Examining a history of the legendary video label that strangely brushes over the most interesting period of its existence.
History is not something that necessarily needs to be told by those who were there – obviously, there is a need for analysis and study of eras beyond living memory, and while revisionist history and the need to judge the past through the lens of modern concerns are somewhat questionable, historical context remains significant. That said, when that history is only a few decades old, we might question the wisdom of someone choosing to write what is marketed as an authoritative study when they were not even born while the events at hand were taking place. We might further raise eyebrows when they then choose to write about a later period than the one that is widely agreed to be the significant one, just because of their own childhood nostalgia. In cultural terms, it would be like writing a history of Hammer Films and glossing over the 1950s to 1970s, in favour of the 2000s. Why on earth would anyone do that?
And so we come to James Simpson’s Video Nasty Mayhem: The Inside Story of VIPCO.
VIPCO, for those not in the know, was one of the pioneering indie video distributors that popped up in the UK at the start of the VHS and Betamax era, a time we can pin down as 1979 – 1980. Like many a small-scale start-up, VIPCO was launched by a bit of a jack-the-lad type with a nose for new opportunities but no real interest in films; in this case, Mike Lee. For labels like VIPCO, what they released was what they could get, at least in the early days, and with theatrical distributors still unsure about the fledgling format, deals could be made for back catalogues and new titles alike. Like many such independent labels, Lee and VIPCO went where the money seemed to be – sex and violence. With no censorship regime for video in existence, the market for low-budget and obscure horror and softcore (or, if you were especially daring, hardcore) porn was incredibly buoyant and profitable for a few years before the video nasties hysteria brought it all crashing down. Lee was at the forefront of the Nasty panic, thanks to his release of Zombie Flesh Eaters in a ‘strong uncut version’ (after he’d initially released the theatrical cut and already cleaned up with that version) and The Driller Killer, which was sold with an uncompromising sleeve that featured the most explicitly violent moment in the film as the cover image. To make things worse, the same image then appeared in full-page magazine ads. Make no mistake, while the outrage would have happened anyway, it was the cover art that initially did for the nasties. Along with Go Video, Lee’s label was singled out at the start of the police raids because of the artwork that signalled ultra-violence and outrageous content.
The video nasties outrage eventually did for VIPCO, like many other labels of the era. The double whammy of a shrinking market for obscure titles as the majors moved in and the cost of releasing BBFC-approved titles – with the cost of certification often being the breaking point between profit and loss – saw the label eventually vanish, unnoticed. Lee went on to produce Spookies and masquerade as Lord Buckethead for new companies, before reviving VIPCO in the early 1990s with a mix of censored versions of old favourites and godawful new films that were often given appalling, down-market new titles that showed a contempt for the audience (no, The Nostril Picker is not the original title of the movie sold under that name). At this point, everyone lost interest and wrote VIPCO off as a lost cause, a laughable pastiche trading on past glories. Everyone apart from James Simpson, it seems.
In his introduction to this book, Simpson explains at length about the first time he saw VIPCO releases, handed out like contraband in school playgrounds before, some years later, he bought his first tape on the label from a charity shop. It seems a familiar story of the Video Nasty era – but it’s not. He’s not talking about those pre-cert releases, but the newer releases, the BBFC approved and often censored releases. This – and the book cover design that riffs on the sleeve design of those lamentable releases – sets us up for what is to come, a bizarre celebration of VIPCO based on its most disposable and worthless period, when butchered releases and retitled crap, increasingly with dismal cover art that was nothing more than the film title in huge letters, flooded the market.
Simpson can’t help his age, of course, or the fact that he missed out on the original era of the label and the early days of home video. But it’s not as though there is no information available on those tapes or the video nasty era, or that these pre-cert titles are still hugely collectable while the later films can barely be given away even on DVD and are simply landfill on VHS. By any objective consideration, the only important era of VIPCO was pre-1985. Why he has concentrated on this historically unimportant era is anyone’s guess – there were plenty of labels issuing cult movies in the 1990s, and VIPCO was only on interest because of the 1980s titles. Out of the 61 releases reviewed here, only around thirteen are from the original era – and some of those are reviewed as Nineties reissues.
As for the VIPCO story told in the book… by page 57, the pre-cert era has been done with (and bear in mind that 43 of those preceding pages were taken up with reviews or blank pages). Several of the chapters covering the subsequent era are, tellingly, only a page or two long – the story of VIPCO is thin gruel indeed.
And so we have a lot of film reviews that are connected only by the label that released them – an uncurated collection with no link beyond a label trading desperately on past glories, and seemingly with a dismissive contempt for both the films and the customer. Why that needs celebrating is anyone’s guess. The films reviewed seem pretty random – why you would include Brain Fix or Zombie Nosh (again, not the original title if you had any doubt) but not Death Trap, one of the earliest films caught up in the video nasties scandal, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps we should be grateful, given that Simpson calls Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula “hipster flicks” that are “pretentious attempts” at arthouse cinema and dismisses the former as “for completists only”. Well, that’s quite the hot take by any standards.
As for the writing… well, ‘enthusiastic’ might be the best description. As a collection of film reviews, this is strictly of the fan variety, and while Simpson has found a few people to interview – and an old Dark Side interview with Lee to quote from – the rest of the book feels very thin. There’s probably a magazine article to be spun out of the VIPCO story, but a book? Simpson stretches things out with attempts to suggest a non-existent rivalry between VIPCO and Redemption Films (and there’s a label that might well justify a book, come to think of it), stories of films that VIPCO wanted to release but didn’t (again, in their pointless era, so of no interest) and more padding. With little of the classic pre-cert VHS-era artwork on display, the book doesn’t even work on a visual level.
I can appreciate the love that went into this, even if it is rather misguided love, but there is little point to this, and anyone hoping to gain some insight into the home video’s wild west will be left very disappointed. As former Redemption (and now Nucleus Films) man Marc Morris points out in the book, “I’m a little shocked that people think so fondly of VIPCO.” Me too. If you are one of those people, perhaps the sort who chortle away at the film Olivia being retitled Prozzie, then this might be for you. It’s not for me.
Help support The Reprobate: