By Edward Boff – This week, the seventh film in the highly controversial Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise gets its UK release. Texas Chainsaw 3D follows directly on from the original 1974 Tobe Hooper slasher – and was one of the original ‘Video Nasties’. In Part Two of his dissection of film censorship and those films that the BBFC, or other classification boards, once damned as unfit for public consumption, Edward Boff takes us back to the 1980s with a timely look at the video nasty controversy …
By – Edward Boff
This week, the seventh film in the highly
controversial Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise gets its UK release. Texas
Chainsaw 3D follows directly on from the original 1974 Tobe Hooper slasher –
and was one of the original ‘Video Nasties’. In Part Two of his dissection of film
censorship and those films that the BBFC, or other classification boards, once
damned as unfit for public consumption, Edward Boff takes us back to the 1980s
with a timely look at the video nasty controversy …
on banned movies would be complete without a look at the events in Britain at
the start of the home video age.
It may seem foolish now, but big studios didn’t know really what to do
when VHS and Betamax first arrived.
It was the independent distributors who were the first to see video’s
potential and get things moving.
What offered them the best returns for their investments were the
independent “grindhouse” movies. Therefore reels of extreme horror, sex and violence became
early video’s bread and butter.
However, trouble was brewing. There were no laws covering this new medium
so there was technically nothing to stop nine-year olds from renting fare such
as The Driller Killer, Zombie Creeping
Flesh, and Last Orgy Of The Third
Reich (please note, that last one is real!).
course led to many groups, especially Mary
Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ And Listeners’ Association objecting to the
availability of the material. The
situation was not at all helped by the way the marketing of the films often went
to extreme levels to promote the carnage held within. In fact, it was a full-page advert by notorious video label Vipco for their range that what really
kicked things off. The resulting
campaigns, bolstered by the tabloids, led to the introduction of video
classifications and caused many titles to be officially recognised as ‘video
nasties’. The Director Of Public
Prosecutions declared that they were illegal to sell, leading to actual police
raids of video stores looking for copies.
As a direct result, many of the films did directly become incredibly
sought after by film fans, who probably wouldn’t have heard of many of them
otherwise. This all lead to the
creation of the Video Recordings Act 1984. For a more detailed look at all this, Jake West’s documentary Video
Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship And Videotape on the DVD set Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide is
So what were
these movies and why were they, in particular, held up as examples of
everything wrong with society?
Well, in total 72 ended up on the DPP’s official public list of
‘nasties’, with over half being successfully prosecuted against. The main point all these films had in
common was that they were independents, or at least not affiliated with any of
the major English language studios/distributors, which effectively made them
‘easy targets’. Many, if not most
of them, were from outside the US and UK, mostly in Europe. Pretty much all of them were in
some way horror related. In fact, there are definite signs that the titles on
the list weren’t very well researched, given the somewhat pick-n-mix nature of
But were they
really bad enough to justify all this outcry? Well, that depends on the film in question. Some were basically condemned purely on
how they were sold, i.e. if they had a particularly lurid poster or title, even
though some are tame not only by today’s standards. It’s hard really to imagine that titles like The Werewolf And The Yeti, The Funhouse
or The Boogeyman were any worse than
the studio-backed horror output that was coming out at the same time (well,
maybe not in terms of violence, but quality …). There are others however that definitely did and still do
pack one hell of a punch.
I Spit On Your Grave is an utterly
uncompromising look at the issue of rape and is incredibly hard to watch as a
result. Cannibal Holocaust is so
grim that it really is kind of hard to defend. But really, most are just standard horror fare that happened
to come out at the wrong place and wrong time. Many have actually come out since on DVD with no censorship
issues at all and quite a few at the time were exonerated, such as the wildly
successful Evil Dead. Of the other films on the list, those
worth watching include most of Lucio
Fulci’s (The Beyond, The House By The Cemetery) and Dario Argento’s (Inferno, Tenebrae), Possession (Main Picture), A Bay Of Blood and The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue
(isn’t that just one of the best horror titles ever?).
issue of video nasties and censorship came up again in the early ‘90s under
extremely controversial circumstances.
The 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bulger, and the subsequent trial
of two ten-year-olds shocked the nation.
During the trial, the suggestion was made that maybe exposure to violent
videos led to the boys’ actions, despite no evidence of them having seen or
owning such material. That didn’t
stop many tabloids from jumping on a bandwagon relaunching the old issue, with
many claiming that Child’s Play 3
had inspired the crime (again, there was no evidence the boys had ever watched
it). It’s safe to say in this case
that if there is an evil influence in the media, it’s not in these films. The use of a child’s death to re-start
the debate, when there wasn’t even a tangential link was far more exploitative
and in worse taste than anything done in any of the nasties. Never the less, it
did have major effects on video retail laws, and in terms of the release of
several films, such as Mikey, which
featured a killer child (though that could also be for reasons of good taste).
So what can
be learnt from these banned films and what is the state of the BBFC and
censorship now? Well, we’re
currently living in a time of much greater leniency by the BBFC in many
ways. Titles that would have had
the book thrown at them back in the day, like the Saw and Hostel
franchises are easily finding their way into the multiplexes. The limits on what precisely makes a
film an 18 seem to be rising and many an older shocker are finding themselves
re-rated 15s for DVD releases. The
video nasties are getting released to disc with their status as
“previously banned” a selling point. It does seem to be a time that the BBFC trusts the viewing
audience more with its decisions on what to watch and what to show to the
Cuts and bans
to films do still happen but it’s in extreme cases where the issue really
arises (although there are many cases of studios accepting cuts for lowering
ratings, but that’s another issue).
However, material like A Serbian
Film and The Human Centipede 2
which have caught the censor’s eye recently, bring us back to our original
question: is censorship ever justified?
There’s no easy answer to that. All that can be said is that one must
consider the intended audience and the filmmaker’s intentions. There will always be an allure of
anything that is meant to be kept out of reach “for our own good”. In
the end, only we can accept the responsibility for the films we choose to
watch. So, to play us out, The Damned!.