Jake West’s Video Nasties is perhaps the best documentary on the history Video Recordings Act Of 1984, the ugly and infamously fascistic law that led to the neutering of horror fare on home video on U.K. home video. That law would go on to have lingering effects on English film censorship and the U.K. horror scene, not to mention emboldening the guardians of “morality” to try and commit worse crimes against artistic freedom.
West and producing partner Marc Morris have produced a sequel to that documentary that explores the aftermath of this law – and the result, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, offers a memorable cautionary tale about what happens when the moral watchdogs get their way.
Fittingly, the new documentary starts by exploring the background of James Ferman, the man who ran English censor board BBFC through the end of the 1990’s and rose to new heights of power as a result of the Video Recordings Act. The film reveals he had a media background, having directed television shows as a young man. This made him uniquely savvy at manipulating the media via interviews and lectures – and it ensured that he was extremely hands-on in his censorship, sometimes even reediting films to dilute their impact.
Ferman was also vicious in his desire to retain control of his job: at one point, he sacked his staff overnight so he could hire a new, easier to manipulate group of assistant censors. His control allowed him to indulge unique fixations that led to bizarre targets of censorship, like refusing to allow The Exorcist to be released in England or cutting all scenes depicting nunchakus from films released in the U.K. He would ultimately overstep his bounds and the incident that brought his downfall is surprising.
However, Ferman is not the only villain that appears in Video Nasties: Draconian Days. A decent amount of time is devoted to exploring how an incident of two children murdering a younger child became a video-nasty witchhunt that targeted the unlikely, innocuous choice of Child’s Play 3. The way the U.K. media manipulates this incident for controversy is guaranteed to make a horror fan’s blood boil. You’ll also see how this Child’s Play 3 emboldened politician David Alton to write legislation so censorious that it even made Ferman balk at its extreme nature.
Alton’s legislation ultimately passed, resulting in even tougher censorship. However, it also spawned a newly devoted underground of fans and they also get their due in Video Nasties: Draconian Days. A section in the latter part of the film explores how a fanzine scene thrived in these dark times, leading to conventions and festivals: a fun bit reveals how the Scala cinema, an old theater in a dodgy part of London, became a festival hub and gave young fans their own British version of a 42nd Street theater experience. There’s also some discussion of how adventurous fans would smuggle in uncut films from other countries, using drug smuggling-type methods, and how they learned to stay on guard under the ever-present threat of police raids.
In short, Video Nasties: Draconian Days is not only a strong companion piece to its predecessor but also an interesting study of how the power of censorship can corrupt those wielding the censor’s knife, how the media and politicians use art as a scapegoat to suit their own needs and how brave fans can keep forbidden art alive even when their own government turns against them. West presents these complex ideas in an engaging, fast-moving style, creating a film that is as entertaining and suspenseful as it is educational.
Any fan of extreme or wild horror needs to see this documentary so they can learn just how bad it can get for fans of this fare – and how and why they should fight back.