Monday, October 30, 2017

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2

(Unrated, Severin Films, 687 mins., DVD release date: Feb. 10, 2015)

As fascinating as I have long since found the "Video Nasties" scare from the dawn of video, it feels like a strictly British phenomena. I haven't heard a lot of American commentary or perspective on the subject, the most prolific was during a 1987 Siskel & Ebert episode which doesn't even acknowledge the Video Recordings Act of 1984, or the mass burning of videocassettes, or present any clips from prosecuted titles besides Faces of Death, which Gene Siskel held up to ridicule. Ebert's choice to represent the general idea of a Video Nasty was Bloodsucking Freaks, which was never released in England even before the controversy, but one which I plucked from the video store shelf at a tender age and plays something like Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper in terms of unrelentingly grotesque violence against women.

Removed from those (pre)teen years of not quite forbidden viewing, and with my horizons legitimately broadened by discoveries of Cronenberg, Argento and early Peter Jackson, I no longer covet either Ripper or Freaks and am not particularly eager to revisit them. But the hobby I pursued way back when seems to have something in common with Video Nasties: Draconian Days in terms of seeking out marginalized genre cinema by any means necessary. The story Nucleus Films' Jake West and Marc Morris tell is of moral indignation pitched as extreme as any violence from the DPP 72 list of alleged obscenity. Siskel & Ebert may have fallen into that trap themselves in their x-ray segment, although the real violence was mostly directed at animals rather than humans (again, they don't mention the jungle cannibal subgenre where turtles, monkeys and snakes were legitimately butchered for shock value). There was also some committed against the actual genre, too.

Video Nasties, by and large, were simply the dregs of the rental shop's horror section. I think I could've said that back when I snuck a peek at Bloodsucking Freaks (I certainly don‘t love it like I do Suspiria or Tenebre), but looking over the DPP 72 as well as the "Section 3" list of films that were equally touchy despite not being taken to court (unclassified copies of which were instead confiscated and destroyed), people took a lot of lackluster cinema way too seriously under the guise of social awareness. I would wager about 40% of the movies are actually films I can adamantly recommend as a reviewer, especially George Romero's titles and The Evil Dead and the more idiosyncratic low-budget fare (Last House on the Left, Bay of Blood, Dead & Buried) which had more going on than just the gore. But very few in the U.K. government and law branches were making distinctions, and horror movies were getting the absolute worst name in this blanket assemblage of video offenders and the means in which they were being demonized. And if you were a genuine fan in the land of Thatcher, it felt like a new fascist age.

Draconian Days is a follow-up to Nucleus' Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, the 2010 documentary which focused exclusively on the events leading to the Video Recordings Act. This focuses on the British Board of Censors' new purpose of videocassette classification, under the stewardship of James Ferman, and their own excessive crackdown on violent images meant to protect children and aggravate adults. Controversies were planted in the tabloid papers that looked to certain movies as indisputable evidence of moral decay leading to homicidal mania, whereas frustrated horror movie buffs who went underground to find banned movies and uncut copies of classified, bowdlerized video releases were singled out for arrest.

Ferman was an American expat (not Canadian, as one participant proclaims) who came to Britain while serving in the U.S. Air Force and had a career directing teleplays before taking his seat on the censorship committee. In trying to placate both the conservative party, led by Mary Whitehouse, who pushed for stringent legislature preventing certain movies from entering households and those who wished to be left alone, Ferman's own biases and peculiarities arose with his newfound power. He had zero tolerance for fetishized violence and rape as entertainment, and the exotic cultures of weaponry prompted him to impose heavy edits on Rambo 3 and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 ("Combat coldcuts!"). Controversial cornerstones such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Cronenberg's Crash were all passed uncut with "18" certificates for VHS release, but The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were denied distribution license on an annual basis.

In regards to the late Tobe Hooper's relatively bloodless fright classic, Ferman unwisely mirrored the condescending viewpoint of the far right in declaring that "it's all right for you middle class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?"

James Ferman even managed to pull one over on FrightFest curator and journalist Alan Jones during a BAFTA lecture, presenting a sizzle reel of cinematic unpleasantry before re-screening them in their unedited versions. Two days later, the dandy Argento scholar who agreed with him realized he would never trust a censor again. Ferman was that canny, and when the jaw-dropping murder of infant Jamie Bulger was being falsely linked to a rental of Child's Play 3, he was at odds with MP David Alton, a Liverpool democrat who bought the bogus correlation to the point where Ferman seemed like a voice of reason. Kim Newman, writer of a two-star video review in the pages of Empire, has perhaps the most priceless observation in this documentary: "We knew that the response would not be ‘We were wrong, you're right, this is really bland!' It would be that ‘The bar for what's offensive is now set on the other side of Child's Play 3.'"

