To repeat the old cliche it was the best of times yet the worst of times. Indeed, the early days of home video in Britain in many respects came as a blessing for British viewers with a. With the major film studio's still cautiously perceiving video as a threat to the cinema, the then completely unregulated British video market quickly became swamped with the wares of various small, independent fly by night distributors who hastily released onto tape any halfway marketable film they could acquire cheaply. Predictably many of the films such labels specialised in tended to be horror and exploitation pictures, usually shipped in from America and Mainland Europe. As a result British viewers with access to a video were suddenly able to rent and watch in their home all manner of salacious fare. Many of these pictures would never have been passed uncut if indeed at all by the BBFC for a British theatrical release, but the lack of regulation back then meant that distributors were quite free to release often unexpurgated versions onto the then fledgling video market.
Predictably this golden age of the pre-certification British video market was not to last long. Indeed, it would not be long until the national press, in particular the staunchly conservative, panic-mongering papers such as The Daily Mail, began to whip up public hysteria over the "vile" content of many of the films the general public, in particular impressionable young children, were able to freely rent then spend the evening watching at home. In reaction to this disproportionate press hysteria, the likes of Mary Whitehouse soon took up the campaign against what the press had damningly dubbed the "Video Nasties" and both the authorities and indeed parliament were soon pressed to take action amidst a rising tide of public discontent and concern. Before long a modern day witch hunt ensued as the Department of Public Prosecution's had drew up a list of video titles which the police were advised were liable for seizure and the police promptly set about the farcical business of raiding video dealers and distributors up and down the country. The films in question were in most instances subsequently deemed obscene and successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, whilst at the same time a private members bill bought to the table by Conservative MP Graham Bright led to the passing of the Video Recordings Act requiring all films intended for video release to by submitted for the BBFC for classification and where necessary cuts before they could be legally released. Due to these draconian measure's the fleeting, halcyon pre-certification golden age of the British video market drew to a close. However, the 72 films which comprised the DPP's list of banned titles would live on, forever immortalised as the Video Nasties!
Today in 2010 we live in slightly more level-headed time and in recent years many of the so-called "Video Nasties" have been resubmitted to the BBFC, passed uncut and can be freely, quite legally purchased on DVD. Meanwhile even the few Nasties which, for various reasons, still remain a censorship hot potato such as Ruggero Deodato's Italian cannibal yarn Cannibal Holocaust and Meir Zarchi's infamous rape/revenge exploiter I Spit On Your Grave can easily be purchased from overseas in all their uncut glory at the click of button. Nevertheless, even best part of three decade's on talk of the Video Nasties scare still evokes nostalgia amongst those old enough to remember it all and fascinated disbelief amongst those who weren't. Therefore there was much excitement within the realm of the horror and exploitation fan community when UK based independent label Nucleus Films announced the release of a bumper 3-Disc DVD set entitled Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide which it is hoped will be the final word on both the early eighties Nasty panic and indeed the films themselves which started it all. With expectations high will Nucleus's release turn out to be nothing more than a glorified three disc trailer reel.? Or as promised will it be the definitive chronicle of the Video Nasty era? Read on my friends and find out...
The first thing you notice once you stick the first disc of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide into your DVD player is that it is quite beautifully presented. The main menu is set against an amusing video introduction which sees a scantily clad and ever lovely Emily Booth settle down to watch a disreputable looking horror cassette only to be transformed into a wild-eyed madwoman hacking, drilling and sawing away maniacally at a batch of pre-certification video tapes with an assortment of noisy power tools. I only hope those were not original, legit, pre-certification Nasties that the lovely Miss Booth was smashing up, as that was probably a small fortune's worth on display there! This suitably trashy sequence also features a clever play of Hallmark releasing;s now legendary "To avoid fainting keep repeating It's only a Movie! It's only a Movie!" trailer for Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left, as Booth's axe-swinging rampage is overdubbed by someone breathlessly intoning "To avoid moral panic keep repeating They were only Movies! They were Only Movies". Ingenious stuff! On the subject of Emily Booth, she also acts as a compere of sorts for this release, as she is also on hand to introduce each of the two trailer disc's.
