Video nasties: Moral panic spawned a canon of cult horror movies

Jun 8, 2021 5:29 AM
moral panicvideo nastiesagency and controlhorrormedia influence

Prano Baily-Bond’s Censor has an otherworldly air about it. The protagonist, Enid (Niamh Algar), sits in a smoky Soho basement, wearing a high-buttoned shirt and gold-rimmed spectacles, watching and re-watching footage of blood-splattered women. She carefully cuts out shots of entrails and glimpses of genitals but permits a little “screwdriver stuff.” This windowless purgatory under seedy neon lights may feel like a Black Mirror dystopia of censorship, a fictional world in the grips of a sinister government fixated on salacious art. In reality, the film (which hits American theaters June 11 and VOD June 18) is reflecting a very real moment in relatively recent U.K. history: the early 1980s, an era of bizarre moral panic. It’s the age of the so-called video nasties.

Despite what the most recent season of The Crown might have you believe, Thatcherite Britain was a grim place. It brought mass electricity shortages, the destruction of the manufacturing industry, the Falklands War, the miners strike, conflict with the IRA, mass unemployment, race riots, and the AIDS epidemic, to name just a few of the defining events of the decade. If you were poor, queer, female, a person of color, or any combination of the preceding, it was a particularly dark time. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party held anyone who fit those descriptions in naked contempt, so it’s hardly surprising that the government did little to make their lives better. Instead, the powers that were created a scapegoat, the made-up threat of movies supposedly corroding the social fabric.

The years following Thatcher’s election coincided with a boom in the home video market, which proved beneficial for smaller, independent films not backed by major distributors—the very kind of movies that weren’t being released theatrically in the U.K. at all and hence bypassed the scrutiny and classification of the British Board of Film Censors. Soon, the market was flooded with low-cost exploitation fare. Both the government and the media were outraged by the availability of such cheap thrills and the possibility that, by bringing them into the home, children were being corrupted by their images. By 1982, it was all over the papers, an effective cause célèbre. The Sunday Times headline read “How High Street Horror Is Invading The Home,” the Daily Mail proclaimed “Ban Video Sadism Now,” and the Mirror went with “Seize The Video Nasties!” Self-appointed moral custodian and anti-liberal activist Mary Whitehouse relentlessly campaigned against the video nasties, meeting with the press, writing letters to politicians, and eventually appearing in front of Conservative members of Parliament to show them compilations of scenes she deemed most dangerous.

The video nasty panic was a swirling vortex of all of Thatcherite Britain’s worst impulses: hatred of youth culture, classism, xenophobia, technophobia, and a clutched-pearl outrage that “no one is protecting the children!” Not that it was just kids, apparently, who needed protecting. The adult working class had to be sheltered, too, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, lest they think it was aspirational. After a screening of the film, BBFC chief censor James Ferman said exactly as much: “It’s all right for you middle class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?” As public outrage at video nasties reached its apex, Conservative MP Graham Bright even appealed to the British public’s love of their canine companions to court popularity, saying straight-faced on television that, “Research is taking place and it will show that these films not only affect young people but I believe they affect dogs as well.”

In 1984, Bright’s Video Recordings Act passed, giving the BBFC the power to ban and censor videos, and to criminalize the sale or possession of films deemed objectionable. The Director of Public Prosecutions first published its list of video nasties in 1983, ahead of the passing of the bill, though films could be prosecuted then under the pre-existing Obscene Publications Act. Once the bill passed, the list would be updated with new entries. While some films were removed when their prosecutions failed, distribution of said titles could still be banned and the content of the films censored by the BBFC.

In total, 72 films would appear on the DPP’s list. Thirty-nine were categorized under Section 1, films successfully prosecuted and banned as “obscene publications.” A further 33 films were not prosecuted, but anyone dealing or distributing them could be personally prosecuted for disseminating obscene material and face hefty fines or even jail time. This lays bare the absurdity of the system, where the courts could find a film innocent of obscenity but the BBFC could still make its distribution or possession illegal. There was also a third group—a supplementary list of 82 films that authorities could confiscate on a “less obscene charge.” This group included some of the greatest works of horror cinema ever made, including The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Thing, Night Of The Living Dead, and Suspiria.

Looking back through a modern lens on these lists, particularly the 72 official video nasties, it’s hard to entirely comprehend how anyone sincerely felt most of these titles were a grave danger to society. What’s most evident, with even a cursory glance, is the xenophobia of the selection process. Though the British film industry has a rich tradition of horror, the vast majority of films on the list are American and Italian. While every monster movie Hammer Film Productions produced was permitted as legitimate cinema, Italian giallo was labelled an abomination and U.S. horror from this era decried as a part of a general British stereotype of Americans as loud, extreme, and unsophisticated. The subtext was clear: Cozy little England had to shield itself from the wares of sadistic foreign invaders looking to corrupt our youth, our factory workers, and our dogs.

