So here we are, twenty years after the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, still talking about – and celebrating – a number of aging horror movies that got themselves banned as “video nasties”. For those that don’t know, the Video Recordings Act was a tyrannical piece of knee-jerk legislation that was forced through Parliament at rapid speed in order to curb the threat of violent movies upon the moral fabric of our society. The result was that the BBFC would have the power to ban and cut anything that they, personally, deemed unfit for viewing by the British population. Of course, virtually every country has a classification board – but it was the way in which the BBFC of yesteryear, under the ironclad grip of the late James Ferman (an undoubtedly academic, if misguided, sole) stopped the public sale of everything from an Oscar nominated feature such as The Exorcist to 1963’s low budget farce Blood Feast.
Largely used as an excuse to keep the public’s minds from the very real social and economicproblems of early eighties Britain, the video nasties were a case of right time, right place. The largely pro-Thatcher tabloids had a field day using these movies to instigate a moral panic that had not been seen since the notorious EC Comic Book scare back in the USA of the mid-fifties. Ironically, these same newspapers had no qualms about cheering on dear old Maggie when she was ruthlessly dropping bombs on retreating Argentinean submarines during the Falklands War, and thus killing people for real – but latex and fake blood were apparently a step too far for the likes of The Daily Mail…
Regardless, the video nasties scare effectively made legends out of the select, lucky few horror titles that ended up being branded “obscene” and “liable to deprave and corrupt” by the Department of Public Prosecution. The title “video nasty” was invented to cover a number of titles that actually had very little in common – from the more upmarket likes of Tobe Hooper’s 1976 effort Death Trap and Sam Raimi’s influential The Evil Dead to the arty charms of Matt Cimber’s The Witch who came from the Sea and the sheer exploitation of Cannibal Ferox and its ilk. It is all very well to be nostalgic about an age when, without DVD and internet information, bizarre obscurities from another land such as Zombie Flesh-Eaters arrived on the video shelves – titles beamed from what could just as well have been another planet for all the British public knew about them. However, in this day and age, actually having to sit down and watch many of these movies is a chore and a half. So, has Anchor Bay selected the cream of the crop with this box set?
Well, case number one is I Spit on Your Grave – the notorious rape/ revenge flick from 1978, directed by Meir Zarchi, a filmmaker whose sole claim to fame remains rested with this fairly tawdry slice of exploitation. I Spit on Your Grave arrived in British video shops uncut over two decades ago and, following its citing in the tabloid press as one of the nastiest of the nasties, shot straight to being the number one rental title. Nice.
In reality, I Spit in Your Grave is quite terrible. Devised by its director as a harrowing anti-rape film (as if anyone needs to be told rape is bad…hardly a breathtaking message), I Spit is very crudely executed and horribly photographed. Certainly, the message the movie gives out is undoubtedly vile – with its ‘heroine’ taking the law into her own hands and cathartically brutalising and killing her aggressors… apparently the ‘correct’ way to do things. Of course, we are made to feel that the female lead is justified in her mission through having to endure some of the most exploitative and disgusting rape scenes ever put to film.
Yes, the male characters are hideous in the extreme, and in order to negate the audience into being a cheering spectator to the inevitable sequences of bloody revenge I suppose the director felt the need to hammer home the animalistic brutality of the rapists. Even so, I Spit is a failure. The rape scenes are hard to watch, of that there can be no argument, but the revenge scenes are also pretty unpleasant to sit through – so the end result just seems pointless. After all, does anyone really begin this sort of movie waiting to learn that rape is a horrible thing and that the sort of man that carries out such an act is beastly? Perhaps with a better cast, plot and director, the feature would have been a bit more successful, but as it stands the film is a plodding, sensationalistic pile of nonsense. Furthermore, this UK version is cut to shreds – which hardly makes it a fitting inclusion in a so-called ‘Box of the Banned’. Even worse, none of the many extras featured on the British ‘special edition’ of the film are present here – not even a solitary trailer. Thus, if you really want to see I Spit on Your Grave head for the complete Region 1 version on Elite Entertainment and make your own mind up about it. For the curious, the most aggressive defence of the movie comes from feminist writer Carol Clover in her defining piece of genre academia Men, Women and Chainsaws.