However, it is the content that most of you will really be interested in and I'm happy to say that Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide come up trumps in that regard for the most part. The meat of the set, in fact two of the three discs is taken up almost in its entirety by trailer's for each and every of the 72 films which comprised the infamous DPP list of Nasties. Trailers for the infamous final DPP 39 occupy the first disc, whilst trailers for the other 33 titles which all featured on the list at one time or another but were subsequent dropped due to the unlikelihood that they would receive further successful prosecution's under the Obscene Publications Act comprise the second. Some of the trailers for the more notorious and well known of the Nasties are so familiar that they feel almost like old friends. Nevertheless, no matter how many times you see them, the famous trailers for the likes of Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (" The men you will see eaten alive, are the same men who filmed these incredible sequences"), Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left (the aforementioned "To avoid fainting keep repeating It's only a Movie! It's only a Movie!") and Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave ("This woman has just cut, chopped, broken and burned five men beyond recognition... but no jury in America would ever convict her!") remain expertly crafted pieces of exploitation marketing no matter how many times you might have seen them. Meanwhile the then familiar habit, particularly amongst Italian producers, of cramming as many lurid and gory highlights as possible into their two minute trailer's ensures that much like Nucleus's previous release's Grindhouse Trailer Classics and its follow up Grindhouse Trailer Classics 2, this release is no doubt destined for a healthy life as a party disc. However, for many more seasoned horror and exploitation fans, the real excitement will come from finally encountering the seldom seen trailers for some of the more obscure, lesser known titles which featured on the Nasties list. Indeed, call me easily pleased if you will, but catching up with rare trailers for the likes of Gregory Goodell's modestly effective women in prison effort Human Experiments, James Bryan's hilariously inept Don't Go In The Woods... Alone!, J. S. Cardone's underrated The Slayer, James C. Wasson's penis-ripping yeti gorefest Night Of The Demon, Don Gronquist's Oregon lensed slasher picture Unhinged, Frank Roach's cryogenic chiller Frozen Scream and Charles McCrann's backwoods zombie film Forest Of Fear (aka - Bloodeaters), all of which I had never had the privilege of seeing before (the trailer's that is, not the films) was a real thrill.
As you might expect the presentation quality of the trailers themselves is pretty variable on the whole. While most range from very good to pristine shape, some offer a reminder of the good old days of encountering films for the first time via trailer reels at the start of well worn VHS tapes . Predictably it is the trailers for the more obscure Nasties which tend to be the ones in a somewhat rougher shape, but given how difficult it ,must have been the source some of them it seems churlish to be too critical. In addition to the trailers themselves, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide also features the option of watching each and every of the 72 trailers spread across the first two disc's with a video introduction featuring various genre experts offering some valuable background information and often their own personal appraisal of the film in question. The majority of the introductions are shared between the sextet of the irrepressible Kim Newman, film journalist Alan Jones, Dark Side Magazine editor Allan Bryce, writer and lecturer Xavier Mendik, Dr Patricia MacCormack and Stephen Thrower author of Beyond Terror: The Films Of Lucio Fulci and Nightmare USA, while our very own Marc Morris, Emily Booth and Brad Stevens, author of Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision are also on hand to make their own contributions.
While watching the trailers with the introductions on more or less double's the time it will take to make it through the first two disc's, I recommend taking the time to do so as all of the aforementioned make for lucid, entertaining company and as a result almost all of the intro's are informative, illuminating and often amusing, with the reverence and affection that those speaking hold for the films in question proving obvious and, dare I say it, rather contagious. Highlights for me include Stephen Thrower's concise yet impassioned championing of underrated films such as Texan auteur S. F. Brownrigg's Don't Look In The Basement!, Joseph Ellison's disturbing Don't Go In The House and Frederick R. Friedel's dreamlike low budget oddity Axe (aka - California Axe Massacre), Kim Newman speculating perhaps only half-jokingly that Human Experiments is in actual fact a piece of scientologist propaganda, our beloved Marc Morris hilariously failing to find a single even vaguely positive thing to say about Alain Deruelle's woeful Eurocine cannibal yarn Cannibal Terror and Alan Jones displaying truly impressive knowledge of European genre cinema in his appreciative intro's for Dario Argento's Inferno, Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders and Jorge Grau's The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue. Jones also offers a very amusing anecdote concerning the first time he ever met the late Lucio Fulci during the shooting of City Of The Living Dead which I wont spoil here.
Finally it should be noted that both of the trailer discs, together with the aforementioned video introductions feature full English subtitling and in addition both discs contain extensive galleries of original pre-certification artwork for all 72 Video Nasties.
