European commission, and thus legally unenforceable (you can read more about this in an article for the Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Video Recordings Act was a blank tape’ by Julian Petley, one of the talking heads in West’s documentary) – a cold crumb of comfort for figures such as David Grant, who from 3rd February 1984 was sentenced to 12 months in prison for distributing Romano Scavolini’s shoddy slasher Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981) through his company World of Video 2000, a title now readily available on DVD for less than a tenner. (Pornographer Grant unfortunately didn’t live long enough to hear the punchline to this bitter joke, dying in “mysterious circumstances” in 1991).
The tape inlay for the video that saw its distributor David Grant spend a year in prison
Sprawled out on the sofa with a bottle of red wine, wilfully submitting myself to the deluge of grainy trailers of films largely long-consigned to the dustbin of history, took me right back to my teenage years. It also highlighted to me just how many film critics and film makers active today were seduced into cinephilia by the alluring illegality of such films as Last House on the Left, The Gestapo’s Last Orgy and The Werewolf and the Yeti. For someone growing up in the cultural backwaters of North Devon, where I recall one Summer the single screen of Barnstaple’s Astor Cinema (my only one within a 20 mile radius) was occupied for several months by the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito vehicle Twins, the frisson of trawling around second-hand record shops and car boot sales and coming away with films such as Zombie Holocaust or Nightmare Maker, acquired for a few quid to be sold on through the underground subcultural network of pre-cert VHS traders for around £20-30, was irresistible. From a chance encounter with a guy in my local video shop in the mid-80s who was rumoured to posses an original Vipco release of Fulci’s Zombie Flesheaters (the cut version minus the eyeball-skewering, alas…), I was hooked.
Nasty or silly? Paul Naschy's wolfman hits the Himalayas in this obscure Spanish monster movie banned for "obscenity" in Britain during the 1980s
It wasn’t long before I was immersed within an underground sub-culture of tape-trading and fanzines such as Shock Xpress and, my own personal fave, Samhain, produced just down the road in Exeter. Rather than the blood-crazed, semi-literate gorehounds one might have been led to believe contributed to such publications, their writers were unexpectedly literate, incisive and often political too. Many of them, such as Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower, are now very well-known even outside genre circles, and can be seen offering their opinions and observations in the various documentaries on the Nucleus Films disks. Through such writers I learned about auteur theory by way of the films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava; I was introduced to the films of Nagisa Oshima and Pier Paolo Pasolini; and was even slipped such highbrow concepts as Brechtian distantiation techniques through analyses of faux-documentaries such as Cannibal Holocaust. In short, I learned about the history of whole new cinematic cultures previously unacknowledged by mainstream critics. My other bible was The Aurum Film Encyclopedia of Horror, edited by Phil Hardy, which sat proudly alongside the battered copy of Dennis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies bequeathed to me when I was about eight.
William Asher's Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1983), released in the UK as Nightmare Maker, and actually a pretty decent film from what I remember.
I developed a ‘gotta-catch-them-all’ approach to horror cinema due to these books and magazine, in particular the seventy or so titles on the Video Nasties list, which in turn led to an exploration of the wider world of uncertified, pre-Video Recordings Act exploitation releases. Should I wear it like a badge of honour that I’d trawled though 75% of SF Brownrigg’s oeuvre before I got round to watching Citizen Kane? Probably not. Or that I could reel off whole filmographies, complete with original Italian language titles and years, of directors such as Bruno Mattei and Umberto Lenzi (I can’t any more, sadly, and probably the reason I fared so dismally in my A-levels), or that I can attribute a large part of my current fascination with Japanese cinema after being lured to a double bill of Violated Angels and The Ballad of Narayama at the Scala in 1990 only due to the fact that the former was included, rather curiously, in Hardy’s book (even then I had a sneaking suspicion that Imamura’s was by far the more superior film…)
Unhinged (Don Gronquist, 1982) - a real snore
My tastes moved on pretty quickly in the early 1990s, away from cinema altogether for a brief few years if I’m honest, mainly due to the difficulties in finding kindred spirits during my flat-sharing (and by extension, VCR-sharing) university years. My completist goal of trawling through all of the nasties came to an abrupt end after forking out £25 for an original of Unhinged, a film that, like so many on the list, had little to recommend it beyond a few brief scenes of unconvincing splattery bloodshed. I did manage to stumble across an original of Terror Eyes, the UK retitling of an undistinguished slasher movie originally released as Night School starring Rachel Ward and helmed by Ken Hughes (the director of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), which I picked up for a couple of quid in Leamington Spa in 1993, but by this time I’d long lost touch with my old trading partners and was unable to liquidise this asset.
I think that it shortly after this point that I threw away my entire VHS collection and embarked on a new globe-trotting stage of my life. Outside the repressive censorship climate of the UK, I found many of the forbidden fruits of my youth freely available to rent from video stores in Canada, Holland and Japan, but by this time my interests had more or less wandered elsewhere.
Poor White Trash II (1974), a.k.a. Scum of the Earth by the archtypal obscure exploitation auteur S.F. Brownrigg. I don't think this ever made the official list, but you wouldn't get away with a cover like this nowadays!
(to be continued….)
More details about this wonderful package on Nucleus Film’s website, or grab yourself a copy from Amazon here.
Original covers for Video Nasties can be found on this website here.