In recent years the good old Video Nasty has been enjoying a bit of a renaissance with fans. The likelihood is if you are seriously into horror you will already be well versed in the ins and outs of UK’s infamous Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Video Nasty list of 72 banned films. Part of this resurgence can be attributed to director Jake West’s original documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (2010), released by Severin Films last year, in a lavish 3-disk DVD set.
In the aftermath of this ground-breaking film, Video Nasty fever experienced a regeneration of sorts; with hordes of fans clamoring to get their grabby hands on the formerly banned films and associated merchandise. In fact, the marketability of related product is now hitting its peak—original pre-cert VHS copies of Nasty titles hitting triple figures in value. Fifteen years ago it seemed like you couldn’t give this stuff away. I suspect many of those who—like this writer—gave away their VHS tapes when DVD came to revolutionize home video viewing, are now crying into their cornflakes, although perhaps not as much as those who gave away their Star Wars figures! It seems collectors just can’t get enough of the Nasty, and so it appears to be back, returning like a phoenix in the flames from its former ashes.
But the problem of censorship didn’t just go away in the 1980’s with the Video Nasties. Those initial steps into cracking down on what fictional material the British public could and couldn’t legally watch in the privacy of their own homes continued well into the next decade. Filmmaker Jake West continues to dip into the issues in this his follow up feature, Video Nasties: Draconian Days (2014). The question is can his new documentary hit the high notes of its predecessor, and just what new stories does he have to tell this time? Out on DVD, in a super duper three-disc edition from Severin this week, DIABOLIQUE takes a peek to find out.
There is no denying the key role filmmaker Jake West’s initial chapter, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (2010) has played in influencing the renewed interest surrounding the DPP Video Nasty list—“Video Nasty” being the affectionate media-made buzz word that describes a collective of horror films that were banned under the Obscene Publications Act (1959), or the Video Recordings Act (1984), on grounds of ‘excessive’ sex and/or violence in 1980’s Britain. The fact that many of these films have since been passed through censors uncut—some of them even granted a lesser 15 certificate—demonstrates the inconsistency involved in decisions made around the time. The irony for many of those using the list as some kind of Holy Grail in extreme horror is that many of the titles in reality are neither shocking nor extreme by today’s standards. Many of these films would have just faded into obscurity if it were not for the list urging future generations of fans to continue keeping them in demand.
The story surrounding the Video Nasties had become all but dead and buried, only to be whispered about by those of us who lived to tell the tale in niche social circles. That is until West, a filmmaker with his own personal experience of the era, decided it was time to tell the world. When you put everything out in the open, as West has, some of the events involved could even be considered funny, with the benefit of hindsight. Or they could be if it were not for the fact it was all quite tragic. This was no laughing matter for those who found themselves on the receiving end of the modern day witch hunt—for just being associated with trading or viewing fictional horror films—, a witch hunt fueled by a lunatic media-created moral panic. This lunacy which included, but was not limited to, the Christian crusader cop James Anderton—then Chief Constable of Manchester Police—who, apparently working on a higher mission from God, took his men to march into battle with film fans and video distributors; snatching away tapes in the process, to be destroyed by burning flames and sending his victims up for prosecution to boot. There was also Mary Whitehouse, head of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association—not unlike Tipper Gore and the PMRC, only disguised as a sweet old lady with a white perm. Staunch protector of ‘the children’ and all that is wholesome and good, Mary Whitehouse admitted to never having seen any of the films she was rallying the government to ban. She didn’t have to. They were eroding the values of our society, was all she needed to know. Then there was the government that happily joined in with the media to deceive the public. In the early 1980s, the British government needed a scapegoat for social unrest caused by a number of factors including spiraling unemployment and poverty, and horror fans found themselves demonized as the source of all of society’s ills. News reports that fans weren’t watching horror films, they were in fact watching snuff, and that this is what was driving people to commit mass murder, only served to stoke the flames. MP Graham ‘not so’ Bright, conservative politician, was able to shaft victims of the witch hunt further by swiftly pushing the Private Member’s Bill through Parliament, that eventually became the Video Recordings Act (1984). That would be Graham ‘not so’ Bright, the man who once said in public, with utter conviction, that Video Nasties didn’t just affect people, they also affected dogs. Director Jake West lays this out in all its unsettling glory in his first chapter Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (2010), including archive footage, new interviews and exclusive commentary to further set the scene, digging into the underlying socio-political context to shine some light on how things came to be, and turning the focus to ask the question where do you draw the line when it comes to censorship and fictional film?
In round two, West again opens up the doors to some interesting discussion. Moving away from the initial Nasties—although touching on them to provide context—the director takes his shovel and digs a little deeper this time for Video Nasties: Draconian Days. The overarching theme of this second installment is an examination of the nuclear winter for film fans following the fallout of the original Nasties debacle. These were bleak times indeed; life really wasn’t much fun, especially if you were a young person. All of the good stuff had been cut from mainstream viewing, and to boot, the government most likely had you stacking shelves for a pittance of a wage (£29.50 for a 40 hour week) on the workhouse scheme disguised as training, YTS. On top of this, the government had eradicated enjoyment such as dancing in public places, and generally having fun, off the back of another 90’s panic—the underground rave scene (another Bill that our old friend Graham ‘not so’ Bright had a hand in).