However, as enjoyable as the two trailer discs may be, for me the real crown jewel of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is found on Disc Three in the shape of Jake West's excellent new documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape which attempts to offer a sober, retrospective chronicle of the early eighties panic over the availability of so-called Video Nasties. First things first, its clear as soon as you begin watching it that Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape is the work of people with little regard for the views of Britain's self-appointed moral guardian's and a clear, pronounced personal disposition for the kid of films which comprised the DPP's list of banned titles. This becomes apparent from the very outset as Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape begins with a rapid fire montage of gory clips from each and every Video Nasty set to the timeless track Nasty by legendary British punk rockers The Damned, a song which was of course immortalised in a memorable episode of the BBC's alternative eighties comedy series The Young Ones. Following this West's documentary embarks on something of a nostalgia trip for its first fifteen or so minutes as a variety of talking heads including Marc Morris and British filmmaker Christopher Smith (of Creep and Severance fame) wax lyrical about the dubious thrill's of first encountering numerous horror and exploitation gems via heavily worn VHS tapes released by fly by night distributors, the eccentric character's who used to run many of the early British video rental outlets and the lurid advertising campaigns that many distributors employed in order to pedal their wares, many of which raised expectations of gory atrocity which any of the films in question predictably failed to live up to. However while this is all well and good, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape really begins to hit its stride once it stops wallowing in nostalgia and gets down to the business of documenting the actual Video Nasty outrage itself. Typically hyperbolic excerpts from news reports and press clippings of a similar tone are intercut with the lengthy input of a wide variety of well informed talking heads which includes most of the luminaries such as Allan Bryce, Kim Newman, Marc Morris, Stephen Thrower, Dr Patricia MacCormack, etc already featured elsewhere in this set, who are also joined by the likes of noted British film critic Derek Malcolm, film director Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers and The Descent), actor, writer and director Andy Nyman and Julian Petley, professor of Screen Media and Journalism at Brunel University and a noted anti-censorship campaigner. Meanwhile former head of the BBFC the late James Ferman, notorious for his draconian rulings, appears via archival footage. At this point I should apologise if there are any other contributor's I failed to mention, with so many on hand I was always bounsd to miss a couple out!
While the ensuing tale of moral panic and infringed civil liberties will already be familiar to most of this sets target audience, this is nevertheless and entertaining, thought provoking and at times genuinely angering look back on a time when the, of course, preposterous notion that low-rent horror films could be the root cause of any British social ill from murder and rape through to rioting and the abuse of children and animals was seriously entertained on a widespread scale. Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape levels much of the blame for this towards the disreputable, fear-mongering methods of the right-wing, censorious British national newspaper's such as The Daily Mail and quite rightly so. Meanwhile the many interesting anecdotes featured in Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape range from the funny such as police officers seizing video tapes of innocuous films such as Colin Higgins's musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1982) starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, presumably under the misapprehension that it was hardcore pornography to the downright disturbing, such as the case of the ill-fated David Hamilton Grant. A former porn producer and co-owner of the pre-certification video label World Of Video 2000, Grant was actually jailed for eighteen months (later reduced to twelve) in February, 1984 after being successfully prosecuted under Section Two of the Obscene Publications Act for distributing Romano Scavolini's grim horror picture Nightmares In A Damaged Brain (aka - Nightmare). The decision to jail Grant seems even more high-handed and extreme when you consider that World Of Video 2000's pre-cert video release of Nightmares In A Damaged Brain only ran marginally longer than the BBFC censored, X-certificated UK theatrical version of the film which had played UK cinema's a couple of years prior to Grant's prosecution.
Of course while Jake West does a sterling job of piecing together the story of the Video Nasty hysteria, the real success of a documentary such as Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape is always going to be dependent on the quality of the contributions from its talking heads, and fortunately Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape is not let down in that regard. Undoubtedly the real stars of the show, albeit for all the wrong reasons, are Sir Graham Bright the former Conservative MP whose private members bill ultimately bought about the Video Recordings Act and the death of the Video Nasty era and Peter Kruger, then the head of the Obscene Publication's Unit at Scotland Yard, both of whom contribute extensively throughout Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape. While the whole "I know what's good for you and you don't" mantra trumpeted by self-righteous authoritarian's never ceases to stick in one's craw, unintentionally hilarity soon ensues as it quickly becomes clear that even after all these years Bright and Kruger still believe that they were acting as fine, upstanding guardian's of public morals, battling against an "evil" which threatened the very fabric of our society. Some might argue given the clear anti-censorship stance of those behind it, that Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape is essentially a biased piece of documentary filmmaking. Speaking objectively it does have to be said that there's some room for argument, but at the end of the day the truth is that Bright and Kruger are afforded an open platform for their melodramatic, draconian views, and the only people holding them up as figures of ridicule are ultimately Bright and Kruger themselves.
