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Something Appalling In The Annals Of Horror Putting The Video Nasties Into Context

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Posted 19th July 2011 at 04:04 PM by necroluciferia

It is difficult to define what makes a film a Video Nasty, as there are no generic, creative characteristics that link them together. The term was invented in the 1980s to refer to disparate collection of films that were criticized in the press for their excessive levels of violence, and were subsequently banned by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) on the grounds that they were obscene and likely to deprave and corrupt viewers. The Video Nasties debacle brought about major change in the way films were classified, as a piece of legislation known as the Video Recordings Act (VRA) was rushed through, making it illegal to possess or distribute videos that had not been classified by the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC).
It is important firstly to put the Video Nasties into context, detailing the socio-political factors that contributed to the phenomenon.

Emerging technologies prove a continual problem for the government as legislative changes struggle to catch up with technological innovations. While today, the internet is a major stumbling block for those wishing to censor film, in the late 70s/early 80s the introduction of home video was equally problematic for the authorities, as prior to the introduction of the VRA, UK law only took into consideration films released for theatrical distribution and did not yet acknowledge home video. This meant that distributors were able to bypass the censors, releasing films that had either previously been rejected for cinematic release or had not been put forward for classification. Julian Petley, film journalist and author of numerous books on censorship, recalls this period as; ‘a wonderful chance to see all sorts of exciting stuff that you had not been able to see before’.

Ex-BBFC Examiner, Paul Navarro, recalls the 80s as being ‘a very turbulent time in Britain, with a lot of unemployment and rising crime’. Changes in policy under Thatcher’s government had a devastating effect on the manufacturing industry, with many firms going out of business having depended on subsidies under the previous government.

According to David Hyman, a BBFC Examiner; ‘a lot of miners lost their jobs, got their redundancy pay-off and decided to buy a video shop because all their mates were renting videos’. Thatcher’s focus on entrepreneurship provided encouragement for working-class people to set up in small business, and at the time, home video was a growth industry requiring little knowledge and minimal start-up capital. Hyman recalls how many of the video dealers had no knowledge and no idea that what they were doing could be in conflict with the law. ‘They just acquired this huge stock, they never watched all the titles’, states Hyman.

Marc Morris, producer of Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, recalls finding X-rated cartoon, Fritz The Cat in the children’s section of a video store. Here is an example of how the store owners’ lack of knowledge led to mistakes, as unsuitable material was unknowingly sold to children, where a parental guidance sticker would have prevented such mistakes from occurring. Eventually, it was this lack of product knowledge that worked against them. Navarro points out the concern that unregulated video was aiding the breakdown of society. ‘The Conservative government wanted to point the finger at something, and jumped on one aspect of popular culture aimed at the urban proletariat’, states Navarro.

It is the ‘fear of the mob’, according to Petley, that drives moral panics such as the one surrounding the Video Nasties. Therefore the nearer to the mainstream or ‘the popular’ something is, the more likely it will attract media attention and the call to censor or outlaw it. A number of the films on the DPP list were tame compared to similar films of the time, however many were too far off the radar to attract attention. The obscurity of a film such as Emanuelle In America made it difficult to be found by anyone who was not actively seeking it out. The lack of knowledge from those who were vilifying the films meant that nobody really knew what they were looking for. In some cases, films were outlawed on the basis of their front covers with no knowledge of the film content itself (Morris & West, 2010a). Had Go Video, the distributors for Cannibal Holocaust, not alerted Mary Whitehouse of the film in attempt to get some free publicity, then perhaps this would have remained under the DPP radar and not ended up a Video Nasty.

‘The Video Nasties are rarely treated as part of a whole any more except as a convenient phrase’, considers Martin Barker, author of Video Nasties: Censorship In The Media. Fans of horror understand the term and its historical significance, but regard the films as part of separate genres. It could be said that the Video Nasties are a collective group of films that are more widely representative of the range of exploitation and horror genres contained within, acting to newcomers as an introduction to non-mainstream horror and exploitation cinema that leads some to explore in more depth, as will be examined further in part two.
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