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Video Nasties

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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 distributing cheesy, low-budget and, for the time, rather violent Italian and American horror films of the ilk that on 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, notorious morality campaigner who had recently gained a powerful ally in the Conservative government of the time, 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.note  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 covernote  or the Gory Deadly Overkill Title of Fatal Death alone. Mary Whitehouse herself, apparently unfamiliar with the phrase "Never judge a book by its cover" or at least how it might to apply to a medium other than literature, admitted in an interview that she never watched any of the films she railed against because she erroneously felt the stomach-churning covers and lurid titles spoke for their content. The featuring of the words "Cannibal", "Zombie" or anything associated with Nazis in the film's title 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 of 39 to be prosecuted, and some weren't even among the 74 targeted for prosecution, 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.

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.
  • The Young Ones had an episode called "Nasty" where the boys try to watch a video nasty only to be interrupted by a South African driving instructor/vampire really Harry the Bastard who works down the video shop, played by Alexei Sayle. The episode also features the Damned singing the song that provides the title quote on this article. The Nasty in question is the hopefully fictional, and certainly not on the list, Sex with the Headless Corpse of the Virgin Astronaut.
    • "Bambi" features Bamber "Bambi" Gascoigne (played by Griff Rhys-Jones) who, in this universe is apparently identical with Bambi the deer. Vyvyan recognizes him from Bambi Goes Crazy-Ape Bonkers With His Power-Drill And Sex, causing Neil to disapprovingly ask if Bambi did a video nasty. Bambi just shrugs and says that he had a hard time finding work after his contract with Disney collapsed.
  • The Leo Darke novel Mr. Nasty concerns a Serial Killer mimicking murders committed in several of the Nasties.
  • In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Pentex owns a movie subsidiary, Slaughterhouse Videos, that it infests with evil spirits to infect viewers. Relatively little is said about the movies directly, but what is said always seems to be a reflection of the "worst" horror movies of the era in which the book was written, with the original Book of the Wyrm implying they make Video Nasties, and later books describing movies which span Video Nasties, low budget gore fest slasher films, and "true events" videos of things like hostage situations, mass killings, car crashes, etc.
  • The comic book Video Nasty is set in 1983, and concerns a series of gruesome murders occurring in a rural English town that the media and the authorities are convinced are somehow connected to the Video Nasties. The murderer turns out to be a demon who is emulating the Nasties because it finds the hysteria surrounding them to be hilarious, and it enjoys exacerbating it.
  • Spitting Image parodied the trend in a sketch advertising a low-budget, Sickeningly Sweet "video nicie".
  • Neil Innes' song "My New School" references the trend with the lyrics, "It's got all the charm of a video nasty/I've never been anywhere so ghastly, my new school".
  • The trend was also referenced in a Radio Rentals commercial featuring actor Matt Frewer in character as Max Headroom, wherein Max at first appears to warn the viewer to beware of video nasties, but then turns out to be talking about malfunctioning VHS tapes. After all, as Max puts it, "what could be nastier than your video going on the blink?"
  • Censor is a period piece set in 1985 about the mental breakdown of a censor during the moral panic as she deals with trying to cut an eerily familiar film.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Video Nasty


The Video Nasty Family

The sight of Norman Tebbit and the rest of The Video Nasty Family drives moral guardian Mary Whitehouse to kill HAROLD ANGRYPERSON.

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