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Video Nasties!

There was a time when one would have to wait for a theatrically released movie to appear on television before it could be seen again or if lucky a cinema may hold a late night screening years later. When shown on television only certain movies would be available and often edited for run time and censor concerns. Then came the video tape and movie rentals. Suddenly all sorts of titles, even those not shown at the cinema were available on home video. And inevitably government stepped in to prohibit and regulate which videos a person was allowed to view. In Britain a panic emerged, it was known as the ‘Video Nasties’ and the conservatives along with religious moralists ran a crusade against films which they deemed as being ‘obscene’ or ‘too nasty’ for the British household. As always the concern was for the children It was asked ‘what would happen if a child was to watch such a film?’ Spoiler alert, we grew up to be awesome.

The term Video Nasty came about as a general media friendly term used by the National Viewers’ and Listeners Association to describe obscene cinema. Most of the films defined as such were usually low budget, independent horror movies that pushed the boundaries and in some instances became influential pieces of art.

Many of the films banned were those that depicted acts of graphic violence or were films that delved into the paranormal or frightful themes. Pornography as always was targeted as well, though during the Video Nasty moral panic the main focus was on the exploitation era films that defined 1970s and early 80s cinema. Movies such as Cannibal Holocaust, were one of the earlier films that was singled out to be banned. The creators of Cannibal Holocaust in an attempt to stir up controversial interest in their film would write letters of complaint to notable conservative and religious heads in the hopes that any press was good press, thus ensuring an interest in their film. The response was far more adverse to their film than they could have anticipated, helping to get it banned instead. Too deplorable for British eyes.

Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead also made the list, the title alone presenting frightful words for the censors to experience. Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also a video nasty, not so much because what it showed instead what the viewer was left to imagine. Director Tobi Hooper left most of the violenceoff screen, allowing the mind to fill in the blanks. A film that made the list based entirely on the title alone was the Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds comedy, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the censors banning it for namesake. Like other films on the list it is unlikely that they were watched by the outrage mob or any of the bureaucrats implementing laws. Though oftentimes the confiscating police officers would hold pizza and viewing parties where they could view such deplorable cinema. At least someone in the UK was allowed to enjoy them.

Leading the charge and lighting many of the panic torches was social moralist Mary Whitehouse, for the American readers imagine Tipper Gore on steroids blended with Dana Carvey’s ‘little churchlady’. Whitehouse pushed for regulation and censorship, she wanted the British Board of Film Censors to be a muscular and active body that could influence art and what the in-the-privacy-of-their-own-home audience was allowed to watch. The BBFC became a gate keeper and destroyer of free expression to cinema in the UK.

The muscles were bulging with the moral panic to the point where the director of Cannibal Holocaust was charged with murder. The actors in the film had to turn up as witnesses to prove that they were in fact acting and not killed in the film. The Department of Public Prosecutions invented the official Video Nasty list, which at its peak had around seventy plus titles on it. Though that number varies. Films would fluctuate on and off the list, the police and distributors were uncertain as to what films were actually on it. Arbitrary law enforcement on the local officers behalf was in effect. The list had a tendency of varying from county to county as well making it hard to anyone to know what was forbidden and was allowed by the Crown. Raiding police officers may at times confiscate a video based on its box art rather than it actually being officially banned at all. Though the criteria for what was to be banned waned and was ill defined. Instead it was felt by those doing the banning.

Police officers prohibiting a film based on the title alone, Apocalypse Now became briefly banned as it was assumed to be a horror film and Sam Fuller’s war film The Big Red One prohibited because the title was seemingly too sexy. One could only assume what Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill were doing with a ‘Big Red One’. Most police officers confiscating and Imposing the law knew little about cinema and the films. The punishment in most severe cases was a twenty thousand pound fine and/or up to three years in prison. The Video Act of 1984 made certain titles illegal to be in British video shops. Such films as Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) remained banned until 1999.

