The definitive visual guide to the most notorious films of the 1980s.
It seems odd that The Reprobate has been around for four years without covering the phenomenon of the Video Nasty. Oh, we’ve mentioned them in passing and in relation to other articles, but have avoided looking back at the days of moral panic and mass hysteria about old horror movies. Let’s face it, the story has been told a lot, and it seems pointless going over the whole sordid history again. For those interested in the full story, we suggest picking up Marc Morris and Jake West’s documentary and trailer collections, which are as thorough a telling of what went on as anything you could hope for.
Instead of another history lesson, I’ll share a few personal memories. Our family rented a video recorder around the middle of 1980, when they were built like tanks and a three-hour blank tape was so expensive that you would ration them. We joined our first video rental shop soon afterwards. Mazel Movies, on the outskirts of Manchester city centre, was a collection of run-down shacks that had been around for years, originally selling 8mm movies and equipment, as well as music gear, before moving into video. Their small shop was rammed with pretty much everything that had been released – sometimes, I’d leave without the film I wanted simply because the guy in charge couldn’t find the tape in the back of the shop. It felt as though the shop was being held up by the tapes.
The two men who seemed to run Mazel’s – an old bloke and a rather slick younger chap – had no qualms about renting outrageous films to a kid in his early teens. In fact, they had no qualms about running softcore films on the TV set that was positioned above the door – I recall standing for ages watching Can I Do It Till I Need Glasses one Saturday afternoon. The old bloke would cheerfully congratulate me on my choices (“you’ll like that one sir, full of sex and violence that is” – it was Late Night Trains, so he wasn’t wrong) and at one point I was asked to sign a petition against the video nasty raids – this was around the time that they were apologising to me for the fact that their copy of Snuff had been seized before I had a chance to rent it.
Mazel’s didn’t survive into the days of BBFC-approved, major label dominated home video. Like many a shop, they fell under the pressure of police raids that drained them of stock. By the time they’d gone out of business, there were overnight rental shops opening nearer to me (Mazel did a part-exchange system, whereby you bought a film and could then trade it in at any point up to six weeks for a fiver). The rental shops that popped up to cash in on the home video boom were, of course, also constantly targeted by the police, and the days of renting three movies you’d never heard of at a time and bingeing on sex and violence were over as soon as they’d begun.
For an entire generation, the Video Nasty era was life-changing – it opened up a world of incredibly strange cinema that we might never have experienced otherwise and was genuinely exciting to be a part of. It gave birth to the fanzine scene that flourished in the second half of the 1980s and the sense that we were all part of a band of outsiders and rebels, demonised by the press and ignored by mainstream film culture, brought people together who may never have met otherwise.
The films themselves were, of course, a mixed bag. At the time, few critics would stand up for the Nasties, all of which were dismissed as worthless. But we can see how ludicrous that was: there are great films on the list of the damned. And some not-great films, of course. But that was part of the joy – unearthing something that had been entirely ignored by the genre press and mainstream critics alike, and finding astonishing nuggets of genius in there. It was this sense that the old fart horror writers were as wrong about the nasties as Dennis Gifford had been about Hammer Films that prove the fanzines on to try and offer an alternative voice. Clearly, we succeeded – these films are now the stuff of special edition blu-rays and hailed – often rightly, sometimes a touch desperately – as classics.
The police raids and prosecutions bagged hundreds of films at their peak. Few coppers were what you might call film literate. Stories abound about hilarious mistakes, like the force who confused Apocalypse Now for Cannibal Apocalypse, or the over-zealous police officers who seized Disney’s The Devil and Max Devlin, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and The Big Red One in their determination to clean up the streets. When the dust settled, 39 films were finally listed as beyond the pale – the definitive list of obscene Video Nasties, as successfully prosecuted. Though things were never so clear cut. There’s no evidence that some of the films – namely The Werewolf and the Yeti – were ever prosecuted, let along convicted by a jury. And a few of the films on the list – Tenebrae, The House By The Cemetery – had been passed by the BBFC in the versions released on tape – as many suspected, there was a concerted effort to find BBFC-approved films guilty in order to undermine the censors and either replace them with a stricter organisation or force them into tightening up their rules (which of course, they did). Here are the Filthy 39.
An interesting point with the above films (and, indeed, some of the following) is how the sensational covers of the early days of home video – notoriously outrageous sleeves like SS Experiment Camp and The Driller Killer – gave way, as the police raids began, to very tame covers in the home of fending off attention – look how bland the covers for Madhouse, Night of the Demon and Cannibal Ferox are. Clearly, their presence on this list shows that such precautions didn’t work.
Next, we have a motley collection of titles that, at one time or another, had been considered Video Nasties and had been seized and prosecuted. But acquittals in court would see these films dropped from the list of titles that were liable for prosecution – though some forces would still seize them. The Nasty affair was never clean-cut, especially as many prosecutions took place under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, which allowed for seizures to be (allegedly) destroyed on the orders of a Magistrate rather than tried in front of a Jury. A less risky proposition for shopkeepers, but one that would unfairly stack the list of films that had been found obscene, given that the tapes were not even watched in most cases. Here are the films that had once been on the official Nasties list, but later removed, only to sit in some sort of legal limbo (not least of all with the BBFC, who would take a single successful conviction, even by magistrates, as an excuse to impose mandatory cuts on re-releases for many years).
And then, there’s a curious third collection of films, none of which seem to have ever even been prosecuted, but which were on a somewhat secret list circulate to police forces, which gave them the option of adding these titles to those seized in any raid heading for the magistrates. If shop owners chose to forfeit the films, then these titles could make up the numbers. it was a corrupt system, but it allowed forces to effectively sweep up any horror films in a shop without then having to sort them out. Just look at this unlikely – and presumably random – selection of films that had upset a single copper at one point or another.
This is not, of course, the whole story of what is known as the pre-cert video era and the obscenity trials. Less documented – if only because they much more random and intense – are the porn raids, where everything from Electric Blue to hardcore movies were seized and prosecuted, and British smut pioneers like Mike Freeman and John Lindsay were banged up. Porn raids were so common and expected that no one ever catalogued them, and there was no list of titles that were subject to seizure.
Notably, most of the Nasties have now been passed uncut by the BBFC. A few – notably Love Camp 7 – remain a step too far, and many have yet to be picked up for rerelease, despite their notoriety.