Saturday, November 4, 2017

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide

(Unrated, Severin Films, approx. 14 hrs., DVD release date: June 3, 2014)

On May 9, 1984, BBC2 aired the ninth episode of The Young Ones, which was such a runaway alternative comic success that it was picked up by MTV in 1985, before the American network became synonymous with original programming. Like a live-action Beavis & Butt-head, the main characters, spurred on by punk rock caricature Vyvyan, seek instant gratification from the rental of a so-called "Video Nasty" but are too stupid to set up their VHS player. Vyvyan even fills the device with dish detergent because the tape box warned him to keep it clean and free from dust. Long story short: they never get to watch the magnetic beacon of their "all-night orgy of sex and violence." The feeble vampire they outwitted with lethal sunlight rises from the grave to reveal himself as the tape's owner, Harry the Bastard, now set to collect 500 quid in late fees.

That program, which featured a surprise performance by The Damned ("Only pop music can save us now!") of a song written specifically for it, was how many of the luminaries who became horror scholars and filmmakers learned about the flood tide of Video Nasties, certain videocassettes for exploitation flicks that reveled in depravity and brutality. Though a few were of films that were edited for British cinema release, for the most part, these tougher pills to swallow would never trouble a theater or television. They were hard to come by until the VHS revolution became official. Lax standards meant that gross-out movies were coming out on tape in their uncut formats and with no classification, often drawing attention to themselves with lurid cover art that promised forbidden thrills. Teenagers would consume them as rite-of-passage ceremonies, daring amongst themselves to not be chickened out by whatever extreme violence was just around the corner, prefaced by an flurry of tracking-defying snow on the image.

But a mere month after that "Nasty" episode of The Young Ones premiered on British television, the horror train came to a screeching halt thanks to the unchallenged passing of the Video Recordings Act by the UK House of Commons. It was a private member's bill drafted by Sir Graham Bright which became law September 1, 1985, and turned the British Board of Film Censors into a de facto classification group meant to regulate the distribution of VHS tapes. Criminal law was leveled at producers, distributors and retailers alike to stall the dissemination of movies which the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. 39 of them were successfully outlawed, another 33 were acquitted and a list of 82 were classified as "Section 3" and, thought not taken to court, were subject to lawful confiscation and destruction. Only through BBFC approval could they legally stocked on store shelves, and the censors' board became infamous for going further than the cinema committee in editing for content.

The story of my previous review on Video Nasties: Draconian Days focused chiefly on the circumstances of the VRA's royal assent, specifically the quirky attitudes of BBFC head secretary James Ferman and also the black market underground where horror buffs congregated, often times beset by overzealous enforcers eager to catch cineastes with illicit videotapes. But I also retired my current non-NTSC copy of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide to purchase the same inaugural three-disc package in its proper U.S. release from Severin Films. At last, I can finally revisit Jake West and Marc Morris' 2010 predecessor to Draconian Days, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, as well as the same barrage of movie trailers and commentary from several of the participants in the accompanying set, including Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Stephen Thrower, and Patricia MacCormack.

Furthermore, I can address in more depth somebody who popped up in the last review yet is important to me because he was the only person on the defense against the Conservative politicians and lobbyists who rammed the VPA down Parliamentary halls. His name is Martin Barker, who I referenced in tandem with Alex Chandon, the shot-on-video gorehound who made a talk show appearance where he was basically drowned out by the overbearing forces of reaction. It happened also to Mr. Barker, but when he got shouted down, it really does feel more like a gut punch than I could have anticipated watching the doco for the first time in years.

Martin Barker is now the emeritus professor at Aberystwyth University's film/television/stage department, but in 1983, he was another academic doing research on the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 and found a phrase (and other linguistic choices) which shared eerie similarities to the moral panic over Video Nasties in The Sunday Times: "Seduction of the Innocent." It was the name of a book by psychologist Fredric Wertham which was essentially propaganda stating that comic books published by DC and EC were the root of juvenile delinquency and aberrant sexuality. Werthem's views, which were duly challenged decades later when his findings went public, gave American congress and British parliament both the impetus for imposing restrictive, censoring regulations on publishers. In America, the Comics Code Authority was put in place to sanitize the content of pulp comics to often ridiculous extremes, and it successfully drove William Gaines into devoting himself full-time to Mad magazine to buck the Code.