West doesn’t look at these wider issues so much, instead turning a microscope on one of the leading institutions at the center of it all. The BBFC (British Board of Film Classification), or to be more specific one name in particular James Ferman—a name that even now is liable to send a cold shudder down the spine of many a horror fan who weathered the Ferman-era storm. Ferman—who became the reigning figurehead and Director of the institution between 1975 – 1999 had some interesting ideas about ‘classification.’ The word classification for Ferman—a failed film director—translated, in his own mind, to mean ‘censorship;’ exploiting his role to wage his own personal war on sexual violence in films. West’s film examines this post-Nasty era of the BBFC, bringing in some of those who worked with Ferman to unravel the shroud of mystery that veiled the, then, unaccountable institution; and the results are quite eye opening, although depressingly predictable. For the wider issues at hand, the film opens up the narrative to explore the notions of censorship and social control; also brushing on the subject of how film classification/censorship is inextricably linked to ideas of gender and class and how it becomes justified under the argument that certain types of individuals need to be protected from themselves.
The film also examines some of the media panics of the early 1990s, namely Michael Ryan and the Hungerford Massacre and the James Bulger murder, which fueled the press of the time to call for further banning and censorship. Rambo had been cited as a main cause for Ryan’s murderous shooting spree, and the now infamous Child’s Play 3 was labelled as a principle inspiration behind the murder of the 2-year-old child, by two young boys.
Overall, this second part proves the old adage, ‘same shit, different day,’ or in this case’ era.’ The players and material may be different, but the issues remain the same. Draconian Days also widens the net to include, as well as horror film, the domains of pornography, action films, general exploitation, and anything else in the cinematic universe that was likely to cause concern for the censors at the time.
While these are some heavy hitting themes, the real power of Jake West’s work—not only here but in his opening act Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape—lies in his ability as a filmmaker to never lose sight of the humanistic angle. Because cinema is, if nothing more, a very personal experience, West presents this aspect to his audience to capture the true spirit of film fandom. This is most apparent in the secondary story that unfolds, covering the underground tape trading network that evolved from the suppressive regime that dominated home video distribution. Fans were forced to take their activities underground and out of that, a real sense of community grew. This line is mirrored in the first film too: the idea that through ingenuity and sticking together, fans as a collective are able to take some of the power back. In both films the director assembles an impressive line-up of commentators—here they include; Redemption Films’ Nigel Wingrove, British filmmaker Alex Chandon, Nucleus Films’ Marc Morris, Death Waltz Records’ Spencer Hickman, Sheer Filth! Editor David Flint, and Psychotronic Stores’ Tony Clarke, among others—turning the camera on them as they provide insights into their own personal experiences. This gives West’s films a sense of depth and also a feeling of the genuine, that no doubt most fans will be able to identify with. Although, one thing that sadly fell flat for me, on a personal note, is the distinct absence of a female fan voice in the main feature. While the film is not entirely dominated by male commentary, when women do appear they seem to be there in some sort of official or expert capacity, rather than to just wax lyrical about their love for genre film.
If the topics of the day featured in Draconian Days aren’t enough to float your boat, consider this… In fact I can’t believe this is actually going into the extras sections, ‘extras’ seems a bit of an understatement given the sheer volume included here. When Director Jake West and Producer Marc Morris were researching for the film they uncovered a never before seen DPP Section 3 list of 82 titles; these were films that weren’t on the main list of 72 but had nevertheless attracted the attentions of the powers that be; resulting in them being seized from owners, but not always prosecuted. For a long time after the official list was made public, confusion existed as to why some titles had been taken away from individuals but did not appear amongst the infamous 72. Matters are finally put to rest in light of this new information. Severin Films’ three disc DVD edition presents a ridiculous amount of extra material covering this matter. Exclusive featurettes (each around 8-10 minutes long) for every single one of the 82 titles on the DPP Section 3 list—just soak that in—over 9 hours of material for this section of the discs alone. The makers bring in a host of experts, critics and filmmakers to talk about the films involved, including the likes of Stephen Thrower, Kim Newman, Alan Jones, and Dr. Karen Oughton. This is a seriously impressive collection, essential for any horror/exploitation fan. Even if you have seen most of the films involved, the scope for entertainment opportunities here is expansive to say the least. An original trailer for each of the featured films is also included in the set.
The US edition also comes with Fanzine Flashback – Image Gallery of 300 rare British Fanzine covers from 1985 – 1995, and DPP 72 & 82 Slideshows – Image Gallery of banned video sleeves.
Jake West carries on his exploration to deliver a comprehensive picture of the post-Nasty era and British film censorship in the 1990s, in the process unraveling the story of BBFC director James Ferman, and the chaos he created, as well as celebrating the fan and collecting culture that grew out of this bleak situation. Another piece in the puzzle to understanding the complex issue of Britain’s ongoing issues with censorship and film, this is a must for all those with even a passing interest in the subject of artistic freedom. But then the set is worth buying just for the wealth and expanse of extra material that comes with the main feature. Seriously impressive stuff!