In contrast to the outspoken, censorious views of Peter Kruger and Sir Graham Bright, leftist advocates of free speech are liable to come away from Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape with new champions in the shape of Geoffrey Robertson QC, the human rights lawyer who unsuccessfully defended the aforementioned David Hamilton Grant and in particular the academic Martin Baker, the editor of Video Nasties: Freedom & Censorship In The Media. Robertson and Baker's contributions to Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape are some of the most fascinating as they both vividly recall their frustrating and at times frightening experiences of being on the frontline of the minority who dared to speak out at the time in defence of the Video Nasties and the civil liberties of the British public at a time when Video Nasty hysteria was sweeping the land. Baker in particular recollects with a grim clarity the heckling he received from the pro-censorship lobby led by harridan morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse and the constant harassment he, his family and his work colleague's were subjected to by the right-wing press after he dared to speak out publicly against those calling for the Nasties to be banned. As Baker rightly states, one of the main reasons why the pro-censorship lobby tended to get their way was because those who viewed censorship as an infringement of civil liberties were afraid to speak out as they knew that if they did there was a very real chance of them being branded a deviant and an apologist for material which was raping the minds of the nations youth by the likes of The Daily Mail who had manufactured the whole Video Nasties panic to suit their own ends.
At any rate looked back on now in 2010 where thanks to the advent of multi-region DVD players and the Internet, the concept of film censorship has largely become a complete irrelevance, the whole Video Nasties kefuffle of the early eighties now seems safely ludicrous at best. Nevertheless, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape still makes for nothing less than as brilliantly compiled, consistently engaging, often funny yet at the same time genuinely sobering look back upon a time when the British consumer's freedom to venture down to their local video rental emporium and comer away with the likes of Cannibal Ferox, The Evil Dead and I Spit On Your Grave for viewing in the sanctity of their own homes was perceived by a good many as a genuine cause for public concern. Lovely stuff!
In addition to the superlative Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, Disc Three also contains a couple of highly worthwhile bonus feature's. Firstly there is a 1980's Video Company Ident-a-Thon which, as its name suggests, offers a compilation of original logo sequence's belonging to various distributors from the pre-certification age. While essentially. The really interesting extra however is an additional bonus gallery which features pre-certification artwork for an additional 80 pre-certification horror and exploitation tapes. Apparently these 80 titles actually comprise a kind of second, unofficial Nasty list with the DPP informing the police that whilst these titles were not liable for prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act, the police did still have grounds to seize them from distributors and rental shops if they saw fit. As very few viewers, myself included, will even be aware of the existence of this list this is sure to come as a real eye-opener. While I don't intend to list all 80 titles here and ruin the surprise, suffice to say its quite an eclectic selection. Perversely some of the titles included such as Bob Blizz's luridly exploitative thriller Scream For Vengeance!, Robert Hammer's irredeemably sleazy Don't Answer the Phone! and Ray Williams's rape-filled exploitation picture Wrong Way are arguably more objectionable than some of the films that did make it onto the DPP list proper. Meanwhile by contrast this list also unbelievably features popular horror pictures such as the first two Friday The 13th films, Don Coscarelli's cult classic Phantasm, George A. Romero's classic Night Of The Living Dead and the David Cronenberg picture's Rabid and Scanners and it truly boggles my mind to think that such fairly mainstream horror fare could ever have been viewed as liable for confiscation by the police. Either way, just as the original DPP list of 72 Video Nasties did back in the mid-eighties, this newly revealed list of 80 borderline Nasties is sure to become a shopping list of a sort for horror and exploitation fans. Indeed, as I watched it I found myself hurriedly making a note to check out several titles I'd barely heard of previously such as Norman Thaddeus Vane's 1984 obscurity The Black Room.
So when all is said and done I' pleased to report that Nucleus have well and truly surpassed themselves with Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide. Lets be under no illusions, if you take into account all of the trailers, the video introduction's, the Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape documentary and all the other associated extra's, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide by my watch clocks in over eight hours in length and for the average viewer that is a pretty hefty investment of time. However, even though it's asking a lot, in my opinion its an investment you'll thank yourself afterwards for having made. While it's very easy to look upon a release such as this as a glorified trailer compilation, the truth of the matter is that Nucleus's endeavours have produced something far more rewarding than that. Indeed, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide goes into so much depth that I think it's fair to say that even the most seasoned collector of pre-certification horror tapes is liable to glean at least something new from it. So in conclusion Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide stands as an informative, highly entertaining, painstakingly well researched and compiled and truly exhaustive 3-Disc odyssey back into the halcyon days of pre-certification video. Not only does it further immortalise the infamy and lasting cult recognition of the 72 films themselves, but it also places them within their rightful context, painting a truly vivid picture of a time when their availability was the cause of moral panic on a national scale. One of the great genre DVD release's of 2010!
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide (3-Disc Set) (Nucleus Films): amazon.co.uk