Almost 40 years since the Harmful Publications Act, and with Margaret Thatcher's campaign promises amounting to nil, independent video stores which were cropping up at every gas station and candy shop were suddenly placed in the same position as the comic book merchants. The Helen Lovejoys of England, led by Mary Whitehouse, appropriated the label of Video Nasties as seen in the papers as did inspectors assigned to mass murders of ponies. Police raids became a recurring grievance and often times hilariously misguided, because the flexible definition of obscenity caused lawmen to presume pornographic intent in such movies as Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One and the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton musical comedy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The official DPP list of problem titles wasn't published for a while nor was it consulted by the BBFC, although James Ferman is quoted as having led the campaign to bring certain titles to the attention of Tony Hetherington.

What gives Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape such a fascinating, disturbing charge is, once again, the chance to hear from all sides of the debate. Whereas Ferman was given ample room in Draconian Days, this time the designated villain is MP Graham Bright, and even he doesn't seem so mustache-swirling compared to someone like Dr. Clifford Hill. In Martin Barker's findings, as well as his communication with Oxford Polytechnic's Brian Brown, ongoing research that Bright was certain will prove the negative affects of Video Nasties on children and dogs(!) were the results of Dr. Hill's  sabotage against the Oxford staff and fabrication of the statistic that 40% of children had seen a Video Nasty. Bright still sees himself on the right side of history, but he was one of many gullible dolts who fell for the huckster's line regarding Snuff, one of the most infamous of the Nasties.

Snuff, as is well known amongst trash aficionados, was producer Allan Shackleton's retcon of Michael & Roberta Findlay's (The) Slaughter, an unmarketable Charlie Manson cash-in made in Argentina, 1971, and then shelved until 1975, resurfacing with an alternate ending which purported to show the crew of the Findlays' film murdering a girl for real. The immortal tagline used to promote it, inspired by urban legend, claimed that it was "made in South America, where life is cheap!" Such a trick was exposed as the hoax it was in Variety and the New York Times, not to mention the plainly visible amateur qualities of the "authentic" kill scene. but the snuff movie myth persisted and soon it was seen as a job for Scotland Yard. 1978's Faces of Death was another lynchpin for the "Nasty snuff" controversy, made all the more thorny because it was an American mondo mock-documentary (trigger alert: genuine animal killings and Holocaust atrocity newsreel) where people couldn't tell, or didn't even bother to tell for the sake of their crusade, where the stock footage ended and the re-enactments began.

Jake West and Marc Morris are clearly on the side of Martin Barker, who gives an impassioned closing remark that rings all the more true in this modern American political climate. They allow Stephen Thrower's palpable disgust over the insanity of the "British island mentality" obsessed with perceived contagion to bounce off Kim Newman's equally piercing observation on the incriminatingly gory cover art: "Did the ad people really not see where this was going to end?" While future creative types such as Neil Marshall, Christopher Smith and Andy Nyman reminisce on their childhood exposure to Nasties with warmth and humor, the sad truth is that Go Video, in a misguided bid for provocateur's publicity, sent Mary Whitehouse a copy of Cannibal Holocaust and apparently blew the lid off this Pandora's box of fanatical paranoia and draconian intervention. What the hell were they thinking in a clime when James "God's Cop" Anderton was the chief constable of Manchester?

I have to find some amusement, too, in the way Neil Marshall and Andy Nyman enshrine their first encounters with Meir Zarchi's notorious I Spit on Your Grave. Nyman, who is Jewish and wound up feeling offended by the Nazisploitation on show, also recalls being drawn to the yellow-bordered replication of the poster art for Zarchi's film, with its "sexy woman's arse" and the clutched knife and the threats of cutting, chopping, breaking, and burning four men (plus a mysterious fifth in the original adverts, including the trailer) beyond recognition. Marshall was so devastated that he refused to revisit it ever since he caught the Nasty taxi: "It might ruin the effect it had on me at the time." He even goes so far as to mourn the innocence of those dodgy tape dubs by criticizing A Serbian Film for its clean photography.

The jury is still out on whether A Serbian Film is the new Last House on the Left or the new Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. The latter was viewed by Derek Malcolm, film critic for The Guardian, in preparation for a court trial where he claimed Romano Scavolini's eternally lousy slasher film was "well executed." The judge's response: "Well executed?! The German invasion of Belgium was well executed!" Nightmares' UK video distributor, David Hamilton Grant, was imprisoned for a year after releasing a gorier edit of the film instead of cinema-approved version. As Grant‘s lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, states "The problem with censorship test cases [is] they're never very good examples of the material." Well, there was one exception: Palace Video's Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell scored a coup in releasing Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead simultaneously in theaters and on video, where it became biggest-selling release of 1983, and then fought successfully against its prosecution.

