For fans of psychotronic cinema there are few things more enticing than forbidden content and establishment outrage, and Jake West and Mark Morris’s 72-minute documentary on the often-oversimplified era of the “Video Nasties” brings both in the bucketful. Information, education, and entertainment abound in this vivid and engaging oral history.
If you don’t know the story, it goes something like this; Videotape was invented, due to a gap in UK legislation people could sell far more extreme movies than available in cinema and on TV; Britain went a little bit crazy about it all and then new laws were put in place to stop those movies being available. The “Video Nasties” were a list of 72 films that the Director of Public Prosecutions believed violated the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and were engaged in a campaign to arrest the sellers of and destroy any copies available.
It is that list, and the videos on it, which are discussed by cinema and cultural commentators that include Andy Nyman, Kim Newman, Janus Blythe, Julian Petley, Patricia MacCormack, and Martin Barker. Following a broadly linear timeline, from the introduction of relatively affordable home cinema, up to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act 1984, we get the viewpoints and experiences of people who watched the movies, those who were involved in the industry, and those who ended up being participants in the battle over its future.
Whilst the documentary has an opinion on the actions taken to curtail the availability of such films, driven extensively by those seeking to censor them making up their facts, and bully-browbeating away any reasoned discussion, it does try to present both sides of the story. People involved in enforcing and creating censorship/obscenity laws present their cases, and the finger is pointed at the video industry’s marketing and self-regulation. Because maybe plastering “The film they tried to ban!” or “So shocking it will drive you mad!” on everything isn’t the best way to convince the average person the content within is safe viewing.
As the events discussed took place in the late 70s and early 80s Great Britain, a lot of effort has been made to put things into clear context for the viewers. This includes extensive use of visual techniques to show the poor quality of the VHS and Betamax formats, along with contemporaneous news media shown in all their low-resolution glory. This all gives the older viewers a little hauntological treat and hopefully shocks the younger audience into appreciating how great they have it with digital formats. For those who don’t know about late 20th century Britain, there are brief primers on the social, political, and economic forces in play, building the framework needed to understand the wider picture of what was going on.
One warning for the faint of heart/people who are interested in the history of all this but don’t want to watch the films themselves, the documentary does use a lot of “the best bits” from the movies being discussed. This means there are clips of eye-gouging, beheadings, impairments, sexual assaults, and emasculations on screen at various times. However, it also discusses how these “notorious scenes” are often the only violent bits in the movie, and how when put into the full context of a 90-minute film they can be a disappointment. West and Morris certainly go to great efforts to give the video nasties exactly the reverence they deserve as cheap, often quite badly made, exploitation cinema.
The final results are a fascinating and informative watch, with care taken to put this one series of events into the wider narrative on censorship and social restrictions. Whilst nobody pretends that the movies in question are high art, their place in pop culture is explained and their appeal presented without judgment. For those who already know the subject, it’s likely to set off fond remembrances, whilst those who weren’t in on it back then, get a good slice of history to chew through. Fans of gore, cinema history, kitsch, and cultural history should give this documentary a go, even if it won’t convince you to watch any of the films discussed.
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship, and Videotape will be available from Arrow FIlms as of August 16th, 2021. Thanks to them for sending me the screener.