Next up is the late Italian director Lucio Fulci with his 1979 walking dead classic Zombie Flesh-Eaters. This is definitely Fulci’s finest moment – featuring a cast led by Richard Johnson (The Haunting) and something resembling pace (not one of the director’s best points). Basically a straightforward story about the un-dead munching their way through a small Caribbean island, wrestling with sharks and poking out eyeballs – Zombie is lavishly shot in widescreen and hard not to have fun with. Although the special effects have aged somewhat, this is the first time the film has been seen uncut in the UK and, for that reason, it is an essential purchase. A great B-movie by a largely hit-or-miss filmmaker, this is perhaps the highlight of the set. Sadly, all of the special features available on the American DVD (from Shriek Show) are absent from this disc – with a few trailers being your only compensation.
Next is Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer – that early slice of grainy, punk rock, Black and Decker slasher action from the future iconic filmmaker behind The Bad Lieutenant and The Funeral. Ferrara also stars in this one, but those expecting gore galore will be hugely disappointed by this arty exploration of a failed artist and his descent into madness via a portable power drill.
Opinion varies greatly on The Driller Killer. My opinion is that it’s one of Ferrara’s more accessible efforts and it isn’t without its moments (the Bronx discourse of the title character is notably well written – and at times very expressive), but the story still drags along. As with Zombie Flesh-Eaters, this is fully uncut but without any extras at all – and the widescreen print looks really faded. Watching it today, you’ll likely be scratching your head and wondering what all the fuss was about, but this is a worthy inclusion to the set.
So we come to The Evil Dead, presented in full screen, and if you are one of the seven horror movie buffs still to own one of the 65 home video releases of this title then you will no doubt rejoice about its presence in the box. Otherwise, this seems like the most pointless disc here. At least it’s packed full of extras but, really, does anyone still not own at least one copy of Sam Raimi’s classic debut flick?
Last House on the Left is up next – albeit trimmed by 32 seconds (sigh). Again, a bit of a pointless inclusion, as we’ve all gone out and bought this by now, haven’t we? Wes Craven’s debut film is still one of his most powerful – and star David Hess remains the screen’s scariest bogeyman, but it remains cut so what is the point having it in this box? Still, at least the extras are vast (two commentary tracks and numerous documentaries) and Last House, in any version, is a genuinely shocking viewing experience.
The final film in Box of the Banned is the mediocre, but infamous, stalker flick Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (Dario Argento’s Tenebrae would have been a better bet). This was something of a controversial title back in the day because its distributor (the late David Hamilton Grant) ended up being sentenced to eighteen months in prison (he served six) for distributing it. Nowadays, the film would sail through the BBFC as it’s really quite tame – but this version remains the edited US R-rated copy and there are no extras on the DVD. Disappointing.
The last disc features two documentaries on video censorship in the UK. The first is called Ban the Sadist Videos and was produced for this very set. This is a first class, surprisingly balanced account of the whole hysteria. The second documentary, Fear, Panic and Censorship was originally screened on Channel 4 in 2000. It features the charismatic Maniac director Bill Lustig slagging off the UK for not having his film available uncut (as opposed to slagging off the UK for having a functional, free health service, gun control or something positive like that). It also has some bratty kids making a film that basically cashes in on the Columbine High School murders, which is about as tasteless as it gets.
So, all in all, the Ban the Sadist Videos documentary is the real highlight of this set. The other documentary is not bad either, and acts as a nice compliment. Everything else has already been out on your shelves for years now, so why bother? Anchor Bay might have fared better if they had aimed to obtain some of the old nasties yet to be seen in Blighty, but if you have yet to pick up any of the films on offer here then this might be a great buy.
As for the video nasties themselves… well, in this day and age of the prolonged sadism of latest blockbuster Wolf Creek, and this year’s Devil Rejects, it is hard to imagine any youngsters getting a fright from the joke shop special effects of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain or Zombie Flesh-Eaters. Whilst some of the nasties do indeed remain ‘nasty’ (Cannibal Holocaust, for instance) the times have changed and with such quality horror as House of Wax and Skeleton Key already having hit your multiplex this year – do we really need to go back and revisit Nightmares in a Damaged Brain? Answers on a postcard please…