In 1983, the British Director of Public Prosecutions produced a list of movies banned on home video – a list which would come to include 72 “video nasties” in total. For the police it was a record of titles which were to be prosecuted; for horror fans a checklist of movies you just had to see. As one of those horror fans, I’m starting with 1979’s The Driller Killer.
The Driller Killer does what it says on the tin. And the tin is particularly important in the case of video nasties. These films went straight onto a new format called VHS, for which no mode of censorship was in place. They had no budgets to advertise and couldn’t be certified for release in cinemas, so they had to sell themselves using their packaging. Hence artwork like this (left), titles including Cannibal Holocaust and taglines such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” Of course, these images being splattered across the outraged front pages of The Daily Mail gave them free advertising the filmmakers would never have dreamed of.
In this case the filmmaker is Abel Ferrara, who also plays Reno – a disgruntled New York artist apparently driven to driller-killing by a phone bill, among similarly insignificant events. The Driller Killer is a complete vanity project, as Reno spends much of the film making out with his inexplicably attractive girlfriend(s) despite looking like Stephen Mangan on heroin. At one point someone shouts: “It’s a work of pure, unadulterated ego!” That single line is a better review of this film than I could ever write.
Otherwise it’s a decent horror film, surprisingly character-driven with an effectively scuzzy atmosphere which must have looked great on videotape. It contains dead animals, borderline porn and power tools – everything that the censors hated and the teenagers loved. That anyone found it worth banning seems absurd today, as it did at the time to any rational people. The Driller Killer‘s only crime is wearing a pair of red trousers.
Looking at the film in context, it plays out like a good analogy for the video nasties scandal in general. Just like the press and politicians, Reno perceives moral decline in society and goes mad in his gleeful overreaction – an overreaction which leads to much more harm than that “decline” would ever have caused. The establishment’s weapon of choice was not a drill, but the legal system.
Suddenly owners of video shops were being arrested, so a little business owner who was just trying to make a living out of these new video thingies would have their store raided, their stock seized and incinerated. They couldn’t just lock the videos away somewhere, oh no, they had to be burned and burned and burned. There was this weird idea that there was something demonic in the videotape itself. The police didn’t even know which films were supposed to be illegal, in one case mistakenly seizing the Dolly Parton musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. So to make sure they’d taken the right videos, the police would have to sit around watching movies all day. To quote Geoffrey Robertson QC: “It was a lot cosier than going out and catching burglars.”
The press quickly took up the cause, as Daily Mail articles with headlines like “Rape of our children’s minds” called for legislation against these “evil” video nasties. Puritanical crusader and general nuisance Mary Whitehouse used her friendship with Margaret Thatcher to push the item onto the parliamentary agenda. She was repeatedly given a platform whilst dissenting voices were consistently dismissed, despite her admitting: “I have never seen a video nasty… I actually don’t need to see, visually, what I know is in that film.”
A Tory MP called Graham Bright (which is ironic) introduced the Video Recordings Act 1984, which outlawed the video nasties on evidence which was later proved erroneous. “I believe that research is taking place,” said Bright, “and it will show that these films not only affect young people but I believe they affect dogs as well.” I wish I was making this up.
Talking of making stuff up, this research found that 40% of six year olds had seen a video nasty. But as UEA’s Martin Barker explains: “The figures were entirely bogus.” There had been 47 respondents, 3 of whom had seen 17 video nasties between them. This meaningless data was extrapolated to give the 40% statistic which helped form the backbone of a piece of government legislation. Then to prove the ridiculous nature of the entire exercise, someone called Guy Cumberbatch (no relation) went into schools with a list of completely made-up titles and asked kids if they’d seen them. Two-thirds of the children claimed to have seen non-existent movies. Because they’re children.
Then video nasties were screened for MPs, because obviously they’re all too clever to be corrupted by these films. Most of them walked out or threw up pretty quickly, and thus a law was passed – a law based entirely on squeamishness, like laws against homosexuality. Many of them, including Bright and the head of the police’s Obscene Publications Unit Peter Kruger (also ironic) thought that what they were watching was real. Quite why they thought this is unclear given the ludicrously cheap red paint effects, it’s probably the naivety of ageing men who simply haven’t watched many violent films. It’s almost as if these horror movies aren’t actually aimed at reactionary, puritanical politicians. So their stupidity led to the creation of a law which would treat filmmakers and distributors like murderers.
All this is lifted directly from Jake West’s brilliant documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, but it bears repeating at a time when Nick Clegg is warning us about the “corrosive effect” of Grand Theft Auto V. Moral panic will rear its ugly head again and again, and those in power will exploit it to push their own agendas at the expense of liberalism and legality. The video nasties scandal was never about the content of the films, which were generally just crappy splatter movies. It was about punishing people for obscenity, a crime as meaningless and victimless as blasphemy. It championed blind moral panic over sensible debate. It sought to imprison innocent people who have gone on to become major Hollywood directors, such as Sam Raimi. On second thoughts, that would have been great.