The mythical side of the 1980s Video Nasty era

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
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Charlie Brigden reflects on the ‘Video Nasty’ era and his experiences watching horror films deemed too obscene for the screen…


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If you look back at the infamous ‘Video Nasty’ era of the 1980s, the newspaper headlines look a surprising amount like the media outrage of today. Back then,it was violent films; now, it seems to be any book that is even slightly LGBTQ+ friendly.

In either case, the remit appears to have come from Reverend Lovejoy’s wife Helen…

“Won’t somebody think of the children?”

That said, everyone knows that if you don’t want anyone to watch or read anything that contradicts your values, the last thing you should do is make a fuss about it – for example, DH Lawrence’s erotic novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence’s powerfully explicit work was initially published in Italy in the late 1920s before being reissued by Penguin in 1960. The UK government objected to this and charged Penguin with obscenity, but the publisher won the case and sold millions of copies after the trial.

A similar thing happened with the video nasties. In the late ’70s, the massive chunk of plastic known as the videotape began to gain popularity, with a sudden influx of titles that people could watch at home, in private. The horror. The government had not created any regulatory body for videos, unlike theatrical films, which were under the umbrella of the British Board of Film Censors. So, spurred on by the pressure group National Viewers and Listeners Association, led by Mary Whitehouse, they started to take a closer look.

At the same time, horror cinema had undergone a radical transformation, with a cavalcade of new filmmakers such as George A Romero and Wes Craven creating pictures fuelled by anger at social issues such as the Vietnam War. The famous Gothic horror films of Hammer Film Productions looked like Sunday matinees next to Night Of The Living Dead and The Last House On The Left. These pictures were low-budget and rough around the edges, but they were all set in contemporary times and brought horror to a level of realism that it had never reached before.

In the cinema, the BBFC refused certification for some of these films, notably The Last House On The Left, but there was no such barrier stopping people from watching them on video. The government cottoned on to this and created a list of films they believed contravened the Obscene Publications Act, which meant that the police could arrest and then prosecute video dealers for supplying them. By 1985, the BBFC had been renamed the British Board of Film Classification and would now also handle video under the Video Recordings Act.

All sorts of horror films disappeared from the market as a by-product of these new extended laws, but you could still read about them in books and magazines. I remember borrowing a large-format book from my local library at the age of ten or eleven called Horror Films, which the chief film critic of the Financial Times, Nigel Anderson, had written.

It was immediately fascinating, with a bright yet garish cover dominated by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre (1979), along with images from An American Werewolf In London (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1984), and another, albeit less-successful Wes Craven film, the comic adaptation Swamp Thing (1982). Inside was less an introduction to a genre and more a study of myth. Even at that young age, I’d already seen many of the films the book featured. Titles like Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966), Jaws (1975), and The Howling (1981), all of which I’d watched on television.

Evil Dead II

But some seemed less familiar and often appeared to have the most outrageous titles. Zombie Flesh Eaters (1980). Nightmares In A Damaged Brain (1981). The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Massacre. I barely knew what the word meant and only knew where Texas was from watching The Beverly Hillbillies, but it stood out in my mind. By the time I’d read the vivid description of the film, I had conjured up this idea of it being a blood-soaked orgy of dismemberment. I had to see it, even though I had no idea how to do it.

How does an eleven-year-old school child in England get hold of one of cinema’s most notorious horror films – one banned for being so violent? It didn’t help that a guy who worked for my dad, who was also a keen horror fan, kept telling me about it. He had loaned me a pre-certificate copy of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), which I’d already seen as an even younger child when my older sisters had rented a copy before the Video Recordings Act had taken effect.

I also learned from him about another film I’d read about in the Andrews book, a movie which – if possible – was even more corrupting and controversial than Tobe Hooper’s power-tool classic. That film was The Exorcist. Masturbation with a crucifix? Vomiting? Foul language? It was another instant legend for me to obsess over. Around the same time, I began to buy horror magazines like FEAR and Terror, the latter of which had a free poster of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that I proudly displayed on my bedroom wall.

Empire magazine had also become popular in the mainstream and so would occasionally cover movies like it. I remember looking in the back at the classifieds of people offering rare films and wondering if these might be a way to get hold of a copy. Although I doubt they’d accept a postal order from a teenager.

And then, a light shone on proceedings. Angela, a girl I had a crush on, knew of my need to see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and somehow managed to obtain a VHS tape, which she agreed to rent to me for a night – I think, for five pounds. Bargain! The tape she produced, which I remember had ‘A Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (sic) hastily scribbled on the label in biro, was of unsurprisingly poor quality – and was actually in black and white. Nevertheless, I was transfixed and quickly learned that – while this was not the out and out bloodbath I was expecting – it was no less terrifying for that.

Then a second miracle occurred when a friend got a copy of The Exorcist from his older brother. It too was of terrible quality, but at least it was in colour this time. It was another wholly transformative happening for my younger self, and by the end of it I didn’t quite know what I’d experienced. I knew enough to be disappointed when he had to take it back, though.

The Exorcist

The Exorcist

It wasn’t always as good as that, however, as around this time, video labels resubmitted some of the video nasties to the BBFC, with big cuts. I remember being excited that Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters was finally available after reading a paragraph in Andrews’ book about a horrifying sequence where a splinter pierces someone’s eye.

I eagerly bought the tape and sat down to see what would undoubtedly be a gnarly piece of horror. It came to the part with the splinter, but as the eye was about to be impaled, it cut away. I felt cheated. I would learn later that this was one of the cuts made to the film before the BBFC allowed it to be released, and while I eventually got to see the uncut scene, which is gloriously horrific, it made me disenchanted at the time.

In the late ’90s, James Ferman – the man who would not allow either of the big titles I was lusting after to be released – left the BBFC. He had reportedly jibed that “It’s all right for you middle-class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?” so it was great that he’d retired, as far as I was concerned.

By the end of the 20th century, both The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had received certificates, which allowed audiences to see just how well-made both of these notorious productions were. I attended a screening of The Exorcist that terrified me, helping cement the position I still hold, which is that it is the best horror film ever made.

The Video Nasties era is a cultural footnote now that’s both romanticised and examined at an academic level – while Prano-Bailey Bond’s recent ’80s-set horror Censor even places a BBFC examiner as its central protagonist. Some almost-mythical films are still out there, too – the latest being Warner Bros’ Batgirl, destined for release until a new CEO canned it as a tax write-off. Will Batgirl be leaked? Will copies be traded around like contraband as The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were? Time will tell.

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