A Brief History Of The 'Video Nasty' Scandal And Banned Horror In The UK
As the home video industry change the landscape of cinema in the 1980s, underground and cult films received distribution to an extent that they never had before. In the UK, there was no method for reviewing and rating these films until the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) created a list of “video nasties,” movies they deemed too graphic for public consumption.
Many of the UK’s video nasties were horror films and underground classics that are still inspiring filmmakers today, but the list of 72 films covered a wide swathe of genres. When the list was created, two things happened: moral conservatives did everything they could to banish the movies from England, and young cinephiles hungry for gritty and grimy films went out of their way to find copies of every movie on the list.
- Photo: The Evil Dead / New Line Cinema
The 'Video Nasty' Movement Started Before Censorship Rules Applied To Home Video Releases
When VHS players and video recorders were first brought to the UK in 1978, it was basically the Wild West for the home video market. There were no rules about what kind of movies could be sold in stores or what age you had to be to make a purchase.
Because major distributors were leery of putting their releases on home video, smaller distributors flooded the market with low-budget releases like The Driller Killer and Cannibal Holocaust, as well as a few adult-only films. None of the films that were released on cassette had to appear in front of the BBFC.
Consequently, conservative worrywarts feared that anyone could walk into a video store and pick up a film whose content could corrupt their mind.
- Photo: The Burning / Filmways Pictures
Mary Whitehouse And The National Viewers' and Listeners' Association Took Aim At Home Videos To 'Clean Up' Media
Mary Whitehouse had been on a crusade to "clean up" media since 1965, when she founded a group called the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, later renamed "Mediawatch-UK." Before she went after cult movies on home video, she sued Gay News for publishing The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name, a poem about a Roman centurion who is attracted to Jesus.
Whitehouse also attempted to have obscenity charges placed on the director of The Romans in Britain, a stage play that featured a simulated adult-pleasure scene. Whitehouse hadn't seen the play.
- Photo: Cannibal Holocaust / United Artists Europa
Conservative MP Graham Bright Was Elected, Helping Whitehouse's Social Agenda
Conservative MP Graham Bright was the perfect character to bolster Whitehead's agenda. He felt that video nasties were nothing but cassettes full of hideous violence, accosting, and "cannibalism," a claim he made while creating a bill aimed at the low-budget films.
In 1984 Bright introduced the Video Recordings Act (VRA), a bill that allowed the BBFC to have control over the films that were released in the UK. Aside from allowing the BBFC to decide which films could be sold in stores, it also made it against the law to sell a video that didn't go in front of the board. If a film went in front of the board and was deemed to have objectionable content, it was banned from the country.
After the act was passed, the BBFC had to consider "whether or not video works are suitable for a classification certificate to be issued to them, having special regard to the likelihood of video works [...] being viewed in the home."
The Government Published A List Of Banned Movies
Following the passing of the VRA, the Director of Public Prosecutions published a list of the Video Nasties, showing that they weren't all horror titles. Many were art films from Europe, as well as softcore adult films, and exploitation films.
Some of the more popular and well-known titles on the list were Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave, and The Evil Dead. Common themes and genres include the dead coming back to life, flesh-eating monsters, and low-budget slasher flicks.
- Photo: The Last House On The Left / Hallmark Releasing/American International Pictures
Opponents Of The Video Nasties Used Faux Statistics To Argue Their Case
In order to argue against Video Nasties, Whitehouse and her crew cobbled together a list of "scientific" talking points that were meant to combat any arguments against their censorship of the home video market. One statistic that the group used was that four out of ten British children had been exposed to a Video Nasty.
That statistic sounds legitimate enough, but when you think about, it the number seems inflated. It's unlikely that 40% of Britain's children could have watched something like The House by the Cemetery or any other Video Nasty, because the films weren't that widely circulated.
The List Actually Boosted The Popularity Of The Movies
Rather than marginalize these films that were considered too extreme for the people of Britain, labeling them as Video Nasties only furthered their cult status. In order to see them, fans would watch whatever versions they could get their hands on.
Usually some intrepid horror fan would order a copy of a Video Nasty from Europe and make copies to distribute to their friends. Those copies would themselves be copied, and so on. Many horror fans in England at the time were introduced to some of the most popular horror films of the era via seriously degraded cassettes.
The videos were blurry, the tracking was off, and the sound was bad - but that didn't matter, because getting a hold of it was half of the fun.