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A Brief History Of The 'Video Nasty' Scandal And Banned Horror In The UK

Updated September 23, 2021 11 items

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 HolocaustI 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.