The lost relics of the video nasties era

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While the video nasties era may be over, many films fell through the cracks, never getting the recognition they deserved.

It’s striking to think that, in the era of horror we currently find ourselves in, there was ever a period where the genre was policed so heavily. Modern horror truly encapsulates the gamut of fear-rending imagery, from the toe-curling shocks of the Conjuring films to the very literal tongue-curling brutality of Spiral: From The Book Of Saw.

But in the 1980s, the BBFC clamped down on the genre in a campaign of censorship unlike any other, using the Obscene Publications Act 1959 to outlaw 72 films, making them unable to legally obtain in the United Kingdom. Followed by the Video Recordings Act 1984, all films released in the UK needed to carry a BBFC certificate to make their way into cinemas or store shelves – meaning anything the BBFC deemed ‘obscene’ could simply disappear from the cultural milieu.


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This meant filmmakers trying to push the boundaries of what horror cinema could achieve faced monumental pushback from regulatory bodies, restricting their output significantly. This widespread period of horror erasure left some crucial touchstones of the genre out of the conversation, with the BBFC itself even claiming its restrictions to be “the strictest in the world”.

Some of the early blueprints for contemporary horror were seized by police and locked away, resigning the genre to a period of conservatism and stagnation that greatly hindered artistic expression.

While the video nasties era may be over, many films fell through the cracks, never getting the recognition they deserved once restrictions started lifting at the BBFC in 1999 and the early 2000s.

A particularly high-profile example that wasn’t prosecuted by the BBFC, but was outlawed, is Tobe Hooper’s 1974 genre classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The film earnestly paved the way for decades of slashers to come, perfecting the horror iconography of Leatherface, years before Freddy and Jason made their way onto screens.

Yet its quality didn’t save it from the censors’ reach, as BBFC director Stephen Murphy refused the film classification the year following its release. His successor, James Ferman, was asked to reconsider its ban twice in the late 70s, but refused to veto the decision both times, describing the film as “pornography of terror”, due to the implied violence and the marketing’s focus on it being based on real events.

It got a home video release in 1981, prior to the 1984 Video Recordings Act, when once again it was removed from shelves.

Lingering in the hovels of uncertainty, the film was fleetingly screened to Camden Council in 1998, and granted a license only to allow it to be shown at late night screenings in the borough. This was seen as a way in for a wider release for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Asked once more to reconsider its ban now it was screening in Camden. The BBFC ultimately passed the film uncut in March 1999, meaning 25 years after its original release, it was finally available legally, to all audiences in Britain.

The fate of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was much more favourable than other so-called video nasties of the time. Its legacy was ensured thanks to a bevy of sequels and contemporary remakes, which kept the franchise in the public eye and preserved the reputation of the original film – meaning now, it has arguably made up for the lost time while it was banned.

Other banned films were far from that lucky, and still find themselves forgotten in a mist of conservative outrage and BBFC heavy-handedness.

One such case is The Driller Killer, a 1979 horror directed by and starring vintage Italian filmmaker Abel Ferrara. He plays Reno Miller, a deranged artist who undertakes a killing spree using the eponymous drill in question. The film’s visceral portrayal of violence made it a target for the BBFC, with tight close-ups on Reno’s killings, lashings of blood and gore when the drill hits its targets, and even a visceral eye-gouging sequence.

Yet rather than the content of the film itself, it was the video cover itself that landed The Driller Killer on the ‘prosecuted films’ list. The film’s UK distribution, Vipco, printed full-page advertisements for the film of a drill going through a man’s head, which attracted the attention of the Advertising Standards Agency. Following this controversy – with the image deemed far too gory for mainstream publications to print – the film was banned in July 1983.

It’s an interesting case where those who campaigned for the film’s prohibition hadn’t actually seen it, but instead based their ire on The Driller Killer’s promotional material. When it did finally release in 2002, it fell completely by the wayside, with a 2012 remake, Driller Killer E2, equally failing to make an impact. Any momentum the film carried in the 1980s was heavily damaged by its lengthy and unjust ban.

Yet perhaps the most notorious video nasty is the infamous Cannibal Holocaust, directed by Ruggero Deodato.

It’s a film that pioneered the found-footage sub-genre, later popularised by The Blair Witch Project. The film marketing talked about real violence, real death, and real gore. Of course, little of this was true, but it didn’t stop the acerbic buzz around the film focusing on the arrest of Deodato, suspected of having killed the film’s leads on-camera after they weren’t seen once shooting wrapped.

While the claims of real-life murder on the big screen were false, large swathes of the film’s animal cruelty, including actual murder of animals, was true, and the censors didn’t take kindly to it. Cannibal Holocaust was one of the main video nasties to get prosecuted and banned, and even to this day, no uncensored cut exists on the UK market, with a 2001 cut chopping off six minutes, and a 2011 cut removing 15 seconds.

It best encapsulates the mania around this time, drumming up significant buzz around films that otherwise would’ve ended up as niche horror flick. While its UK ban didn’t entirely deter Cannibal Holocaust’s legacy, it set a trend where horror filmmakers attempting to do something brazen and unique were simply shut out – and it’s no surprise that it took over a decade until the found-footage genre settled into the mainstream with The Blair Witch Project.

It’s very easy to look back on these examples and scoff, safe in the assumption that films that challenge the status quo now get the wide releases they need. Yet one of Deodato’s filmmaking admirers, Eli Roth, has proven first-hand that while the video nasties era is dead, the censorship around horror isn’t. His 2007 film Hostel: Part II is an undeniably brittle and gruesome film, but MPs around the time of its release considered labelling it “extreme pornography”, making the film illegal to possess in the UK.

Once again, it was a case where the ringleader, MP Charles Walker, hadn’t even seen the film, but teetered with the idea of making it criminal to view. Of course, this was over a decade ago, but the eerie footprint of the video nasties era still lingers, and the threat they pose on artistic expression remains a pointed concern.

For every widespread box-office success in the 1980s – think Aliens, The Terminator and The Empire Strikes Back – there was a smaller, lower-budget horror flick ruled illegal to watch and experience. Filmmakers’ visions were snubbed by governing bodies who blamed cinema for societal ills, ignoring the real world and pinning it on the big screen. We can be grateful that this period of filmic censorship is over, but we can never rest on our laurels, as the ugly imprint of the video nasties epidemic will never truly disappear – and the legacies of those banned films will perhaps never be realised.

Lead image: BigStock


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