Home Video Holocaust

A Brief Nasty Overview

It's amazing that the culture that gave us The Castle of Otranto, Lewis's The Monk and Varney the Vampire, to say nothing of Frankenstein and Dracula, should be so squeamish about horror. But even in the noble tradition of British horror literature, we can find a classic example of misguided censorship taken to extremes: Robert Louis Stevenson's wife was so appalled by "Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde" (that most moral of horror tales) that she threw the manuscript into the fire.

This is, after all, a culture that until very recently considered the word "bloody" to be among the strongest of epithets. In 1887, even W.S. Gilbert ran afoul of public notions of propriety: he and composer Arthur Sullivan brought out a comic opera called "Ruddygore", which was a parody of Gothic melodrama. The guardians of decency objected to the title: it suggested that forbidden word, "bloody". Gilbert was incensed: he retorted, "Then I suppose if I say I admire your ruddy countenance, it means I like your bloody cheek!" He further suggested renaming it "Kensington Gore" to placate the critics, that being not only the name of a street in London but also the slang term actors used for stage blood. In the end, he managed to silence the protests by changing the title to "Ruddigore"... though how changing a single vowel made the title more acceptable, I have no idea1.

Horror film censorship began in 1931, when the Home Office took notice of some of the movies that were being imported from the United States... movies like Dracula and Frankenstein. The government was so appalled by the trends it saw emerging in horror cinema that effective January 1, 1933, it instituted a new rating classification — "A" for Adult — which meant that no-one under the age of 16 was permitted to see the film, even in the presence of a grown-up. What consituted a "horror film" suitable for such restriction was a wildly subjective decision: King Kong passed without challenge, but the "serio-comic phantasy" Son of Kong was certified. Even films which were given an "A" rating were often trimmed beyond recognition, as every explicitly horrific scene was cut out before the movie could be released. The movies were often re-titled as well: the word "monster", for instance, was considered too offensive to common decency to be used in a title.

In 1937, the rating system was modified again, with horror films getting their very own scarlet letter: "H" for Horrific. Still later, in the 1950s, both "A" and "H" were replaced by the "X" rating: the letter now synonymous in the U.S. with explicit sex was first used for much tamer "Adults Only" fare in England.

With this sort of heritage, it's all the more remarkable that a British studio, Hammer Films, was among the first to bring bright red blood and vividly-colored flesh to the cinema screen. But if Hammer helped set the stage for the modern horror film, it was utterly incapable of keeping up with the changes that came about in the genre. By the early 1970's a new kind of horror had emerged, a visceral and violent breed of film that had strong connections to the violent social upheavals that characterized the era. Gone were the crumbling castles and bloodthirsty vampires; in their place, psychotic murderers, rapists and cannibals. Out went the old Doctor Frankenstein, ably and nobly portrayed by Peter Cushing; in came the other mad German scientist, the Nazi prison camp doctor. And at a certain point, the Powers that Be took notice... and they didn't like what they saw.

The story from here on is a terrible tale of censorship and over-reaction. Some of those involved in the suppression of movies of "questionable moral content" may have genuinely believed they were standing on the side of the angels... as indeed Stevenson's Doctor Jekyll believed himself to be an essentially good man. But the general reactions of these Guardians of the Public Good brought out Mr. Hyde at his vilest. And certainly, for every genuine if misguided soul waging this attack on free expression, there was a political opportunist using the situation for his or her own gain... such as distracting a population from the significant genuine social problems of the day.

But to continue the story, I should try my best to avoid the sort of overstatement and exaggeration used by those who called for extreme censorship, and state the facts in a dignified and fair manner. So, in the spirit of decorum and fairness, let's go on and meet one of the key players in the terrible events that were to follow:

Mary Whitehouse: She Wolf of the NVLA

Yes: this is the hectoring old bitch that helped whip the press and the public into a frenzy over what she considered to be the single greatest threat to the moral health of the country: exploitation cinema. This is the horrid woman who for years, as a self-proclaimed guardian of decency with her organization, the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVLA), scrutinized popular entertainment for any possible hint of sex or violence, so she could start organizing protests and writing letters. She exemplifies the sort of people I think of as "moral pornographers": people who provide cheap gratification — not through sex, but through a spurious sense of moral superiority over others... think of Jerry Springer, for another example, pretending to explore the boundaries of human behavior, while encouraging his audience to get worked up into a sense of righteous indignation over the pathetic specimens he's brought for them to ogle. It's pure porn, meant only to excite the emotions. The difference between someone like Whitehouse and Springer is that our Mary was right there in the ranks, gratifying herself along with with the jeering crowd.

