What were the Video Nasties?

Daniel Woods

There’s an old adage that the more you try to cover things up the more people aim to seek it out. It’s known as the Streisand effect. There’s perhaps no finer example in British filmic history than the video nasty. Before the public pressure groups and the Thatcher administration’s prohibition the nasties were just an eclectic assortment of films. Now, the video nasties function as a fascinating cultural artifact. They’re a wide spread of genre and form. They’re horror and comedy. They’re beautiful art pieces and fascinating windows into the most depraved parts of the human psyche. By banning them, the government made them icons. Impact’s Daniel Woods explores.

Most video nasties have faded into obscurity. For example, it’s rare that anyone bar the most devoted splatter horror fan could tell you anything about 1981’s Visiting Hours. However, some have risen to iconic status. Twenty-two-year-old Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981) launched a franchise powerhouse while others became prominent works in the filmography of celebrated horror auteurs. Italian giallo master Dario Argento had two films banned: Tenebrae (1982) and Inferno (1980), the sequel to his magnum opus Suspiria (1977). 

To understand the moment of the Video Nasty we must first consider the circumstances that led to them. In 1964, teacher, conservative activist and general busy-body Mary Whitehouse founded the National Viewers and Listeners Association (NVLA) in an effort to stem the tide of liberalism in media that Whitehouse feared was corrupting the youth of the day. They quickly got to work. 

The NVLA’s focus was scattershot but by no means wholly ineffective. They took particular issue with the BBC, with Whitehouse leading the charge against soap opera storylines and Doctor Who alike. Whitehouse became an anathema around the office, simultaneously a figure of fun and a painful thorn in the media’s side. She often failed in her attempts to affect the BBC but Whitehouse did find some successes elsewhere. In the 1970s Whitehouse became the first person to successfully prosecute for blasphemous libel in the 20th century, when she brought magazine Gay News to the stand for publishing a poem by James Kirkup exploring the feelings of a gay centurion towards Christ.

The NVLA continued to act as an intermittently effective pressure group for some time. They successfully lobbied Top of the Pops to not show Alice Cooper’s Schools Out For Summer and found some other minor successes. Most of her work was done under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 – introduced by a labour MP under a Tory Government as a stripping back of the even more powerful common law precedent set beforehand– which had the power to ban any media deemed liable “to deprave and corrupt” the public. 

the works marketed themselves more on their ability to revolt, thrill and terrify the viewer than on their artistic merit

At the time there was a loophole in the Obscene Publications Act meant that the British Board Of Film Classification didn’t have to review video that was being imported in the same way they’d review cinema releases. Films that would’ve been outright banned or cut to pieces were freely available. This would prove to be a problem as in the early 1980s video was a nascent medium. The format wars were still ongoing and major studios were holding off on porting their films to VHS in case Sony’s Betamax technology took off. As such, the home video market was initially flooded by an influx of independent and smaller films.

These films would often be marketed with hyperbolic covers that could be divorced from the film itself. In a manner reminiscent of the mass market paperback horrors that gave the nasties their name, the works marketed themselves more on their ability to revolt, thrill and terrify the viewer than on their artistic merit. A quick visit to the video store’s adult section could lead to a prospective shopper seeing The Driller Killer (1979), in which a drill is inserted into a man’s head on the front sleeve. A few videos away the same customer could see a zombified corpse interred in what appeared to be raw sewage – Fulci’s The Beyond (1981) or a man being crucified on the back of Deepriver Savages (1972).

the Video Recordings act of 1984 gave the government full power over these films

This could not stand. Whitehouse found a powerful ally in Thatcher’s government, whose base was built on an army of social conservatives, and quickly got to work. The NVLA sparked a moral panic. In a 1983 meeting of Conservative MPs Whitehouse herself screened a highlight reel of these films. She paid particular notice to The Evil Dead (1981) which she considered to be the worst of all – perhaps due to her devoutly Christian leanings. 

Things moved quickly from there. Judges blamed these videos for incitement to murder. The Daily mail and other tabloids began leading a campaign to ban them altogether. Soon after, the Director of Public Prosecutions published a list of 72 films that could lead to prosecution. Another 82 that would not be prosecuted but would be confiscated soon followed.  In time, the Video Recordings act of 1984 gave the government full power over these films.

The Video Nasties were born.

The artform was pushed underground and a thriving subculture exploded in its wake. Videos were traded under the cover of secrecy; people held watch parties together. The modern viewer only has to take heed of the urban legends surrounding pseudo-snuff Faces of Death (1978) or the stories still told about the gross-out horror of the infamous Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – a film so realistic in its excesses that the director was brought to court in Italy to answer for the crime of murdering his cast – to see the lasting effect they had on the viewers of the time.

While these films may appear to be a vehicle for harsh gore and cheap thrills, they had an artistic merit of their own. One needs only to look as far as Andrzej Zulawski’s cult classic Possession (1981), which was widely awarded at film festivals on the European circuit and is one of the finest films on the lingering effect of divorce. Even the more controversial exploitation films are saying something. American horror The Witch Who Came From The Sea is part brutal murder and part meditation on how childhood trauma shapes a life. Others are just plain horror fun. Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (also known as Zombie 2 or just Zombie) has the best practical effects of any zombie flick and features a man in zombie make-up square off with an actual tiger shark underwaters.

In time, the controversy faded. Prosecutions and further trials by media did occur but the board slowly loosened their standards and allowed several would-be nasties to pass with cuts or even be released as normal. There was a brief attempt by a pair of Conservative MPs to bring a stricter set of guidelines in once again and allow MPs to intervene on the banning of material, but the bill failed to pass.

All in all, the Video Nasties were a short but bright cultural moment in the UK’s cinematic history. They reflect our drive to seek out the forbidden; to see the controversial; to judge things with our own eyes rather than allow a government to do it for you.

Prudishness died and permissiveness reigned

They’re an excellent example of the changing attitudes of the British people over the 20th century. Prudishness died and permissiveness reigned. 

Moreover, they’re also a fascinating exemplar of the moral panic that gripped the aging generation in response to that liberalism. The 1900s were a time of mass social upheaval. Especially the 60s, the decade that the NVLA became active. Whitehouse and the NVLA were people wedded to an old image of a black and white world that was increasingly being revealed to be more about shades of grey.

an intriguing snapshot of a cultural clash between the conservative attitudes of the day

These days the films almost seem passe. It can be hard to see what the fuss is about. Taken as a product of their time, however, the Video Nasties Era provides an intriguing snapshot of a cultural clash between the conservative attitudes of the day. Really try to put yourself in the moment. See the struggle for creative freedom and the relentless pursuit of provocation regardless of the social constraints that followed. 

A list of the video nasties can be found here.

Daniel Woods

Featured image courtesy of Bruno Guerrero via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In-article videos courtesy of @HD Retro Trailers, @Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers, @Chelsea Hull, @Shudder, and @Blazing Trailers via Youtube. No changes were made to these videos.

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