The battle for Raimi's brilliant spam-in-a-cabin debut was won, but the war ended up feeling lost, regardless. The Tories were going around with sizzle reels of the most tasteless moments from the Nasties list as instant recruitment tools. None of them ever screened all of the movies in full, operating purely on upper class sanctimony and political gain. Poor Martin Barker, who has his say to disquieting effect in the 21st century, was earnestly trying to rise above the hysteria of the moral majority in the hope that at least 5% of the audience would come to some reasonable epiphany. Cuts, cuts, cuts were made to the very raisons d'ĂȘtre for these sensational bombardments, reducing them to the dreary piffle they actually were. And the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which we come to learn wasn't even sanctioned properly, meted out cruel punishment to the fledgling local retailers, hitting them with fines and prison terms before eventually doing away with them in pure oligarchic fashion by instigating the pricey classification process.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape manages to pole vault over the lowly yet high bar of nostalgia and land on the back mat of relevancy. Once you get past such gimmicky touches as digitally-enhanced VHS-style defects and at least one rather suspect personality in the clutch of genre specialists (more on that momentarily), the film is likely to invoke cries of "Never again!" in even the least seasoned horror buff. Though I have seen a great deal, if not all, of the 72 Video Nasties in my lifetime, nothing in those films is as unsettling as the ways in which a doddering, duplicitous coalition of wolves and sheep turned what has always been a socially harmless pastime into a scapegoat.

The first disc of the Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide package contains the fittingly 72-minute feature proper (albeit with no captioning or alternate language options), a motion gallery for the 82 "Section 3" Video Nasties and nearly an hour's worth of vintage UK video company idents/logos that will come as a surprise to many American viewers who can describe the Media Home Entertainment graphic from memory ("bawomp-bomp-bomp"). Disc two presents original trailers for the "Final 39," those movies which were considered violations of the Obscene Publications Act, and disc three corrals trailers for the "Dropped 33." Virtually all of these films have been released on UK DVD uncut as of 2017, with a few exceptions due to taboo content (I Spit on Your Grave, Deep River Savages, Faces of Death) and a dozen plus others merely down to lack of proper re-releases (Frozen Scream, Nightmare Maker, the cinema-barred Fight for Your Life). Only Love Camp 7 was denied a video certificate in the 2000s and was never advocated further like Last House on the Left.

The main theme throughout a huge swath of the original "DPP 72" is that they were, at their very core, rip-offs. Often times to the wary consumer looking to indulge their yen for ultra-violence, often times they were dopey, shoddy capitalization on a worthier, trend-setting title. Many still found amusement in the latter, naturally, but you can spot plenty of films that wouldn't have existed without Alien, Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left, The Night Porter, Halloween, and/or Friday the 13th. The Video Nasties became so popular as a result of major distributors being too pricey or afraid of piracy, and their reputations were sealed thanks to the outraged publicity. Every once in a while, you get a director like Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento or even Ruggero Deodato who managed to go beyond the call of duty. There's a lot of Joe D'Amato, Jess Franco and Lucio Fulci on the list, as well. These names are certainly disreputable but also phenomenal cult figures, too.

So on we go, through the dense fog of cannibalistic creature features, Third Reich torture shows and ample supply of slashers and body snatchers. You'll get Fight for Your Life, starring William Sanderson as a racist fugitive who invades the home of Christian blacks and makes sport of degrading the father. There's Ursula Andress doused in honey, as befitting her most famous role in Dr. No, to appease the Cannibal God. Clint Howard? Rachel Ward? William Shatner? Gratuitous Giovanni Lombardo Radice (a.k.a. John Morghen)? We got ‘em. The chintzy Herschell Gordon Lewis touchstone Blood Feast? The early Weinstein production that was like a rash on 1981? A supernatural shocker from a Fassbinder collaborator as well as the horrendously cheap sequel which leeches long stretches footage from its source? All these, plus countless oddities which have since been given lavish reissue treatment from Arrow Video, such as Eaten Alive, The Slayer, Contamination, Island of Death, and The Witch Who from the Sea.

