Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Review

The video nasty scare was more than a quarter-century ago, and those who remember it first-hand are now middle-aged at least. It's easy to dismiss it as one of a long line of moral panics at a new medium that seemed to be getting out of hand, especially if children were allegedly involved. (Compare this, if you will, with the controversy over horror comics in the 1950s.) Nowadays most of the films that made the Director of Public Prosecution's infamous list are commercially available in the UK with BBFC certificates and many of them are even uncut (some even with 15 certificates) . Those that aren't contain illegal material which has to be cut (often unsimulated violence to animals). Others have sunk back into the obscurity from which they came and probably would have stayed in if they hadn't appeared on the list.

Yet the Nasties moral panic is instructive, in the way that by means of tabloid scare tactics, some undeniably gruesome out-of-context extracts and a large amount of rhetoric can have the desired effect, namely the Video Recordings Act of 1984, an Act of Parliament which invoked the only state-mandated censorship that applies in the UK. (BBFC cinema certificates are at least in theory, if usually not in practice, at the discretion of local councils and no other medium has a legally binding classification system in the UK.)

Jake West's illuminating documentary, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, details how this came about. Home video recording had existed (as reel-to-reel tape machines) since 1956, but for the next two decades these had been expensive items which were rich men's toys or the province of gadget freaks. (As an aside, home recordings have been a source of finding lost and wiped television programmes.) But in 1978, the video cassette recorder was launched. A medium had found its time, and it changed the nature of film and television viewing forever. You no longer had to miss a programme if you were out. And home viewing of feature films, outside the schedules of television channels (only three in the UK in 1978) became a reality – and without the cuts that those channels routinely made. And films that would never then be shown on the small screen. (It's important to remember that many of the films on the Nasties list had had cinema releases, though often with BBFC cuts.)

Soon there were video rental shops on every high street – individual shops, not parts of chains – and countless businesses were set up which bought up a joblot of films and set up to distribute them. Almost immediately, you can sense some anxieties about this new medium – not without some class snobbery, as video rental was initially a mainly working class activity. It wasn't long before some of the more lurid titles – and their gory covers – attracted the attention of the media. Titles such as Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust were among the first to be in the firing line. A campaign led by the Daily Mail and by Mary Whitehouse, claiming that these films were being watched in their thousands by underaged children, led to Conservative MP Graham Bright introducing a Private Member's Bill – with the support of the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This resulted in the Video Recordings Act.

Meanwhile, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) had drawn up a list of films liable to be seized and prosecuted under Section 2 of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 (OPA). Seventy-two titles made this list, though thirty-three were later removed. This list, not intended for public use, became many a horror fan's must-see checklist. Original copies of these videos now change hands for large amounts of money on the collector's market.

West's film tells this story, in a combination of new interviews and archive footage. While it's clear that the documentary is on the anti-censorship side, the pro-censorship side is given its say, with interviews with Bright, Mediawatch head John Beyer and (archivally) Whitehouse. Also interviewed are Martin Barker, editor of the invaluable book published at the time The Video Nasties, who became interested in the subject because he was researching the horror comics scare of the 1950s and noticed a similar level of hysteria and became one of the few public voices standing up to it and is still angry today. Also commenting are several experts on the horror genre, including Allan Bryce, Alan Jones, Marc Morris and Stephen Thrower, and film director Neil Marshall. Extracts from many of the films are shown, so squeamish viewers beware.

Of course back then there was no Internet (which has had its own share of scare stories), and no way of obtaining films from abroad without travelling there, let alone dowloading films legally or otherwise. But could it happen again? I wouldn't be so sure that it couldn't, and this documentary shows how, with a combination of media hysteria, dodgy statistics and downright misleading claims, it did happen.

The DVDs

The Video Nasties: The Ultimate Guide is a set of three dual-layered DVDs encoded for all regions. Disc One contains the documentary described above, plus some extras. I describe the contents of Discs Two and Three below.

The aspect ratio is 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced. My review copy comprised three DVD-Rs, all compressed to single layers, which probably makes the HD interview material a little softer than it will be in the final version. The archive footage is mostly derived from television broadcasts and is noticeably artefacted, and the clips from the films themselves are of varying quality – though original aspect ratios are often respected.

I've listed the soundtrack as Dolby Surround though surround sound is mostly confined to the Nucleus Films logo. The documentary itself is plain mono for the most part, as you would expect from a film made up talking-heads interviews, extracts from television programmes from the early 80s (when all channels broadcast in mono) and extracts from films almost all of which had mono soundtracks. (Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse was one exception to that.)

Subtitles are provided, oddly, only for the trailers on Discs Two and Three, but not for the introductions and for any of the documentary.

The extras on Disc One begin with a Video Ident-a-Thon, which is exactly what it says – company logos, one after the other, in alphabetical order, running 53:12. Exhaustive, not to say exhausting, and I don't imagine very many people will watch this from beginning to end. There is an alphabetical index.

A bonus gallery (8:28) displays the sleeves of the eighty videos that the DPP advised were not liable for prosecution under Section 2 of the OPA but could still be seized under Section 3. From the Scene Selection page there is a link to a page of DVD Credits. Click on the dot to the left of this and you will find an Easter Egg in which academic and anti-censorship campaigner Julian Petley shows us a video case with something rather different inside.

Finally, Disc One contains trailers for a long list of other Nucleus releases: The Playgirls and the Vampire, Night of the Bloody Apes, Cannibal Girls, Teaserama, Varietease, Ghost Story, Grindhouse Trailer Classics 2, Bloodbath at the House of Death, Grindhouse Trailer Classics 1, Death Ship, Fausto 5.0, Gwendoline, The Ugliest Woman in the World, Between Your Legs, Fantasm, Fantasm Comes Again, The Good Little Girls, Justine's Hot Nights, Scandalous Photos, Dressage and Education Anglaise.

For the purposes of this review, I've regarded the documentary on Disc One as the feature and everything else as extras, though you could argue that Discs Two and Three contain much of what makes this set essential to horror fans. Disc Two features “The Final 39”, the films which remained on the DPP's list. In alphabetical order, each one is given an introduction – which often contains clips and some rare trailer material and TV spots (including one for Tenebrae I remember seeing on TV back at the time of its cinema release in 1983) – followed by the film's trailer. The introductions come from a variety of familiar names, including actress Emily Booth, who provides a general, if somewhat over-flirtatious, introduction. Others include Dr Patricia McCormack (who has a tattoo from The Beyond on her arm, so take a guess which is one of the films she introduces) and many of the genre luminaries who also feature in the documentary. The intros and trailers run to 243:07. A “trailer only” option runs 87:09. A picture gallery (4:30) displays the sleeves of all thirty-nine videos.

Disc Three gives the same treatment treatment to “The Dropped 33”, those titles that were included on the list at one time but were later removed from it. Here, intros and trailers combined run to 202:11 and the trailers-only option 76:33. The picture gallery runs 3:32.

The two discs offer seven hours of material that's essential reference for horror fans, and a well-produced documentary puts it in context. For once, “definitive” is correct. One of the DVD releases of the year.

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