Written and Directed by: Jake West
Starring: Martin Barker, Neil Marshall, and Christopher Smith
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
To avoid moral panic, keep repeating "they're only movies..."
We’re far enough away from the Video Nasties era that we’re pretty inclined to have a hearty laugh about it all, which is exactly what we shouldn’t do because, as Jake West’s Moral Panic, Censorship, & Videotape reveals, it was actually scary as hell. Certainly more terrifying than anything contained in the infamous batch of banned titles, this moral majority reign of terror was an absurd but horrifying farce that provides a stark reminder of the hypocrisy and overbearing pomposity of extreme conservatism. With his documentary, West provides a succinct but satisfying look at what qualifies as a bewildering age of moral madness—it’s like a nostalgic trip down memory lane that swiftly turns into a nightmare once he reveals just how insidious this movement was.
His retrospective joins several experts on the age, including current directors influenced by the Nasties (Neil Marshall , Christopher Smith) and those who endured the panic and went on to chronicle it (Kim Newman, Martin Barker). Their initial look back is innocuous enough, as many of them preach to the choir with recollections of growing up with such forbidden fruit. With the government earmarking a number of titles (72 in all), it naturally had the same effect as telling a child not to touch a hot burner: of course those inclined to watch such films now had a guide of sorts and fervently sought them out, and these participants’ memories are universal observations that should connect even with those who didn’t grow up in 80s Britain.
Their talking points are the familiar sort bandied about by video addicts, as they discuss the certain, scuzzy magic of worn-out video tapes, an experience which added to the mythical quality of these films. Like so many of us, they speak of these films as badges of honor: you weren’t cool until you dared to seek out the brain-splattering, limb-ripping, flesh-rending joys the Nasties held. Video box art is expectedly mythologized as the gatekeepers to this awesome, blood-stained underworld that felt miles removed from the likes of Hammer Films. Nasties became a rite of passage—even those disappointing ones that failed to live up to their impossible hype (Unhinged is particularly singled out as one that paled in comparison to its incredible but misleading artwork).
Not content to simply serve as a wistful nostalgia trip, the documentary transitions into an effective history lesson. Barker especially provides context by taking stock of the Neo-con political climate at the time, which had a hard-on for reviving the puritanical 50s (one of the earliest articles on the Nasties borrowed its title from Fredric Wertham’s ludicrous Seduction of the Innocent). With Thatcher’s brand of ultra-moralistic conservatism taking hold of the country, it was only a matter of time until lobbyists seized enough power to police the entertainment industry. The documentary’s reproduction of sensationalist headlines from the time reveals their reliance on the same old bullshit that persists to this day: in short, “think of the children” (of course, no one thought to condemn shitty parenting).
But what’s most fascinating is just how swayed they were of their own bullshit. The various archive footage provides absurd bits, such as a politician’s insistence that violent films definitely have an effect on young kids and dogs. Some of the more zealous lobbyists appear in modern interviews, still utterly convinced of their crusade and completely oblivious of their own absurdity (the same guy is still sure that Snuff is an actual snuff film!). It’s all very fascinating but frustrating, of course, as facts don’t seem to register or matter with this lot, so it’s no surprise they managed to launch a major campaign on video tapes that actually saw people arrested and jailed. Seriously, we’re talking some Fahrenheit 451-level shit, complete with police raids and tape-burnings. You’re inclined to laugh at how ludicrous it is until the sobering reality emerges.
Ultimately, the story of Moral Panic is one of heroes and villains, with the latter represented by the likes of Mary Whitehouse, the pearl-clutching lobbyist who openly admitted to never watching a single Video Nasty but insisted on their banishment anyway. Her acolytes are further revealed to be a sinister sect who stopped at nothing to manipulate facts and destroy evidence that damned their agenda. Their hypocrisy reigns supreme in vintage footage: though they purportedly represented the proper values of middle-class England, they were often rude, condescending pricks looking to shout down the opposition. The heroes were spearheaded by the likes of Barker, who was among the first to push back and note how outrageous this moral panic was; despite being hounded by the media for his championing of Video Nasties, he stayed the course and became a voice of reason. You might call him the patron saint of gorehounds.
All this fuss over a relatively small crop of exploitation flicks may seem ridiculous or unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but Barker provides a sharp rejoinder for such reasoning: this era was a terrifying glimpse at the way those in power can manipulate and control information, and, if we allow ourselves to forget that, history will repeat (and, hell, it already has to a certain extent—just recall the outrage over violent video games in America just a few years later). West has certainly done his due diligence by providing a wonderful, insightful chronicle with his documentary, which also doubles as a fine promotional tool for these infamous films, as footage of each (the money shots, of course) is interspersed throughout. It’s a slick, engaging documentary, filled with erudite speakers and fun, stylistic bursts (the sequence that replicates the look and feel of worn VHS tapes is aces).
Severin films has teamed up with West to feature Moral Panic as the centerpiece of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, a three-disc set featuring nearly 14 hours of material. Supplementing the main feature is a neat look at the various, obscure video labels that smuggled the Nasties into Britain, while two entire discs are dedicated to trailers (and their accompanying expert introduction) for each film that landed on the country’s list of banned films. Everything from the notorious heavy-hitters (I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust) to the more obscure (The Man From Deep River, Human Experiments) are represented—if nothing else, this definitive collection is a fine trailer compilation and tour guide if you’re still looking to earn badges of honor. Knowing that doing so still pisses some folks off is a nice bonus, too. Buy it!
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