Now then. Where was I?

In the early 1980s, small British home video companies managed to stay in existence by buying up the rights to cheap, low-budget exploitation. In order to drum up an audience for this often bottom-of-the-barrel fare, the companies came up with box art and back-jacket descriptions that were far more horrible and blood-curdling than anything in the movies themselves. This sort of advertisement attracted a kind of attention the companies hadn't foreseen. Just as questions were beginning to be asked about the acceptability of this sort of entertainment, the folks at Go Video thought they'd try a little publicity stunt. They sent a copy of their recently-released video of Cannibal Holocaust to Mary Whitehouse, along with a mock letter of outrage. There was nothing mock in the outrage of Whitehouse after she saw a few minutes of Ruggero Deodato's excruciatingly repellent film.

Go Video had completely misunderstood their own position. Nobody was going to step forward and defend the people who were putting out these controversial movies... even those who didn't see the cause for concern were unlikely to risk the wrath of the Morally Outraged, especially not the elected officials who were the only people in any position to stop the hysteria once it had begun.

The public outcry turned into an official witch hunt. The infamous 1982 headline read, "How high street horror is invading the home"; but the real horror, the real home invasions, were carried out by the police as they cracked down on this new social evil. Any videos considered by the authorities to be morally questionable were immediately confiscated, with the possessor facing public embarrassment at best, fines or imprisonment at worst. The actual videos confiscated varied according to the tastes, mood and disposition of the people doing the searches. Thus you had perfectly innocent films that nobody had ever objected to being seized along with the explicit shock films. An oft-cited example is Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One — I suppose if you put the accent on the wrong word, it could seem a tad risqué. But you can't escape the feeling, as you read over the accounts of the seizures (which continued well into the 90's), that the primary concern of the police was to save the lads a rental fee for video night down the station.

So we need to remember that the establishment of the list of "Video Nasties", to use the unfortuate term coined by Whitehouse herself, was actually a step back to sanity. The video comapnies, rental stores and consumers needed to know where they stood, as random senseless confiscations and prosecutions took place all around them. The fact that the Authorities had established a list not only gave people a slightly better chance of resisting wrongful prosecution; it also gave the few people willing to defend the embattled films some kind of grounds for a defense. It was impossible to defend all exploitation films equally, but having a list in hand allowed certain individual claims to be challenged, refuted and (for the most part) eventually dropped.

And, naturally, the lists as they were published proved to those who knew horror and exploitation cinema that the authorities had no sound basis for their attacks. The extremely wide variation in content and tone of the films singled out for prosecution seemed to show that the censors, for the most part, had no idea what was really in the films. About half the films on the list were exonerated rather quickly, though the media payed far less attention to the movies when they were taken off the list than they did when the films were first put on. Even so, a number of baffling decisions stayed law into the next millennium, though the standards are relaxing considerably in this age of Internet commerce and DVD.

For this B-masters' Roundtable, I've decided to take a look at a couple of different films that earned places on the original Video Nasties list: one that clearly presented no threat to the moral standing of the nation; one that was frankly a little more difficult to defend; and finally (though I admit I haven't finished this one yet) Cannibal Holocaust, which is probably the single least defensible film on the list.

The reviews are:

  • Contamination

  • Zombie Creeping Flesh, a.k.a. Hell of the Living Dead

  • Cannibal Holocaust (still working on this one)

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    1. Gilbert later mocked the official censorship of the British stage in his next-to-last collaboration with Sullivan, "Utopia Limited". In that comedy, the king of a backward Pacific Island nation (where indecency is punished by publicly blowing up the offender) appeals to England, that pinnacle of civilization, to remodel the country. So England sends its most prominent cultural and military representatives to do just that. And surprise! All the idealistic and hypocritical things the British government keeps promising to its own people actually happen in Utopia. The place becomes so ridiculously prosperous that everybody's miserable. In a moment that looks way ahead to the political satire of the Marx Brothers or Monty Python, at one point the King and his British advisors suddenly pull out banjos and start singing a parody minstrel-show song, celebrating how thoroughly British everything has become. They include a quick barb about censorship:

    "The Chamberlain our native stage
            has purged beyond a question
    of 'risky' situation and
            indelicate suggestion..."

    And the result?

    "Society has quite forsaken
            all its wicked courses,
    which empties our police courts and
            abolishes divorces..."

    In spite of potent moments like this, Gilbert's satire has remained little-known, until it was recently dusted off and mistaken for a Middle East policy plan by the second Bush administration.

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