Written and Directed by: James West
Starring: Christopher Smith, Martin Barker, & Alex Chandon
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
The shocking story behind the second wave of Video Nasties.
As those of us raised during the 80s and 90s have gotten older, we’ve tended to romanticize the video store era, particularly the forbidden thrills associated with it. Certain movies weren’t meant for young eyes, and you felt like you pulled off a coup by sneaking something like Sorority House Massacre past your parents. It should be noted, however, that our counterparts across the pond must have really felt like they were staging a revolt since these same tapes were actually forbidden thanks to Video Nasty laws that kept dozens of titles off of shelves for decades.
Even my passing familiarity with the era couldn’t properly prepare me for Jake West’s definitive documentary, as watching it left me gobsmacked that Western civilization allowed it to happen. What’s more astonishing is that it actually extended beyond Margaret Thatcher’s reign of conservative terror, so much so that West produced a companion piece covering the “Draconian Days” of 1985 to 1999. It turns out that Britain’s sense of moral panic was as indestructible as any slasher villain, rising from the grave with every opportunity to name a video scapegoat for the country’s salacious headlines.
Like any sequel, this second volume opens with the somewhat happy, optimistic ending of the first (Martin Barker’s warning that we should never forget the Video Nasties era, lest history repeat itself) before revealing that the monster isn’t quite dead after all. After covering some of the same background as the previous documentary, this one moves into specifically exploring the role the British Board of Film Classification played in enforcing the 1984 Video Recordings Act, a piece of draconian legislation that crippled the country’s home video market. Those films that managed to avoid being banned outright were still subject to a ratings system and strict censorship by a board ready to use any sensational real-life murder as an excuse to tighten its grip.
If West’s first documentary was essentially a 101-level course on the Nasties, then this addendum is higher-level course work focused on the minutia of the BBFC and the measures opponents took to combat it. Much of the first half of the doc is dedicated to the former and positions BBFC president James Ferman as public enemy number one with vintage and current interviews. Both those who served alongside him and those who bristled at his extreme measures provide insight into a process that makes the MPAA seem fair by comparison. Let that sink in: the MPAA looks reasonable after reliving the shenanigans of this board, who would arbitrarily censor and ban films based off of murky standards (apparently, I Spit on Your Grave was used as a baseline for several years). Ferman’s aversion to sexual violence is especially noted and accentuated with clips from films that most offended him; as was true of the previous doc, Draconian Days does a fine job of providing visual context, which practically doubles as West thumbing his nose at these ludicrous people.
Because it’s been fifteen years since these folks chilled the fuck out, it’s a little bit easier to laugh at how ridiculous they were. When one woman describes the pearl-clutching after the board viewed The New York Ripper, it’s amusing, if only because she’s playing the same role as your dismayed mom. Cooler heads prevail when other participants discuss how these violent and misogynist films still have value in what they force culture to confront—banning them outright isn’t the answer, but examining them is. Obviously, this sort of stuff preaches to the choir, but it’s nice to hear a rejoinder for the all the voices who were practically suppressed during this time. Their rebuttals are certainly more reasonable than the logic—or lack thereof—employed by the BBFC, who often appealed to pretense of protecting children and whose decisions obviously cut along class lines. Comparing the board to your overly-doting parents isn’t too far off: chided here as a blatantly paternalistic regime, the BBFC operated on the assumption that it knew what was best for the lower class. According to them, children weren’t the only ones in need of protection.
As infuriating as that is, few things were as shameless as the moral watchdogs’ insistence on exploiting any and every tragedy to advance their agenda. When Michael Ryan massacred sixteen people in Hungerford, it was Rambo who took the fall for the violent outburst—despite the fact that no evidence existed that Ryan ever even watched First Blood. Rather than ban the sale of Rambo’s signature knife, it apparently made more sense to ban depictions of the knife (and, as the documentary points out, similar logic lead to the banishment of on-screen nunchucks). Six years after the Hungerford massacre, the tragic murder of James Bulger summoned the ghosts of the country’s moral paranoia: when faced with the horrific reality of two ten-year-olds murdering an infant, many were quick to blame Child’s Play 3—despite the fact that, again, no link between the film and the crime could be established.
Just as it did a decade earlier, outrage reached a fever pitch and fanned the flames of burning VHS tapes in the hopes that purging unsavory entertainment would vanquish actual evil. It’s a horrifying mindset that feels all too potent when West provides archive footage and vintage newspaper headlines of a witch trial that tried to put art through a crucible, its clumsy executioners wildly dousing any target that fit their narrative. Two decades later, it reads like an embarrassing chapter in human history, but it’s one that shouldn’t be soon forgotten.
Nor should we forget the efforts of those who pushed back against the BBFC through “illicit” backchannels: the directors who refused to give a fuck about decency and continually pushed the boundaries of bad taste, the theater owners who hosted and programmed festivals headlined by the forbidden Nasties, and the tape-traders who kept them in circulation for home video consumption. West especially venerates the latter, and their recollections could easily be mistaken for the exploits of drug dealers attempting to smuggle contraband into a country. The absurdity of the Nasty era is never more obvious than it is during this segment, which has these enthusiasts recalling their humiliating treatment at the hands of government agents sent to raid their homes as if they were peddling harmful material. Some vintage footage of one raid looks like some real Gestapo shit, with officers ransacking a guy’s stuff and trying to shake him down for information about his recording habits.
Draconian Days is full of astounding moments like that. I imagine most horror fans develop some sort of persecution complex at some point, be it due to judgmental, sideways glances or due to people writing you off as some sort of weirdo, but I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be actually persecuted for a hobby. We often talk about the power of film, and, thanks to West, we have a definitive document demonstrating that power. To think that an entire government was petrified by the bogus actions film could inspire when they should have been more worried that dangling forbidden fruit would only inspire enthusiasts to embrace what was meant to be shunned.
That’s power, and Severin Films has been complicit in delivering the message, first with their initial Video Nasties tribute and now with this second volume. Draconian Days is the headliner, but it’s joined by a host of extra features, including reproductions of fanzines and banned VHS artwork on the main disc. The remaining two discs host the trailers and expert commentaries for all 82 films that landed on “Section 3” of the Obscene Publications Act. Essentially a collection of the “worst of the worst” (read: “the best of the best” for our purposes), these discs bring the collection’s total runtime to a staggering 13 hours.
While Draconian Days doesn’t feature the stylistic flourishes of its predecessor (many of the VHS-era affectations are gone), it’s no less informative, nor is it any less galling. To watch these films is to glimpse into some kind of bizarre dystopia usually reserved for alternate history tales. It’s all true, though—there was a time when Britain banned the likes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on home video for two decades. I’ve never been more thankful for the American Revolution. Buy it!
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