Monday, 5 March 2007

Shock! Horror! / The Original Video Nasties

Though both growing out of the same broad environment, Alan Bryce's The Original Video Nasties: from Absurd to Zombie Flesh Eaters and Francis Brewster, Harvey Fenton and Marc Morris's Shock! Horror! present contrasting views of the world of the pre-Video Recordings Act (VRA) video landscape in the UK.

To explain – and here dealing very much with the basic facts, upon which both volumes are in agreement – During the early days of home video the major studios felt that the format was their enemy and accordingly released films onto video tentatively at best. This created a product vacuum which was filled by countless enterprising distributors, who pretty much bought up whatever product they could get their hands on, including a lot of low-budget, obscure European and North American horror and exploitation films.

Fighting for shelf space, these videos needed to attract the prospective renter's attention, encouraging all manner of over-the-top box covers – the near-naked upside down crucified woman of SS Experiment Camp, the flesh-hungry savages of Cannibal Holocaust or the drill tearing through flesh and bone of The Driller Killer.

Unsurprisingly it was soon decided by the moral entrepreneurs that “something ought to be done” and, a media campaign and some government legislation, a number of films found themselves banned as legally obscene and countless others en route to oblivion as not worth paying the money to have certificated. The odd little mistake like The Burning – accidentally put out on video with footage cut by the censors – aside, the majors, meanwhile, took control of the industry, thank you very much...

But whereas Alan Bryce's book concentrates its attention on the video nasties and the VRA, Brewster and company's casts its net wider, giving equal weight to the larger number of pre-VRA and pre-Video Packaging Recordings Committee (VPRC) releases that have never been granted the prestige of an official nasty label.

To explain again: While the VRA might have gotten rid of the most contentious films, it did less about contentious artwork. Thus, in the wake of the Hungerford Massacre (a purportedly “Rambo” inspired mass killing spree) it was decided that video artwork and packaging now also had to be officially approved. The effects of this can be seen, for example, in the subtle change to the iconic artwork for Argento's Tenebrae (itself a former a VRA casualty) where the trail of blood from the woman's neck inexplicably becomes a bow, somehow being deemed more “tasteful”.

This wider focus is one reasons that Brewster and company's book is preferable to Bryce's. Yet even beyond this its coverage of the nasties themselves is actually better, with more detail and less obvious rehashing of the same old material, worsened by Bryce's frequent references to films that are now available as ones he cannot imagine ever getting a certificate. And while he has attempted to update his write-ups of the nasties with information on their DVD releases, these are perfunctory and immediately out of date.

Needless to say, Argento, giallo and Eurocult fans are also better served by Shock! Horror! because its wider remit allows for the inclusion of the likes of Spasmo, S(c)hock, Rings of Fear and The Other Hell.

Score this one as FAB Press 1, Stray Cat 0


stephen grimes said...

Ahh the good ole days of the video nasty and bad quality bootleg tape-trading in the 1990's,you can't call yourself a real Eurocult fan unless you were there and part of it :-)(that was a joke btw)
Have you read SEE NO EVIL yet Keith?A great book from a few years ago that is the last word on the subject though Marc Morris' pictorial SHOCK HORROR! comes a very close second.

K H Brown said...

Well, I was and wasn't there - I never saw any of the nasties at the time, except as lurid / alluring box covers and only started really exploring the films themselves in the early 1990s, after reading Martin Barker's book on them. Coincidentally I'm going to a conference later this month which he is the keynote speaker at, so I'll get a chance to be all academic fanboy :-)

I've got the See No Evil book, and indeed am now going to post an old review of it.

Oli said...

I met Martin Barker at a conference in January and, also being an academic fanboy, asked him to get The Video Nasties back in print.

As Stephen says, See No Evil is by far the definitive work on the subject.

stephen grimes said...

I remeber watching stuff like The Exorcist,Last House on the Left,Texas Chainsaw etc as an 11/12 year old at friends houses when there parents were out back in 1983,but didn't get the bug properly until over a decade later.