To an American cit­i­zen, the idea of hav­ing the gov­ern­ment cen­sor your choice of hor­ror films is hard to imag­ine.  However, that was a true-life hor­ror that British gen­re fans know all too well.  In the ear­ly ‘80s, England lived through a trumped-up “moral pan­ic” that saw moral watch­dogs, hack jour­nal­ists and over­am­bi­tious politi­cians team­ing up to ban and even­tu­al­ly edit a series of hor­ror and exploita­tion films on home video.  The tabloid epi­thet for the films in ques­tion was “video nas­ties” — and a doc­u­men­tary of the same name VideoNas-posexplores how this sur­re­al series of events was more hor­ri­fy­ing and unbe­liev­able that many of the films that were being cen­sored.

Video Nasties tells the com­plex and col­or­ful tale of the tit­u­lar scandal/phenomenon in just under 75 min­utes.  The ear­ly sce­nes reveal how the VHS rev­o­lu­tion unleashed a tidal wave of lurid­ly pro­mot­ed hor­ror and exploita­tion into video stores.  However, the in-your-face meth­ods of pro­mo­tion back­fired, arous­ing the ire of bluenose media watch­dogs like the infa­mous Mary Whitehouse.  She had a lot of pull with jour­nal­ists and politi­cians, which led to a series of sen­sa­tion­al­ized news sto­ries, video con­fis­ca­tions, arrests for an unlucky few and ulti­mate­ly a law that allowed home video to come under the same BBFC cen­sor­ship as the­atri­cal releas­es.

The result­ing doc­u­men­tary is equal parts exposé and black com­e­dy.  Director Jake West weaves togeth­er numer­ous inter­views into a com­pelling oral his­to­ry.  Some of the most inter­est­ing com­men­ta­tors are Geoffrey Robertson, a civil rights lawyer who defend­ed some of the pros­e­cut­ed video deal­ers, and Martin Bright, one of the few jour­nal­ists who had the courage to speak up in favor of free­dom of choice.  Their tales illus­trate how the real the risks were toVideoNas-01 those involved in this con­tro­ver­sy and reveal how the “moral pan­ic” angle was real­ly a way for news­pa­pers to sell more copies and politi­cians to dis­guise their real fail­ings.

There are also wit­ty obser­va­tions from a vari­ety of gen­re schol­ars, with Kim Newman and Stephen Thrower offer­ing some of the best insights about both fly-by-night video deal­er prac­tices and the dom­i­neer­ing nature of the cen­sors.  It’s inter­est­ing to note that Video Nasties also allows par­tic­i­pants from the pro-ban­ning side have their say: the top inter­vie­wees from that side of the aisle are Graham Bright, who authored the anti-video nasty law, and Peter Kruger, a Scotland Yard offi­cer who presid­ed over the con­fis­ca­tion and cat­a­logu­ing of the video nasty titles.  To his cred­it, West nev­er tries to make either of the­se men appear like a vil­lain: instead, their wrong-head­ed rhetoric and patron­iz­ing atti­tudes do that job for the film­mak­ers.VideoNas-02

Video Nasties is also inter­est­ing because it reveals details that even devot­ed fol­low­ers of this saga might not know.  For instance, the video nas­ties list was not the cre­ation of the BBFC: despite that long-stand­ing rumor, the list was cre­at­ed by law enforce­ment well before the BBFC was involved.  Also, the pres­ence of Bright allows him to reveal the tricky par­lia­men­tary rules and pro­ce­dures that allowed the law he penned to be rushed into action so quick­ly. You’ll also dis­cov­er an iron­ic over­sight made dur­ing this rush that seems dark­ly humor­ous in hind­sight (won’t spoil it here, see the doc­u­men­tary to find out).  The cred­it for a lot of this detail should go to Marc Morris, who pro­duced and also served as chief researcher on this film.

Finally, it’s worth men­tion­ing that Video Nasties nev­er suc­cumbs to talk­ing-head dull­ness despite its inter­view-dri­ven nature.  For starters, West edit­ed his film well, pac­ing it breath­less­ly and mak­ing excel­lent use of t.v. footage and film clips to provide a sense of visu­al vari­ety.  Sometimes, the use of clips is unique­ly inspired: for instance Bright’s mus­ings aVideoNas-03bout how some video nas­ties might have includ­ed real vio­lence is fol­lowed by a cheeky clip from the trail­er for Snuff.  That said, the best edit­ing in this doc­u­men­tary might be a wild bar­rage of shock­ing clips at the start of the film that cov­ers every film on the video nas­ties list, set to the tune of “Nasty” by the Damned.

In short, Video Nasties chron­i­cles an impor­tant part of hor­ror his­to­ry in a fast-paced enter­tain­ing way while also pro­vid­ing a time­ly reminder of how extreme art can be scape­goat­ed by the ambi­tious and igno­rant.  If you val­ue the wild side of hor­ror, this is some­thing you need to see.

 

 

NastiesTrailer from Severin Films on Vimeo.