The documentary's partiality is solidified by the presence of Ferman himself, interviewed before his death in 2002, and the likes of Carol Topolski, one of a dozen examiners whom Ferman fired in a power play, and Nigel Wingrove, whose short film Visions of Ecstasy was denied classification on the grounds of blasphemy. Wingrove would go on to found Redemption Films in retaliation and co-wrote a book about Video Nasties with Marc Morris. Of all the budding talents who were caught in the crossfire, his vilification cuts the deepest knowing he wouldn't be able to release that 1989 effort until 23 years later. Topolski, a psychoanalyst and probation officer who would open a rape crisis center in Canterbury, reacted to New York Ripper in just the right way, and though I wouldn't deign to censor it, it surely holds more of a potential to scar than either Child's Play 3 or TMNT 2.

Also in the mix is Alex Chandon, who had his own Martin Barker moment being drowned out on a talk show appearance but represented more of a youthful insouciance as opposed to intellectualism. He'd made low-fi home movies filled with the type of gory set pieces the BBFC snipped out, such as Bad Karma and Drillbit, and flipped them the bird directly in his credit scrawls. Chandon was meant for the black market of VHS trading and all-day film festivals which the Video Recordings Act instigated. However, it was hardly a safe space, as policemen came to his house looking for incriminating tapes. David Flint, who was one of many who ran undergound fanzines (his was Sheer Filth!) devoted to fringe horror, shares the most vivid memory of the police raid which happened when he was 31 and researching pornography for his book on the subject, Babylon Blue.

Producer Marc Morris is given ample interview time, and his best moment is when he relates how certain video store employees would take a copy of an edited movie home and record over it with the uncut version in its place. But Draconian Days is never more bracing than when discussing the truly problematic points on the timeline, especially the Jamie Bulger tragedy which led to a front page story on The Sun which outright said "Burn your Video Nasties for the sake of the children." Ferman's comeuppance was a result of his decision to legalize the sale of hardcore pornography in sex shops without going through proper governmental and public channels. It's almost like hara-kiri the way his career-damaging ideas towards home video certification finally loosened England up so as people could finally acquire tapes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Video Nasties: Draconian Days is considerably longer and looser than Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape. There's more of a Mark Hartley style to the freewheeling shifts in topic and the form of the film in general, not to mention the lack of urgency which applies to chronicling the aftermath as opposed to the deceitful tactics which caused the VPA to pass. But Jake West and Marc Morris bring together another invaluable collection of interviewees and, not unlike the clips from The Young Ones which offered comic relief previously, throw in Ferman's discussion with Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G from time to time. My favorite visual reference, however, is to a classic Spitting Image sketch poking wicked fun at Sir James Anderton, Manchester's chief constable who was known as "God's cop" because of his hard line Christian beliefs.

The initial set, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, contained the first documentary as well as accompanying trailers for the 72 titles initially prosecuted. For Video: Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2, the previews feel like the main attraction rather than Draconian Days. There were 82 horror movies, a few in various VHS permutations, which ran afoul of the "Section 3" designation of official seizure and destruction. And original trailers for all of them are spread out over two DVDs, once again complete with optional introductions from Kim Newman, Alan Jones and many others. These might also include snippets of other promotional materials or a bonus interview, as Michael Anderson discusses his Mark of the Devil and actress Caroline Munro is present for The Last Horror Film. The various scholars also try to suss out the reasons for why these titles were considered corruptible.

Aside from Newman and Jones, the two most prevalent faces also turn up in the documentary: Stephen Thrower (former member of the avant band Coil as well as author of Nightmare, U.S.A.) and Justin Kerswell (webmaster of Hysteria Lives!). Thrower discusses many of the more obscure titles, including opener Abducted and closer Zombie Lake. Kerswell will turn up for more well-known cult favorites like Nightmare City, The Evil and Happy Birthday to Me. To their credit, Thrower did entice me to give blacklisted character actor Marc Lawrence's Pigs a go (the recent Vinegar Syndrome special edition restores the film to its original, less tawdry glory), and Kerswell hipped me to something called Blood Song, in which Frankie Avalon, of all people, goes on a homicidal rampage seen psychically by Donna Wilkes (Schizoid, Angel). Their comments aren't as entertainingly critical as Jones or Newman, who rip the dodgier elements in certain flicks (The Last Horror Film, Prey). Thrower looks on the bright side of Jean Rollin's Zombie Lake, which is the poor man's Shock Waves, and Kerswell tackles Dawn of the Mummy with kid gloves, bringing up Fulci when the clips on view suggest a brazen knock-off of what was known in the U.K. as Zombie Flesh Eaters (we Yanks just call it Zombie).

