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Video Nasties

I fell in love with a video nasty
Catch, catch the horror taxi!
Freeze-frame gonna drive you insane
Catch, catch the horror train...
The Damned, "Nasty"

In the 1980s, newly arisen video distribution companies in Britain got the idea to make a fast buck by adapting for VHS cheesy, low-budget and, for the time, rather violent Italian and American horror films of the ilk that would later inspire Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Unfortunately, at the time there was no law that required videocassettes to be classified before being rented and anyone of any age could legally rent any video; so films such as Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit on Your Grave could be (and were) rented by children as young as 10.

Mary Whitehouse was not pleased.

So in 1984, the Video Recordings Act was passed, which made it illegal to distribute any film that had not been classified. The British Board of Film Classification liased with the Department of Public Prosecutions to build a list of videos that had already led to shopkeepers being convicted for criminal obscenity and hence could not be legally distributed in Britain, to which were added a number of videos that were submitted to the BBFC for classification and rejected. Hence was formed the infamous list of the "Video Nasties". This ultimately comprised 74 films, of which 39 had been successfully prosecuted. Video stores renting them were subject to police raids.

Incidentally, one of the causes of the domination of the early home video market by exploitation films was that the major Hollywood studios took quite a while to begin releasing any of their films for home rental, due to fears about damage to the cinema market. Parallels to later media developments can be drawn by the reader...

As time has gone by and society become more liberal about horror movies, many films from the list have been resubmitted to the BBFC. In some cases they were passed with no difficulties, but a few of the more extreme cases were passed only with cuts, only for them to resubmitted again a few years later and released completely uncut in the present day (the most notorious and high-profile case of this being The Last House on the Left). Only a handful of films from the list still remain banned, but usually because they remain so obscure that nobody has bothered to resubmit them. If you are able to find and view these films (most used to be incredibly rare and obscure; what were once considered holy-grails amongst collectors are now widely available in this age of DVD) you will probably be shocked at how tame some of them are compared to today's standards what with films the likes of Saw and Hostel. In many cases, some films would have been tame even by those days' standards; often films were convicted of obscenity based on the cover art or the title alone. The featuring of the words "Cannibal", "Zombie" or anything associated with Nazis in the title of a film almost guaranteed inclusion on the list. Other films though, such as Cannibal Holocaust, retain the power to shock and horrify.

It really doesn't take a genius to know what the result of Mary's hissy-fits and the bans were; people wanted to see these films. Naughty little boys, spurred by the media's allegations that these were reprehensible, disgusting, Gorntastic shlockfests that were corrupting the youth and which had been banned for the good of the nation, flocked to video stores in hopes of getting their grubby hands on a copy before the police buried them in landfills. Their infamy instead took on a nearly legendary status; many would have faded into obscurity as generic money-sucking horror drivel and nowadays nobody would know they had ever existed (however, several of them were already wildly successful in their countries of origin and beyond, such as the legendary The Evil Dead and the Dario Argento films included on the list).

You can see how Siskel and Ebert reacted to this trend in this video, starting at about 12:20.

The complete official list of "Nasties" is below. (Bear in mind that some of the more obscure ones have up to a dozen or so alternate titles; the following are the titles by which they were known specifically in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s)

The following films were not included on the list, but are sometimes mistakenly thrown in because they were controversial in earlier or later eras. Not all of them were ever actually banned in Britain.

  • A Clockwork Orange (predates the "nasty" controversy, withdrawn voluntarily by its director, Stanley Kubrick, due to claims of copycat crimes and threats against him)
  • Child's Play 3 (subject to a censorious press campaign after it was falsely alleged to have influenced the murderers of James Bulger)
  • The Devil and Max Devlin (reported as one in an attempt to show how clueless the police were about the videos they kept seizing)
  • The Exorcist (Warner followed the BBFC's advice to not submit the film for a video certificate, mainly due to its then-leader's personal prejudices against the film)
  • Maniac
  • Mikey (still banned from cinema and home video release due to its subject matter and perceived similarities to the James Bulger murder)
  • Mother's Day
  • The New York Ripper (deported back to Italy because James Ferman decided that the Forbidden Fruit potential was so strong, it was Not Worth Killing)
  • Scum (original TV version refused broadcast by The BBC after being made for them, subsequent film version subjected to an eventually unsuccessful legal claim that Channel 4 had breached its own taste-and-decency rules by broadcasting it)
  • Shogun Assassin (one of two films incorrectly cited as an official Nasty)
  • Silent Night, Deadly Night
  • Straw Dogs (never on the "nasty" list, but banned from home release by the BBFC until 2002)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (banned from home release by the BBFC for many years but never on the official "nasty" list)
  • Xtro (the other film incorrectly cited as an official Nasty; an attempted seizure of the film by local police was derailed when it was pointed out that the film had been released in the cinema with a BBFC certificate)

The following are works which mention Video Nasties In-Universe or had other connections to the crusade:
  • The Doctor Who serial "Vengeance on Varos" was intended as a satire of the Nasty craze. Due to its unusually dark tone (it was originally written with lots of comedy sequences, but they were all cut, and one scene originally Played for Laughs was rewritten to play it straight), relatively explicit sequences of torture and violence, and elements of Gorn, it was accused of being what it claimed to parody. The controversy over the level of violence in the story (and of several other stories from Seasons 21-22, especially "Resurrection of the Daleks", "Attack of the Cybermen" and "The Two Doctors") was among the reasons given for the cancellation of the original Season 23, and contributed to the general decline in popularity of the show in the mid-to-late 80s.

Video Inside, Film OutsideBritish Media TropesViolent Glaswegian
Torture PornFilm GenresThe Western
Color WashImageSource/Live-Action FilmsWaiting for Guffman

alternative title(s): Video Nasty
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