The 1980s were a weird time to grow up. Stuck in the middle of Thatcherism and miner strikes was a country coming out of the revolution of punk music, still worried about how the youth were being corrupted. Morality was the big issue surrounding the youth of the time, and a scapegoat was needed to start a public outrage which would lead to draconian times returning to Britain.
I remember my parents watching TV and hearing the words "video nasty" almost every night, and they would always talk in hushed tones about them (note to parents: if you don't want to pique your kids interest avoid the hushed tones). It was only when we got a VHS player that I started to understand what they were.
The first VCR went on sale in the UK in 1979, and by 1984 a quarter of homes had one, but Hollywood did not embrace this new technology with open arms. In fact, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) said in a 1982 hearing: “The VCR is to the American film producer... as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.”
A bit extreme... but you get his point.
So without the major blockbusters to release, the market was flooded with low budget Italian Zombie and American Slasher films, which were bought cheaply and distributed by small businesses usually comprising of two or three people. Unfortunately for these businesses, rather than Margret Thatcher embracing them in her love of entrepreneurship and the free market, her strict morality saw films with names like The Evil Dead and Driller Killer as designed to offend. Looking for allies in this fight, she found them in Mary Whitehouse and The Daily Mail.
Mary Whitehouse was a school teacher in the 1960s whose strict Christian values led her to campaign against anything she saw morally wrong. This included the BBC, The Gay Times, Doctor Who, Chuck Berry's "My Ding-a-Ling", and Alice Cooper's "School's Out". She founded the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association which led the campaign against these, but when the distributor Go Video decided to send a copy of Cannibal Holocaust to Mary with a fake letter of disgust, it did not gain the publicity they desired. This started a witch hunt which would led to 72 films being banned and classed as "Video Nasties".
My first experience with a video nasty come when I ejected a tape to put in the Teen Wolf cartoon my dad had rented for me (a forgotten classic in its own right). When the tape came out the label read The Evil Dead and I was transfixed. What was this tape? Where had it come from? We didn't get it when we had been to the shop to rent my video. As any 8-year-old with an inquisitive mind would do, I put it back in and pressed play. I saw about the first two minutes before my mum ran in and turned it off in a panic. Phrases like "this is a grown up film" and "you shouldn't be watching that" were uttered as the video was ejected and placed into an unmarked case. As I sat there watching my cartoon, I couldn't get the images out of my head. The camera that seemed to be flying low on the ground, the group of friends in the car singing, and the near miss with a truck. I wanted to know what happened and why it was called The Evil Dead. It would be another four years before I discovered how to get my hands on the film again, along with others that were on the list.
In my town we had a guy who used to drive a big yellow van called Video Wheels, and every Saturday he would pull up in our street and we would go onto the van and choose a video to rent. Now, this guy really didn't care about how old you were when renting videos, and would always say "this is for your mum right?", and the answer was always "yeah, of course". After renting Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th films over a period of weeks, I asked if he had The Evil Dead. He looked around and quietly said "I have a few like that, hang on" and pulled out a box. It was full of video nasties I had heard of, but never seen. That week I finally watched The Evil Dead and The Exorcist and my love for horror truly began.
I rented more over a period of months and watched films like Driller Killer, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I Spit on Your Grave; and while I enjoyed them I couldn't see what the real fuss was about. Yes, there were things in them that could have been cut for an actual release with classification, but not the uproar that led to police raids on videos stores and the seizure of tapes (on one raid, copies of the Dolly Parton film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas were seized as they were believed to be porn).
The films were graphic but did they deserve to be burnt by the lorry load? No—it was a knee-jerk reaction based on a draconian morality which labelled anyone who watched the films as "outsiders" and "weirdos". Nobody was possessed by the films like The Daily Mail reported, and the rise in violent crime in youth was not caused by the films, but they were used to whitewash the social inequalities and tension within the country due to Margaret Thatcher's attacks on British Industries and the working class.
A screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was shown to the British Film Institute members and afterwards the Chief Censor James Ferman, in a similar vein to the Prosecutor in the Lady Chatterley's Lover case, remarked: "It's okay for you middle class cinéastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?"
Morality was used as a stick to beat the working class with and with the banning of the films, it had a pretty big stick.
But in the end, most of the films had DVD releases and are available on the Internet, if you know where to look. Re-watching them now, some seem laughable, tame, and a bit dumb. But it should be a serious reminder of how moral panics are used to whitewash and provide simplistic explanations for complicated social problems, and the laws that are passed on the back of these tend to be arbitrary or draconian. As Video Nasty documentary maker Jake West says, "With access to the communications nowadays, its a lot harder for them to get away with that sort of thing"
And it is true the Internet has given a new medium for filmmakers to release their work, but how long will it be before another moral crusader picks up the the stick and starts to swing again?
Story courtesy of Jan Siery, originally published on Survival of the Dad.
Jan Siery is a husband, dad of two kids, two cats, and a dog, and is an all-around nerd. He likes gaming, horror movies, dark and disturbing stuff, Twinkies, and people telling him things.
Follow Jan on Twitter: @jansiery