The introductions to the 72 trailers, or at least the ones handled by the most revered horror writers, break down fairly easy like on the second Definitive Guide. Alan Jones emcees a lot of the Italian titles (Antropophagus, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Zombie Flesh Eaters), Stephen Thrower scores the Jess Franco leads (Bloody Moon, Devil Hunter) in between singing the praises of Andy Milligan and S.F. Brownrigg and Kim Newman will show up periodically for a slasher (Pranks, The Burning, Terror Eyes) or a major (Last House on the Left, Bay of Blood, Snuff). Old friend Patricia MacCormack has more to do here than last time, and the names not found in the earlier set but who chime in here include biographer Brad Stevens (who discusses Tobe Hooper and Abel Ferrara), professor Julian Petley (who dominates Cannibal Holocaust and the Video Nazties), Dark Side editor Allan Bryce (who contributes short, sharp shots at Cannibal Ferox, Don't Go Near the Park and The Toolbox Murders among others), and Birmingham buff Xavier Mendik (he does a fine job with I Spit on Your Grave, Dead & Buried and Unhinged).

Nucleus Films' Marc Morris and particularly Emily Booth feel like the oddest ducks in the gallery. Morris seemed to be at ease during the intros found on the Draconian Days set, but this time I felt he was working off a script when it came time to discuss Mardi Gras Massacre and Cannibal Terror, which is the second worst cannibal movie he's been tasked with next to Jess Franco's Cannibals from the Section 3 catalogue. He's essentially reciting full plot synopses of the kind you'd find on some of those collective VHS tapes' backsides. That suspicion is definitely true of Ms. Booth, who gives the set some minor sex appeal at the expense of credibility. Her intros to The Werewolf & The Yeti, Visiting Hours and Killer Nun provide the kind of over-pronounced TV hostess presence where you can surmise she's reading the trivia off cue cards. I pined for the Katarina Leigh Waters bookends from those Scorpion Releasing DVDs.

On the plus side, Stephen Thrower has more of an opportunity here to animate his enthusiasm. He's particularly amused by one technical note found in the screenplay of Andy Milligan's Blood Rites (The Ghastly Ones) and latches onto a ridiculous line of dialogue from Bloody Moon: "I bet he's never even made it with a girl, the phony Spanish lover!" He's still the most outwardly knowledgeable voice to be found, and among his many highlights are appraisals of Frederick Friedel's Axe and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, starring Cannes' Best Actress of 1981, Isabelle Adjani, and featuring FX work from Carlo Rambaldi. Alan Jones shares press show memorabilia and biographical details pertaining to certain movies, as well as a disastrous introduction to Lucio Fulci on the set of one early 1980s project. His comments on Scavolini's Nightmare are to the point ("quite misogynistic, very trashy") and he stands up again for Antonio Margheriti in the form of Cannibal Apocalypse. And Kim Newman is as spirited as ever, talking about one particular "hand grenade of a movie" as well as such tripe as Don't Go in the Woods and Frozen Scream, which was on the prosecuted list for two months, the second shortest span next to Unhinged. He also shares the 10 minute precursor to the trailer for Cannibal Holocaust, the longest intro of them all, with Julian Petley and director Ruggero Deodato himself, who returns for House on the Edge of the Park opposite Xavier Mendik.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the one person whose academic verbosity left me a little dumbfounded, if not outright skeptical. That is, oddly enough, Patricia MacCormack, one of the secret weapons of the Draconian Days package. Never have I felt the gulf between scholarly interpretation and critical thinking blown wider apart than when listening to her mount peculiar defenses of Boogeyman II and Bruno Mattei's Zombie Creeping Flesh (Hell of the Living Dead). Given her humor in talking about a peculiar side effect of gorilla blood in Night of the Bloody Apes and her true-blue fandom in regards to Fulci's The Beyond, I don't know if I can fully agree with the shameless appropriations of Mattei's film (wildlife stock footage, Goblin soundtrack on loan from Dawn of the Dead) as merely a "greatest hits of Italian cinema" or the way Bogeyman I dominates Bogeyman II to offer a fresh reinterpretation of existing footage. It's one thing to bring up artistic pretension in regards to The Witch Who Came from the Sea, the other to turn a blind eye to the abysmal filmmaking of Boogeyman II and Zombie Creeping Flesh in order to find an accidental kernel of significance. What I ultimately glean from MacCormack's thoughts on those two, which aren't all that "well executed" when you get right down to it, is that Grade Z cinema is being elevated merely to Grade Y.

Final tho...Don't Go in the House! Oh, you did? Well, then Don't Open the Window! You didn't listen. Again. Don't Look in the Basement! Goddamnit!! Fine. Don't go for Don't Go in the Woods! Thank you. You chose wisely for once. Now you take care of popcorn duties while I put in this VHS copy of Night of the Demon.

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