The academic author who was the lone defender of Video Nasties and horror comics during the cultural dark ages of the 1980s.
Professor Martin Barker, who died on September 8th 2022, is one of those scholars known to different groups for different things. Some will remember him for his pioneering work in the theory of cultural racism, which was the focus of much of his work in the 1970s. Others – and perhaps more significant for Reprobate readers – was his impressive work covering the world of British comic books, censorship and Video Nasties that began in the 1980s.
I remember first encountering Barker’s writing as a schoolboy when I found a copy of the New Society in the school library that had a dramatic cover – a drooling maniac axing a Cronenbergesque, organic TV set to death. It was related to an article by Barker about Video Nasties, which stood in dramatic opposition to everything else that was being written about those films at the time. Barker’s article was a passionate defence of the movies, contrasting with the wide opinion of both the reactionary Right and the media establishment of the Left (the film industry’s failure to defend the Nasties because they were ‘worthless horror and porn films’ is a shameful stain that immediately revealed the snobbery of the media establishment) – I recall his comments defending I Spit On Your Grave as being especially insightful, given how that particular film had been widely attacked – even by genre fans – as leering rape-porn, an interpretation that is so far removed from reality that it makes you wonder about the critical faculties and basic levels of understanding (not to mention the sexual kinks) of those who make such claims.
Barker’s article – which was hugely controversial and widely condemned by New Society readers as I recall – was a sampling of the ideas that would appear in his book on the subject, The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Arts – the first book to explore the subject, written from the front lines. That Barker specifically referenced ‘the arts’ in the title was not accidental and pointed out that these films were works of art that were being demonised and destroyed. Around the same time, he wrote A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign, a companion book that explored the almost forgotten but oddly parallel 1950s British hysteria about comic books. Both of these books remain essential historical studies.
Barker would author, co-author and edit several other books about controversial movies, comic books and media effects – most notably, books about Judge Dredd, David Cronenberg’s Crash and his huge study of the notorious British comic Action, which made a brief appearance in remainder shops before becoming as rare as hen’s teeth, worth its weight in gold if eBay resellers are to be believed. While working at Aberystwyth University, he was commissioned by the BBFC to carry out research into their favourite bugbear, images of sexual violence on screen, assessing audience reactions to films as varied as Baise Moi, Irreversible and The House on the Edge of the Park. The research didn’t really tell the censors what they wanted to hear – not only did it fairly clearly demolish the idea that audiences have a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ reaction to such films but also made it clear that no one was looking at these scenes in order to be (or were incidentally becoming) sexually aroused. It was quietly ignored and later BBFC research – heavily criticised by Barker – was instead used to justify tightening censorship (Barker’s angry article is online but you’ll have to pay typically extortionate academic publisher fees to read it).
He would also pop up in documentaries about Video Nasties – most notably Jake West and Marc Morris’ pair of films that remain the essential document on the subject – and it’s clear when you see him in these films that the passion and anger about the whole scandal had not left him. Barker, perhaps more than anyone else who defended the Video Nasties, was demonised and attacked, and it clearly had a bruising effect. While some of us had similarly traumatic encounters with the law as a result of movie collecting and censorship and the few film critics who dared to suggest that the films might not all be worthless trash were immediately attacked by their peers, Barker seems to have been particularly singled out for criticism, a result perhaps of not only writing a book on the subject but also being an egghead academic in a world where Mary Whitehouse ‘common sense’ (which was, in fact, neither common nor sensible) was all that was needed to condemn huge numbers of fascinating, challenging movies to the ovens. He still seemed justifiably angry in these films and very aware that this sort of thing could easily happen again – as, indeed, it had in the 1990s and is today with online censorship and Far Right and RadFem-driven moral panics. The Video Nasties panic might now only ever be written about as a bit of comical nostalgia by the mainstream press, but it set the template for every panic that followed and its effects are still felt today. Let’s not forget that some of the films banned in the early 1980s have been rejected by the BBFC in the last couple of years. His books remain valid warnings from history and his sensible research and impassioned arguments will be missed.
