Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape (2010)

Directed by Jake West
Starring Julian Petley, Andy Nyman, Christopher Smith
Release Date: August 30, 2010
72 Minutes/Color

nasty01It’s hard to explain to the current generation of home video consumers just what it was like to be a genre film buff during the video boom of the early 1980s. In a world where all manner of entertainment – from kids’ animation to hardcore pornography – is but a click of the mouse away, those halcyon days of seeing heretofore unreachable exploitation films on VHS and Betamax seem quaintly prehistoric. Even harder to explain is what began happening in the UK as gory, low-budget horror films were rapidly filling the shelves of every corner store. In this fascinating documentary, we take a trip back in time as we are ushered into the wicked world of the “Video Nasties.”

That term may be unfamiliar to many in the post-Millennium era. As the UK whipped itself into moral panic over films such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979) and THE DRILLER KILLER (1979), those movies became part of a list of 72 that moralists deemed obscene and christened “Video Nasties.” Not only did they want the films out of the hands of a consenting public, they wanted their distributors criminally charged and imprisoned.

nasty02As gory films became more available, those in power saw a perfect way to bolster their ever-waning influence in the wake of widespread social unrest and the violence of the Falklands War. They marshaled their evergreen go-to’s: moral outrage and censorship. The Tory-led government, at the urgings of self-proclaimed moral compass Mary Whitehouse, launched an all-out assault on anyone who didn’t share their puritanical views. As they tightened their talons around the video industry, destroying lives and livelihoods in the process, it became clear that the true horror and depravity was happening in the court of misinformed public opinion and not on videotape.

Jake West’s very entertaining and informative documentary does an excellent job of setting the scene. West and his impressive list of interviewees bring the world of the Video Nasties sharply into context. We hear from directors such as Christopher Smith and Andy Nyman about how the Video Nasties shaped their creative careers. Also, writers like Kim Newman talk about how these films and the subsequent controversy both reflected and shaped society then and hence.

nasty03Viewers get tantalizing glimpses of such b-movie “gems” as THE GESTAPO’S LAST ORGY (1977), CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) and NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN (1981) along with amusing commentary from West’s band of genre fans and academics. Indeed, the first quarter of the film is fairly lighthearted, showing us that to many viewers these films were but a harmless amusement.

The effort to censor violent horror films came swiftly during the home video boom. As one can imagine, the pretext of “protecting children” was trotted out quick-smart.  As we go deeper into West’s film, we find out the motivations and methods used to quash these movies were far more sinister. This is where West employs his most effective tool. West never heaps ridicule upon the proponents of censorship – he leaves them to do that for themselves.

nasty04Former Conservative MP Graham Bright leads the charge with claims of Video Nasties being responsible for pretty much all forms of societal corruption (including the corruption of dogs, no less). Ex-Scotland Yard Superintendent Peter Kruger rings his hands and proclaims that 8-year-olds are indulging in after-school rape and murder-fests in front of the television thanks to these videos. Mary Whitehouse haughtily opines about the devastating horrors of Video Nasties while admitting to never actually having seen one. It is all very comical in many ways. West wisely avoids making mockeries of these figures, leaving them to kick the sticks out from under their straw man arguments with their own words. It all seems very easy to laugh off: a moral panic in a simpler time. However, we find out the scandal will have major repercussions.

Martin Barker, a writer on culture and society, provides the most stirring of commentaries in this documentary. While we have already been put into the societal context of the time, Barker expertly weaves us into the political atmosphere of the era as well. As the Nasties panic took hold, Margaret Thatcher and her Tory government were losing faith with the people that had brought them to power. They needed a new tool to claim moral authority. As Barker uncovers, opponents of free creative expression used not only twisted facts and little white lies, but acts that are unquestionably fraudulent and even criminal to make their case.

nasty0530 years later, the 72 films that make up the Video Nasties list serve as a handy guide for gore-hounds in search of cinematic infamy. It is all but forgotten that people were once jailed for simply releasing a film on videocassette that moral watchdogs deemed unsuitable for consumption. West’s essential documentary drives home the point that if we forget the damage caused by moral panic and throttled personal freedoms, we are doomed to invite those dark days past right back into our present. The public’s memory is short, Big Brother’s is eidetic.

Jake West’s documentary forms the cornerstone of Severin Films’ excellent 3-disc set: VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE. Alongside the documentary is commentary relating to all of the films on the Video Nasties list and an exhaustive trailer compilation. Audio and picture quality are excellent on the documentary.

VIDEO NASTIES: MORAL PANIC, CENSORSHIP AND VIDEOTAPE is an entertaining and incredibly detailed piece of essential viewing for lovers of gore films, cinema history and the sociology of politics.

-Johnny Stanwyck

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