Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape


For those of who rented real gosh-darn videotapes from real shops back in the day (I’m a few years too young to have participated in the first video nasty panic, but I watched some right garbage nontheless), this film is part trip down memory lane, part blood-boiling “what were they thinking?” outrage.

This is the first documentary I’ve reviewed for this site, and to be honest I watch a lot more of them than I do “proper” films. With HD cameras being ten a penny these days, any old goober can make a documentary, and there’s a lot of them about (maybe too many, to be honest). Nice if your interests are niche, not so nice if this is the third documentary you’ve seen this week which is 75% comprised of a few old men talking into a camera. Problem is, unless I know enough about the subject under discussion to have a real opinion on it, I don’t like saying too much about them…but this one, I’ve seen a lot of the films and have lived through many similar media scares, so here goes.

How many of those crappy crappy films have you seen?

We get a bit of history – it starts off with the advent of home video, and quickly companies who could never have afforded cinema distribution started releasing any old piece of crap. The funny thing about this whole story is, most of the affected works are just rotten – there’s one or two gems in there, but if you think “video nasty”, you’re more than likely going to get something like “Anthropopagous the Beast”, “Cannibal Ferox” and “Evilspeak”.

So, you’re in the early 1980s, and in a position where you can go down to the local corner shop and bag yourself a copy of whatever you like, and in its very early days there were no censorship or ratings at all. A few famous film directors like Christopher Smith (my series on his films will continue soon) and Neil Marshall, lots of authors and academics all tell the story of what went on. Lurid advertising drew the interest of the “moral majority” when the actual contents weren’t that bad, and a few people blame those old distributors (while acknowledging the whole war was a little silly).

Now, there’s not a lot of sense taking you through the history of it, partly because there’s lots of other ways you can read about it, and mostly because it’s not all that interesting. What is interesting is the way people lay out the methods used by the religious right and the tabloids to whip up a storm, get the law changed and then move on (the fact that virtually every banned film is now available uncut from your local HMV is commented on towards the end).

What I think this film really wants to get across is that we need to remember. The undoubted star of the film for me is Martin Barker, a professor of film who was subjected to a brief witch hunt in the 1980s for daring to say “hey, maybe we shouldn’t ban these films”. There’s footage on the hilarious / anger-inducing spectrum of a TV debate where a bishop is shouting down Martin, and the present-day Martin still can’t quite believe how rude everyone on the other side of the debate was. He’s clearly thought and written a lot on the subject, and what he wants us all to see is that this will happen again (whether about film or some other topic which the press can use to whip up fools), and we really need to be a bit more aware of the tactics used by those who want to tell us what we can’t see, read, listen to, own, whatever.

This film is available as part of the 3-disc set “Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide”, and is absolutely worth watching. There are a few problems with it, though. First up is there’s too many people in it – aside from the main participants, there’s a whole bunch of people whose sole qualification seems to be they’ve got a big collection of really, really bad films on the wall behind them. Kim Newman, a particularly tedious opinion-for-hire who must have a very good agent or have slept his way to the top, because he didn’t get there on talent, is featured way too much also (but I’ll admit my opinion on him isn’t shared by everyone, god knows why).

The central flaw of the film is that it lets the people who supported, lobbied for and pushed through Parliament, the censorship laws off the hook. The current head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, the Christian front group which fights for more censorship, is allowed to grin his way through a “well, these films are horrible” speech, and the MP who both grossly misrepresented an unpublished report, and said that video nasties could have a bad effect on dogs (!), is not questioned on those utterly baseless lies either. If you’re going to get those people in front of the camera, it seems odd to just let them tell the same old lies of 30 years ago.

So, an interesting if fairly minor film. If they’d trimmed a few people out and had more of the excellent Andy Nyman and Christopher Smith, and asked the pro-censorship lobby some harder questions, it could have been great, but they didn’t sadly.

Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape on IMDB
Buy Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide DVD


3 thoughts on “Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape

  1. Pingback: Evil Aliens (2005) |

  2. Pingback: Popatopolis (2009) |

  3. Pingback: The VRAs |

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