The time: The early 1980s
The place: Britain
The greatest threat to the British way of life, it emerged, was not Thatcher and the divisive ideological project associated with her name but a new technology, home video.
As videos were not required to go before the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors) and as the major studios regarded the new medium as a threat and hesitate to put out their own films, all manner of material suddenly became available from Europe and that has never appeared on British screens.
Somewhere along the line concerns emerged over a particular category of videos, the nasty. The concern was not the traditional one with sex. Films have been prosecuted as pornographic before. Rather it was more about violence and other content for which films had never been prosecuted before.
Some of this concern may have been legitimate. Some was manufactured – sometimes, ironically enough, by distributors lurid packaging and advertising.
The popular press became involved, along with elements of the quality press and others who should have known better. There was the sense that something had to be done. And so an act regulating the video industry was proposed and, with few willing to stand up for the nasties, duly passed into law – or was taken to have been passed into law, as would only become apparent a quarter-century later.
Sadly, the new 2010 VRA (Video Recordings Act) was passed without little debate, although fortunately now it is more or less an irrelevance in the Internet era.
As this summary indicates, the history of the video nasties affair is well-enough known.
The obvious questions are thus whether there is space for and/or a need for The Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide.
To answer this we can begin by itemising what the package contains. The first disc presents a new documentary on the nasties. The second presents trailers and commentary on the 39 films eventually to be successfully prosecuted by the DPP (Department of Public Prosecutions) list. The third does the same for another 33 films which were prosecuted but acquitted. These can be watched either on their own or intercut with commentaries that provide valuable contextualisation and critique.
Including other materials, like a gallery of pre-cert video logos and identifiers (some, like Red Tape, more porn than anything else in their address, others, like Rothmans, not obviously directly relevant to the nasties) there is over 12 hours of material to go through.
It’s not just about the quantity, however. The material is overall of a high quality, the kind of stuff that ranks as an 8 or 9 out of ten.
As such, it’s probably easier for me to begin with the little negatives that remove that final mark or two.
The first of these is the range of fan critics discussing the nasties. Those that are featured – Stephen Thrower, Alan Jones, Kim Newman, Marc Morris, Alan Bryce – are certainly knowledgeable and broadly representative. But there are other figures from the British cult cinema scene who have discussed the nasties before and who conspicuously absent, notably David Kerekes (author of See No Evil) and John Martin (author of Seduction of the Gullible). One hopes that their exclusion was nothing to do with professional rivalries or similar.
The same may be said of the more academic figures like Xavier Mendik and Patricia MacCormack, given that Kate Egan, author of Trash or Treasure, is absent.
Correspondingly the inclusion of Emily Booth amongst the presenters is a bit awkward, particularly when she seems to be reading pre-prepared commentary rather than spontaneously drawing upon her own in-depth knowledge of the subject.
The second are a few errors in the individual commentaries: Discussing Jess Franco’s Devil Hunter, Thrower appears to confuse Sabrina Siani with Ursula Buchfellner. Discussing Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox Alan Bryce indicates that it is Lorraine De Selle’s character who has hooks put through her breasts, when in fact it is Zora Kerowa’s.
It might seem pedantic to point these out, but as the documentary itself demonstrates exactitude is required when we are talking about this subject.
The third is the relative lack of discussion of the wider culture that grew up around the nasties. One reason for this is perhaps that it could entail more self-reflection and, indeed, self-criticism on the part of some of the commentators.
One of the more distinctive aspects of British horror fandom testified to by the entire package here is, after all, not only the continuing centrality of the video nasties but arguably their importance in terms of some of these commentators own careers.
Without wishing to become too ad hominem, I do feel, for instance, that Bryce’s The Dark Side was sometimes overly fixated on the nasties and that this inhibited discussion of other aspects of horror cinema.
Likewise, it would have been interesting to see more analysis of a company like VIPCO and how they worked in relation to the pre-VRA and post-VRA climates, or to hear about what the VRA meant in terms of the creation of this documentary itself, given that there must be images in some of the available trailer materials that still could not be passed for certification.
But, again, these are minor quibbles for a package that does what it sets out to admirably.