Martin Barker – 20 April 1946 – 8th September 2022
VIDEO NASTIES – THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE (UK)
CANNIBAL ERROR: ANTI-FILM PROPAGANDA AND THE ‘VIDEO NASTIES’ PANIC OF THE 1980s (UK)
A HAUNT OF FEARS: THE STRANGE HISTORY OF THE BRITISH HORROR COMICS CAMPAIGN (UK)
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Barker’s appearance on the TV ‘debate’ show conjures images of a lone voice of sanity amid a Heironymous Bosch-like hellscape. (Graham Bright claims, not once, but twice that nasties affect dogs. Salem ’84!). Of course it’s all a great laugh to all now. Where was Sight & Sound then, I ask. Not only was Barker to be held in reverence, I have him to thank for my first exposure to EC Comics (for which my gratitude is unending) seen in an older brother’s back issue of Warrior, and courtesy of the now endangered species that is the public library, I got to read the Video Nasties book. Herein I became acquainted, through written descriptions, since the tapes where by then suppressed, with I Spit On Your Grave, Faces Of Death, and Cannibal Holocaust … the latter really piqued my interest – in a light bulb moment, I remember thinking ‘hey! This actually sounds Good!’ as I read the synopsis. Glorious, magical days. Myself and a sibling craved the Action book on publication, the comic was before our time but the stuff of legend, but it was out of our budget – wish I’d scoured the remainder shops more intently – certainly, the only copy to reach Ashton-under-Lyne retained full price … One of the EC panels reproduced was the unforgettable finale of Jack Davis’ ‘Night Game’ (think it’s called – I’m sure you know the one I mean), which is surely one the most indelible horror images of whenever. Actually a weak story, it actually works better as a single isolated panel with little or no explication (I was disappointed when I caught up with the complete tale years later. I think Davis came up with the image first, then knocked up a formulaic yarn around it). Anyway, important and brave work from Mr. Barker, and if it means anything coming from an anonymous internet commentator writing something no one will probably ever read, my thoughts go out to his family.
I’m not saying anything new, but it seems more likely with the passage of time that the major studios let the independants shoulder all the risk from establishing video as a huge industry in the UK (and the figures were quite literally boggling!), with the promise of uncut sex and horror used as a marketing gimmick. Then when the foundations were solid, they moved in, and with their massive clout and government backing, swept the upstart competition into the ocean. Same thing happened with the internet, really. That’s why Visting Hours and The Funhouse were on some ‘Nasty’ lists – they were sacrificed to make it look as if the majors were being subjected to the same strictures as the indies.
I have an issue of Films And Filming, in which a 16 year old writes to ask why she can’t see the ‘X’ rated Tommy, yet ‘Jaws’ is rated ‘A’ … I’m thinking here of your Jaws article … and later Spielberg requested an ‘X’ for Poltergeist, which the BBFC were ready to pass at a lower rating, because he felt no one would want to see a ‘PG’ horror film … The certificate is a marketing gimmick … it’s all gloriously mad, Lewis Carroll insanity. There’ll probably have ‘trigger warnings’ at the start of films next, which will either act as spoilers for many viewers, or, like olden-days posters and trailers, set expectations too high!
The sad thing is that the majors effectively encouraged the whole Nasties debacle – as you say, sacrificing a few titles here and there knowing that the bosses of Thorn EMI were never going to go to prison in the way David Hamilton-Grant did. Sweeping away the indies that were dominating the rental charts gave them control of the market.
The BBFC often showed that certificates were, if not quite for sale, certainly ‘flexible’ – I’m still surprised that more people don’t know that Poltergeist story. Similarly, there was The House That Dripped Blood, which was initially given (and made for) an ‘A’ before the distributor complained and demanded an ‘X’ – again for commercial reasons.
They are already using trigger warnings – what else can we call the ‘consumer advice’ that has moved beyond mere descriptives (and spoilers) about content to more vague areas of offence and upset?
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