Words: Scott Burns.
The Eighties: Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands War, David Hasselhoff. But what about the good stuff?
Well, there was Rik and Ade, Factory Records, the Summer Blockbuster (if, like me, you were of an age in single digits) and films on video were available uncut and uncensored to the discerning. Well, for a short time anyway…
Home video was a technological revolution, especially in the UK where sales and rentals of video recorders were extremely healthy. The ability to record television transmissions and replay them at will was incredibly enticing to sports-obsessed Brits.
Alongside this, a cottage industry blossomed. As Hollywood was initially sceptical about the format (not to mention the threat of piracy), small companies sprang up to fill the content void. Also, small video rental stores were opened up and down the country where, for a modest fee, one could hire a film on videocassette and keep it overnight to watch. The usual genres ruled the roost: action; cartoons; thrillers etc.
But, above these, the horror genre reigned. Brits were used to seeing their gory gut-spillers in editions heavily cut by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) in cinemas. Sometimes, the BBFC would refuse a film a certificate if they felt that it was too controversial for the British public. The films most affected by this attitude were the extreme horror movies coming out of Europe (mostly Italy) and the US (most famously, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was refused a certificate despite being passed by the Greater London Council with an ‘X’ rating).
But video did not fall into the remit of the BBFC and thus did not have to be pre-approved by the Board to be released. The floodgates were opened and a tidal wave of extreme, gory horror washed over the country. Films cut for cinema (Sam Raimi’s extraordinary The Evil Dead) or banned outright (Ruggero Deodato’s horrific Cannibal Holocaust amongst others) or those never even seen by the Board were bought by small companies at festivals and sales events and made available to the general public. These films would be advertised with especially gruesome poster artwork and it was this that first attracted the attention of the “moral majority”.
After a successful campaign against gory posters the censorious forces, led by national “Clean-Up Media” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, turned their attention to the actual films themselves. Thanks to a national campaign, boosted by hysterical headlines from the press, the Conservative government promised to look into the issue. Enter Graham Bright, an ambitious Conservative back-bencher who tabled a Private Members’ Bill looking into the video industry.
At the same time there was action by the authorities that seemed incredibly overzealous prompting the video industry to beg them for clarity. So the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) prepared a list of 72 potentially impoundable titles so video dealers and the shops they supplied knew what films not to stock. Over the months, 33 films were dropped from the list leaving 39 still considered problematic by the authorities. But the full “nasties” list remains definitive for horror fans obsessed with seeing them all. Bright’s bill became the Video Recordings Act 1984 which brought video films into the remit of the BBFC (which had changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification), who would routinely tell distributors not to submit certain “nasty” titles. Those that did re-submit usually found their films cut to shreds or refused a certificate, disappointing horror fans.
Throughout the eighties and nineties horror films and their supposed effects on people remained a controversial issue but attitudes changed in the new millennium. The BBFC became much more liberal in terms of previous policy and much more open to scrutiny by the public. As a result many films thought beyond the pale were released in trimmed versions (including the controversial “Cannibal” films, especially their scenes of animal cruelty and slaughter, and the still-problematic I Spit On Your Grave) or completely uncut (one of the first successes being The Evil Dead). Films that were considered corrupt and evil by the powers-that-be were now released upon the British public and society survived (or to put it better, society remained as complex and unpredictable as usual).
One film, Wes Craven’s harsh debut picture The Last House On The Left, was resubmitted by Anchor Bay UK and cut by 18 seconds by the BBFC. Anchor Bay UK appealed the decision but the verdict was that the Board were too lenient and doubled the amount of cuts. To recoup costs, Anchor Bay UK had no choice but to release a censored edition of the film to the public (although, seemingly to troll the BBFC, a step-through gallery of screen-grabs of the deleted sequences was passed and included on the DVD). The film was then released completely uncut by the Board a few years later, prompting bemused reactions from anti-censorship campaigners.
While the BBFC has still rejected “nasties” more recently, with two examples being from the deliberately-controversial “Naziploitation” genre, Love Camp 7 and The Gestapo’s Last Orgy, other films still remain cut (I Spit On Your Grave for sexual violence, the “Cannibal” films for cruelty to animals) but many “nasties” are now available to the British public, as the director intended.