In 1984 (yes, really in 1984 of all years, the irony would not be lost of George Orwell), the British government drew up a list of 72 films which it deemed so reprehensible that they should be banned. Anyone found in possession of a copy, or actively distributing one of the films, could face a prison sentence. It seems like fiction, a dystopian nightmare, but this actually took place.
This was in the very early days of video, when distribution of movies on VHS was unregulated and films could be easily obtained by popping down the local convenience store (”I’ll have a pint of milk, a load of bread and a copy of Cannibal Holocaust, please.”). With cinema dying and the ability to record and re-watch material becoming increasingly popular, film distributors saw video as a salvation for a flagging industry. Distribution companies such as VIPCO and Vampix produced low-budget horror movies usually based on a rampaging maniac, such as Driller Killer or Bloodbath. These low-budget flicks were given the nick-name ”video nasty” by the press, but what makes a film ”nasty?”Well according to the British MP Graham Bright who introduced the Bill that became the Video Recordings Act (VRA) in British law, a video nasty is “Mutilations of bodies. Cannibalism. Gang rape. That is what a video nasty is.” The actual term “video nasty” was first used in a story in The Sunday Times in May 1982 with the headline “How high street horror is invading the home”.
The history of the hysteria and hype that surrounded the “video nasties” is as bizarre as many of the movies themselves. As certain elements of the British press went on a frenzied campaign against these videos that were flooding the newly popular home video market in the UK. By the late 70s and early 80s, video machines were becoming a regular feature in many British homes, video shops were springing up on every street corner. Previously unavailable movies were pouring onto the shelves for little ”Timmy” to come along and pick them up. Among them, among them were a number of low-budget titles with evocative names and provocatively over-the-top cover-art, like The Exterminator (1980), Driller Killer (1979), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), I Spit On Your Grave (1978), Human Experiments (1979), Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979) and the infamous Snuff (1976).
By 1982, there was an all out campaign by some quarters of the press, to have these “video nasties” as they began to be called, banned. It was the Daily Mail, an infamously right-wing reactionary daily newspaper and Mary Whitehouse that spear-headed the campaign to bring about legislation to stop these morally corrupting videos finding their way into people’s home, and especially into the hands of the country’s youth. The Daily Mail’s campaign tag-line was “Ban The Sadist Videos”. Stories started to appear almost everyday, often relating despicable crimes directly to the influence of watching video nasties.
Many blamed the corrupting influence of the perpetrator having watched video nasties before going on their criminal rampage, with the realms of fiction blending into reality. Utterly unsubstantiated, the claims became more and more sensationalized, as the media outrage and moral panic became unstoppable. It was claimed children as young as “six” were being damaged irreversibly by seeing the on-screen gore and sickening violence of video nasties. The public outrage grew and the government were pressured into acting. By September 1985, the new Video Recordings Act had been passed, which meant that all new releases had to be submitted for “classification”, and all old releases had to be re-submitted for classification with 3 years.
The initially secret list of movies being considered for prosecution was made public in June of 1983, at the height of the hype and hysteria over video nasties. With new movies being added every month, by the end the list ran to 72, with a total of 39 of being deemed too deadly, and if you were caught with them then you were to be prosecuted. However, the legislation hadn’t stooped anyone who wanted to watch one of these movies getting their hands on them. In fact there was a very active underground pirate video network, where you could get any of the movies on the list that you wanted. And soon the film’s became the hottest topic of discussion on the playground, to be one of the ”cool kids” you had to have seen at least The Evil Dead.
Mary Whitehouse’s Clean up TV Campaign obtained a total of 500,000 signatures , which was then a record for the UK pre Internet. Near fanatical in her outlook, she’d spend hours each day writing letters to MPs to get cases looked into. For some time it was suspected that civil service workers in Downing Street intentionally ‘lost’ her letters to avoid having to respond to the deluge they received from her on a daily basis. Whitehouse was both praised and criticised for her strong Christian belief, although to many she as seen as being out of touch with the changing face of the ever-increasing consumption of broadcast content.
It is worth mentioning, that no other country had the same hysterical reaction to the arrival of video technology. After a screening of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre for BFI members, the chief censor, James Ferman, was reported saying “It’s all right for you middle-class cinéastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?” Of course, the working classes were poorly educated, and wouldn’t be able to distinguish fact from fiction (I am actually rolling my eyes as I write this). So, can we assume that the reaction to the ”video nasty” was somewhat based in class prejudice, well this is England after all, and where the class divide still hangs over us like a dirty throwback to the ”Empire”.
Eventually the hysteria died down, and the internet emerged, and by now all of the nasties have since had UK DVD releases. Some are deemed of cultural and cinematic importance such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust. However, the majority are tame, trashy or just camp. Rewatching them today, the 1980s hysteria seems laughable (what was all the fuss about?). If we have learned anything from the Video Nasty ban, it’s that moral panics can get out of hand, and more often than not these panics act as provide distractions from the other more challenging issues occurring in society at the time.