Stephen Thrower gets one of the more gonzo assignments in sticking up for Mad Foxes, which tackles the revenge on a group of Hell's Angels in a bizarrely homoerotic manner. It's a film in which a sleazoid is forced to eat his own severed penis and another gets a grenade tossed into the toilet which he's occupying. There's also a pretty bad low-budget psycho killer film shot on authentically grimy NYC streets called Headless Eyes which Thower tries to palm off as a satire on bohemian arts culture, never minding Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood. If at times Thrower seems to be holding back from saying a film is not recommendable, then I was genuinely happy to see him discuss a couple of bona fides in Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and Cronenberg's Rabid. It's as heartwarming for me as hearing Alan Jones' soft-spoken enthusiasm for Italian cinema and its stalwarts. And Thrower's segments have the most enriching accounts of trivia of all the participants, like when star cinematographers like Ron Garcia and Robert Harmon pop up in Abducted and The Black Room.

Australian scholar Patricia MacCormack, who was a familiar face from the first Video Nasties package, returns here for exciting lead-ins to such titles as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (an aboriginal revenge saga directed by Fred Schepisi), The New Adventures of Snow White and an all-around "flaccid" soft core rape/revenge loser called Wrong Way. Marc Morris himself appears to declare Jess Franco's Cannibals the worst of its subgenre [he also talks about Naked Fist (Firecracker), which along with Foxy Brown got targeted for some sexualized violence in a kung fu setting], and Franco also throws Thrower for a loop in the form of Oasis of the Zombies, which is pliainly not one of Jesus' best efforts even as Thrower (who sympathizes with those who like Franco enough as director to consider many of his early '80s video releases subpar) characteristically tries to find some merit.

Fantastic Fest programmer Evrim Ersoy hits a brick wall with 1980's Demented, starring amateur damsel-in-distress Sallee Elyse (also of the Body Count by Jake slasher Home Sweet Home, another Section 3 offender addressed by Kim Newman), but bounces back with The Executioner (Massacre Mafia Style) and Shogun Assassin. Regent's University doctorate Karen Oughton appears to read too much boilerplate sociology into the mondo film Brutes and Savages, and is grasping at straws with Savage Terror. But I do thank her for guiding me toward something more up my alley with The Aftermath, a post-apocalyptic survivor yarn with Sid Haig as the heavy.

Julian Grainger has only two appearances in my notes, so check out his excellent intro to Honeymoon Horror, written and directed by the openly gay Harry Preston. The experience for Preston was so frustrating, he wrote a fiction novel inspired by his disgust with the producer who torpedoed his only film. C.P. Lee penned a biography on Cliff Twemlow, the Manchester bouncer and self-described Tuxedo Warrior, thus he turns up to sing the praises of Twemlow's shot-on-video vehicle G.B.H. (Grievous Bodily Harm).

Kim Newman and Alan Jones, bless ‘em, remain my favorite talking heads on the platter. I wanted Jones to share at least one of his lovely anecdotes about David Warbeck, lead actor of Antonio Margheriti's The Last Hunter, and he naturally gets all of the Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red) and Norman J. Warren (Inseminoid, Prey) titles on the Section 3 list, except for the one he made an onscreen appearance in (it deflects to Evrim Ersoy). Jones also makes an unlikely but appreciable lead-in to Friday the 13th 1 & 2 (given Justin Kerswell's involvement, I expected he'd be trusted with those), and some of the slam dunk cult titles like Alfred Sole's Communion (Alice, Sweet Alice) and Michael Laughlin's Dead Kids (Strange Behavior) are best put over by his earnestly dry voice.

Newman wrote the book on Nightmare Movies, but he's equally entertaining discussing many of Section 3's all-time best (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Thing, George A. Romero's first two Dead movies) as well as their most mediocre throwaways (Graduation Day, Invasion of the Blood Farmers, Scream for Vengeance). He describes Mausoleum as the third best mortuary-themed horror title (it's not even on the level of Tom McLoughlin's One Dark Night), but has a laugh knowing it'd still tickle his fancy. He takes to Christmas Evil (You Better Watch Out) with as much festive giddiness as diehard fan John Waters. And he's perplexed by such nutty films as Blood Lust and The Toy Box, the latter directed by Ron Garcia, the aforementioned DP for Abducted and who is one of two cameramen who'd go on to work with David Lynch.

And in case that was not exhaustive enough (taken as a whole, the trailer reel and their introductions last a whopping nine hours and change), there is also a three-part still gallery devoted to the many, many, many fanzines devoted to shock/schlock horror. Oh, you Nasty boys.


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