When a video distributor was charged, the film makers were not called into court to testify. The process was heavily slated in the favour of the prosecutions with no real consistency, Instead fear and moral bias steered the judgement with media peddling lies and misinformation that the banned video’s were ‘raping’ the minds of the youth or were responsible for murder, suicide and acts of sexual violence. The cancel culture of the moralists had the full weight of the British government behind it. A new media had emerged that frightened the controlling powers and social commentators of their time.

Along with Mary Whitehouse a prominent British religious figure weighed in on the scare, Lord Cogan added a spiritual element to the anti-video crusade. Not only was the claim that such videos may be imitated by the viewer but were also subversive and damaging to the fabric of British moral society. By 1985 the list of banned films was down to 39, though it had influenced how films were ‘cut’ for British audiences. While also having an impact on television and locally made movies in the UK. Famously The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had to be re-titled to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, such was the idiotic need to police media.

The busy body moralists found the perfect Prime Minister in Margaret Thatcher who embraced certain conservative sensibilities and for all the celebrated pretences of her being a champion of freedom, she was an active leader when it came to such censorship. The anti-communist PM shared a common moral concern when it came to censorship as to what her comrades on the other side of the Iron Curtain held.

The Video Nasty frenzy would not have been possible, at least not as so prominent without Thatcher at the helm of the nation. Just as the Satanic Panic along with concerns over Dungeons and Dragons, Heavy Metal and always pornography in the USA would likely not have been as fever pitch if it was not for Ronald Reagan period in US political and social history. The past decade has seen a Right wing white washing of history where the cancel culture and censorship obsession has been attributed to the political Left, when in reality is most often coming from the conservative right.

During the height of the 1980s Video Nasty era, older films that were once accepted as watchable cinema suddenly became illegal and banned titles. The rationale often being that children had access to these video tapes, invent a statistic and it could have been used at the time, but so many children apparently viewed such movies. This was determined by asking school children if they had watched movies that were in the naughty banned list. Free speech advocates emulated the survey, instead using fabricated movie title names and they had similar results. It turns out that young children can often say whatever, and cool sounding film names may appear exciting to some youngsters, whether they had seen them or not.

The consideration that adults may also enjoy movies of a mature nature was never really a factor by the parent government. Just as video games, animation and comic books are assumed by busy body statists to be a child only medium, the rights of mature minded viewers-readers-players are not considered. To quote Helen Lovejoy, “Won’t somebody think of the children!” is the stamp of intrusive government that allows virtually all forms of censorship and prohibition. The Video Nasties could allegedly pervert and damage a child’s mind so a nation that considered itself free would ban them all.

The word freedom is thrown around often, it’s used to justify a great many things. War being one of those great expeditions of death and mayhem which is often waged in the service of freedom. Though how we define this term seems to vary. What one assumes that it means is often rather obscure, usually democracy or at the very least the process of democratic governance is conflated with the word, freedom. Though fascism is very much born out of such a process as history has shown us and individual liberty can be eroded by such the religion of democracy in its many incarnations. Not to mention the very nature of a gang rape or lynch mob exemplify the will of a majority over the rights of the individual. When advocates of a certain type of morality spin their deception and fears, the mob of the public will accept a great many things. The police and public service will administrate and enforce any law, it’s their job. They are paid to do so.

The Video Nasties is one of the many periods of irrational fright expressed by the most unimaginative of a population that can spread like a disease even across the span of time. Sex and violence will always hold a fascination as much as they shall remain taboo. Government will always be infected by those who wish to use it’s monopoly of violence to satisfy insecurities and sensibilities. The freedom to choose is sacred, it allows us to not watch a video or to put it in the VCR for own viewing discomfort or pleasure. The irony is that physical media is slowly coming back into vogue because of digital censorship. The videos on the Nasty list ever popular and sought after. Sometimes freedom is Ash chainsawing a deadite in half or watching Lee Marvin storm the beaches of North Africa with an M1 Garand in hand. Then again, someday Dolly Parton singing on screen may again be too obscene, for two distinctly large reasons. Rest assured the screaming Social Justice Warriors won’t be doing the censoring but your friends on the Right, that’s how it always was and always shall be.

April, 2024

Published inAll Articles and EssaysMiscellaneousPhilosophy, Society and Liberty