The Weird World Of Video Nasties
There were two separate editions of ‘Film Freak’. The paperback version corrected a couple of minor errors and added another chapter that had needed to be cleared for publication, leading to slightly different versions of the same book. I had wanted to explain more about the rising fear of home video influencing young minds in the UK but eventually cut it for length.
In Britain film censorship was a problem throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The old GLC had the right to prevent films being shown in London if they didn’t approve of the subject matter, and local councils frequently prevented films from being shown in their areas. The censorship board, the BBFC, was also easily influenced by campaigns waged in newspapers against films they decided to demonise. A Tory MP called Graham Bright was particularly exercised by the idea of ‘filth’ being shown and attempted to introduce his own prevention bill ‘aimed at protecting young people’. He also tried to make cycle helmets compulsory and pulled out of police meetings because he didn’t want his evenings spoiled. He was made a knight.
We had frequent run-ins with censors. When my company discovered that we could not show any footage from ‘Evil Dead 2’ in a TV commercial (the original film had been the subject of a prolonged and, by today’s standards, bizarre and ludicrous court case) we filmed director Sam Raimi and TV presenter Jonathan Ross being devoured by cannibalistic cinema seats instead of showing footage. ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ created problems for censors because of a scene in which a small dog is flattened by a falling crate. As we couldn’t reveal this in footage outside of the film, we digitally removed the dog – but forgot to take out his lead, so that an observant eye can spot Patricia Hayes walking an invisible mutt. Meanwhile in California, protest groups assembled outside cinemas to complain about the scenes featuring a stuttering Michael Palin.
Censorship was arbitrary and frequently absurd. In the UK, the poster for the film ‘Shag’ was banned because in Britain it was a euphemism, albeit a very old-fashioned one, for sex and not a dance, while the title and poster for ‘Sammy and Rosie get Laid’ were somehow deemed acceptable. Films were trimmed of seconds in seemingly random fashion (they’re still trimmed now to fit our category system).
There was a tremendous fear of imitative behaviour, and the tabloid press went out of its way to create causal links between on-screen and real-life violence, although most claims to find links have proven to be spurious in the extreme. The Jamie Bulger case (a tragedy involving two young boys who murdered a toddler) was blamed on the film ‘Child’s Play 3’, an innocuous horror sequel that it transpired neither of the boys had actually seen – such was the state of rampant paranoia about the new home entertainment of video. An extremely odd list of 72 films was drawn up and anyone showing them faced prosecution. Close ups of rubber prosthetics being attacked with knives came in for special attention, as did (with more justification) rape scenes.
There was great concern over sexist film posters being allowed on the London underground, and feminists frequently defaced posters. Hardcore feminists of the period tend to be written off by some these days as part of the cats & crystals brigade who later colonised Greenham Common, but at the time they were a real and necessary astringent to the prevailing sexism of the times.
To my knowledge, we were running the only film company with an active, stated anti-discrimination policy in force. Much of the film industry went out of its way to avoid employing women. The thoughtless racism, sexism and homophobia of the period was breathtaking. I snuck female scriptwriters’s work into Rank Films by changing their first names to initials – a practice that continues now in publishing.
Some of those campaigning against horror films switched their attention to violent video games, but the whole matter of censorship eventually collapsed as home video became ubiquitous. Looking back it does seem like a storm in a teacup. Here’s a typical example of what was cut:
The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue
Director: Jorge Grau
Plot: A new batch of experimental pesticides have an unexpected result, bringing the dead back to life to feed on human flesh. The police, however, blame a series of cannibalistic murders on two hippies. This was the only “video nasty” ever set in the UK. Renowned for its huge amount of gore.
What the critics said: “A director with a genuine talent for the macabre mood and unsettling detail” Verina Glaessner
What they cut: The censors objected to the large amount of “munching” – apparently the technical term for zombies feeding on human flesh – and wanted it reduced.