A few titles, heavy on sex and violence, seem to define the video nasty in the collective imagination, then and now—films like The Evil Dead, The Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, and I Spit On Your Grave. But the list casts a much wider, broader net. Sometimes, the rationale for inclusion is obvious: A graphic sexual assault scene almost guaranteed membership, as did titles containing the word “cannibal” or an allusion to Nazis. Other times, it’s much less clear why something qualified. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has a reputation for being extreme, but it’s only misremembered as a film with much gore or nudity. The BBFC seemed to punish the film for being so effectively terrifying through the power of suggestion. (Which it to say, for being good!) The inclusion of I Miss You, Hugs And Kisses is equally strange because, while the Canadian murder mystery is decidedly not good, the movie contains only a few moments of violence and it would be hard for anyone to argue that it was horror at all.

Were you to work your way through all the films on the list, you would definitely encounter blood, naked women, serial killers, and blood-soaked naked women serial killers. But you’d also discover a wide range of quality and intentions. “A horrifically abused woman murders a bunch of people” is a description that could apply to both Axe and The Witch Who Came From The Sea. But one is ugly, dull, and totally forgettable, while the other is dreamy, lyrical, and beautifully acted. Lumping The Witch Who Came From The Sea or Late Night Trains or Tenebrae in with movies of no particular artistic ambition denies horror’s potential as an art form, its ability to explore complicated ideas through extremity. Even as the wave of strict censorship has eased over the years, a disdain for the genre has endured, as has the notion that consuming it is a fundamentally masochistic act (a conclusion that’s puzzlingly never drawn about war movies). Horror has become more widely acclaimed in recent years, but some of the praise comes with qualification: To label recent films like Hereditary, The Babadook, and It Follows “elevated horror” is to imply that horror needs elevating, when it’s been spawning works of nuance, artistry, and profound political conscience since its inception.

Now, obviously, no one is suggesting children should have easy access to, say, the collected works of Dario Argento. But the video nasties panic also limited access to these films for adult horror fans—and worse, implied that there was something wrong with them for wanting to see the movies. There has never been any compelling evidence to suggest that consuming horror films makes people more violent; that should be obvious from even a cursory glance at human history. Blaming horror movies for societal ills was an offensive distraction from those ills, and an easy way to shift the focus away from the raging sexism, racism, homophobia, and wealth inequality of the time.

Of course, some of what you’d encounter running through the video nasties list is indeed inexcusable. Gestapo’s Last Orgy, for one, is a trashy Italian romp set in an abandoned concentration camp, and it’s disgustingly anti-Semitic. There’s also the infamous Faces Of Death, which presents itself as a kind of snuff-film highlight reel. While the mondo horror film was long purported to contain real violence and onscreen death, the creators have since claimed that it features only one actually unscripted moment: the body of a drowned man that washed ashore while the Faces Of Death crew were filming nearby. That they seized the opportunity to slide this tragedy next to fake monkey brain bashings and alligator attacks exemplifies the project’s contemptuous lack of human decency.

Cannibal Holocaust is a different story. Unlike Gestapo’s Last Orgy and Faces Of Death (and putting aside its uncomfortable portrayals of indigenous people), it’s actually pretty good! Generally considered the first found-footage horror movie, it’s framed as the lost recordings of a group of documentary filmmakers that go missing in the Amazon—three men and a woman whose own raping, plundering, and arson provokes their ostensible subjects and leads to their spectacularly violent demise. There are plenty of interesting ideas at play in Cannibal Holocaust about colonialism and the savagery of supposedly civilized men. There’s also a lot of very extreme carnage: The deaths on screen were so convincing that many (including an Italian magistrate) believed it was an actual snuff film, to the point where the actors had to come forward to prove they were still alive after director Ruggero Deodato was arrested and charged with murder. What makes Cannibal Holocaust difficult to excuse isn’t the simulated human torture but the film’s horrific, very un-simulated animal cruelty. It’s easy to defend an adult viewer’s right to watch a horror movie, much tougher to defend inflicting real horrors on living creatures to create said movie.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Show your inbox you have great taste in news media by subscribing to The A.V. Club's newsletter.

The video nasty legislation wasn’t merely unjust, resulting in the prosecution of approximately 3,000 people and untold misery. It was also doomed to fail from the start. Putting so much totemic value on these films naturally backfired, granting a second life of enduring infamy to movies that otherwise would have been barely seen and swiftly forgotten—including some that deserved that fate, like Human Experiments, Love Camp 7, and The Beast In Heat. If anything good came out of this shameful moral hysteria, it’s the way the list has exposed far more people to genuinely interesting and well-crafted movies like The Witch Who Came From The Sea, The Cannibal Man, or Nightmare (a.k.a. Nightmare In A Damaged Brain). In the years since the list was compiled, horror fans in and outside Britain have worked their way through the video nasties, reveling in their extremes and laughing at their frequent shoddiness. The rise of the internet has made almost all of the titles accessible, and most of their shocking moments can now be streamed on YouTube. Society didn’t crumble. Factory workers witnessed Leatherface and didn’t go on murderous rampages. And, thankfully, the dogs seem to be doing just fine, too.