Have you ever heard of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVLA)? Probably not, but I would be more surprised if you had not heard of its founder, Mary Whitehouse.
She was, in some terms, an activist. She was particularly disturbed with what she saw as the media encouraging a more permissive society. This led to many campaigns, against many different shows, with some of the more high profile ones being Doctor Who and Robin Of Sherwood. Of course, the crusade that we are talking about here is perhaps the most famous, or should that be infamous. The Video Nasty Saga.
It began with the advent of home video during the 1970s. During this period, there was no real legislation against video content, with the exception of the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which had been amended in 1977 to include erotic movies. With this new market of home video, it gave distributors the opportunity to release loads of low budget horror, some of which had been certificated by the BBFC for cinema release and some that had been refused.
These release led some to question whether some of these films would come under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The act defined obscenity as that which may “tend to deprave and corrupt persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it”. The big issue with this is that it leaves itself wide open to interpretation. This meant that if the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) felt that a film did breach the act, then a prosecution could be brought against the distributors, producers and retailers.
With this, the police were granted powers to seize films they thought may be in breach of the Obscene Publications Act. The problem here is there was real list of what should and should not be seized, meaning titles that had no questionable content would get seized. The most famous incident of this type would be one raid seizing a copy of the Dolly Parton musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas, as they believed it was pornographic.
This led to some opposition from some. One of the loudest voices against this ridiculous campaign was that of Martin Barker, a retired university professor who currently works for Aberystwyth University. He said: “My overriding memories of the time are a sense of deep frustration at not being able to be more effective. I knew deep down that we were going to lose.
“I also felt quite lonely. Even when I encountered other people at particular debates, I felt they were speaking from particular interest areas, and I did not connect with them. But the predominant thing was that it was scary. To stand up to Mary Whitehouse on her prime territory, when she has the backing of the Chair of the debate, with the Bishop of Norwich continually interrupting me. All not nice”.
Regarding the argument of films potentially being dangerous, he said: “I am not prepared to use these terms. They assume that we know how to make sense of notions of benefit and harm in some clear way, and down that road lie various psychological models, which I am deeply suspicious of. Some of them are better made than others, but actually, and curiously, I think maybe some issues are better dealt with without great cinematic panache. What would an arty well-made rape-revenge movie look like? I am suspicious of the idea. Yes, I think some of them had and have greater shelf life than others. I seriously rate Cannibal Holocaust, as a film that challenges our sense of self, savagery, the West and so on. I quite rate I Spit On Your Grave, the first version and not the second, because of a certain raw honesty about it. It is complicated and should be because even in these passing remarks, I am making implicit claims about how actual audiences might react, and that research has never been done. But I do know from when, for instance, I did research for the BBFC on the topic of sexual violence, that audience responses are always varied, always complicated and always partly a response to debates surround a film.”
This idea that a group of people should not be able to decide what others view is one that is shared by others. One such person is Christopher Brown, 36, who writes The Last Horror Podcast, Video Nasties Podcast and History of Horror Podcast. He said: “The question isn’t really if films are ban-worthy. Some still are. This reflects our own society’s opinions on what is acceptable. Love Camp 7 is still banned now. This reflects research from the BBFC about societal opinions of sexual violence as entertainment. Being part of that society means you have to respect those opinions even if you don’t agree with them. The BBFC are careful to reflect these views and the opinions on psychologists advising them. I believe, eventually, opinions will change and all these films will be released uncut, as historical pieces as they will appear so detached from current society and norms. I do find the Nazi stuff offensive personally, although I do not believe that is enough reason to ban them.”
When asked whether he felt this saga had a negative effect on horror cinema going forward, he said: “The nasties scare made horror appear to dangerous than it was and that reputation has stuck. The UK has always struggled with horror. From the H classification in the 1930s through to the nasties and beyond. The country has always considered the genre to be negative. I do not think that is as much the case now. From the flood of extreme cinema in the late 90s and early 00s through to modern TV horror and violence, attitudes had loosened. Bare in mind though that The Exorcist did not get a proper video release until the late 90s.”
The Exorcist is an interesting case. As mentioned, The Exorcist did actually have a home video release in the early 1980s. But, when the BBFC created the Video Recordings Act 1984, it required all home releases to carry an age rating on its packaging. When submitted, The Exorcist was denied a release by then BBFC director James Ferman, despite the fact the rest of the board were willing to grant it an 18 certificate, a rating it rightfully still carries today.
Ferman would not only block the release of The Exorcist. He also was asked on more than occasion to look at The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The issue here was the fact the film was likely to be refused a cinema release and he was asked to see what could be cut to achieve a release. But, the problem is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has little violence and almost no on-screen gore. What is prevalent throughout is the menace. It is a surrealist nightmare. Nothing quite fits, which adds to the unease. Anyway, with this idea of there being little to potentially cut without butchering the film, it was denied a release. It would not be until 1999 that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would be granted a full, uncut release, which was the same year that the UK also saw an uncut release of The Exorcist.
There really is no question that horror films do seem to have a more negative opinion in current society, even from distributors. A lot of the time, distributors will not screen horror films for critics as they are so sure they will get a negative reaction. Which is ridiculous. Horror can be cathartic. It can be a release. It can be a positive experience. Yes, some can shock, scare and even appall, but horror, like comedy in some respects, should push boundaries. Is the nasties saga to blame for this? Maybe.
This negative reaction extends beyond film. An example is given by Chris Nials, 34, the founder of The London Horror Society. He said: “In an interview with the BBC, I was invited onto a radio show to debate the rights & wrongs of a zombie nurse fancy dress outfit being forced off the shelves of a shop in Leeds, after a nurse was tragically murdered nearby. The first question I was asked was “So The London Horror Society must get up to some pretty horrific things?”. I was pretty gobsmacked, that a media professional could not differentiate the difference between enjoying fictional films and liking/getting a kick out of tragic events”.
It is incidents like this that show the feeling towards horror by some people. That we as horror fans like real life violence and carnage. That we can not enjoy a film without needing bloodshed in reality. It is a shame that people feel this way. Overall, maybe that is the legacy of The Video Nasty Saga. Ignorance. It was then, and it some case, it still is now.