Jake West | 71 mins | DVD | 16:9 | UK / English | 18*
Originally produced for the 2010 FrightFest film festival, horror director Jake West’s feature-length documentary with the unwieldy title explores the ‘video nasty’ scare that gripped early-VHS-era Britain. Starting with a primer on the birth of home video, and what it was like to watch movies in those days (because, ladies and gents, we’ve now reached a point where even fans of that (second-)most adults-only of genres, the gory horror flick, are young enough to not recall a time before DVD), West uses archive news clips and a wide array of new talking head interviews to take the story from the UK’s first video recorders in 1978, through a newspaper-led panic, up to the infamous Video Recordings Act of 1984, which irrevocably (thus far, anyway) changed the face of home entertainment releasing in the UK.
In terms of documentary filmmaking, this is not a flashy affair — as I said, archive clips and talking heads. But this is a gripping story — horrifying in its own way, ironically enough — and West and producer Marc Morris have a double whammy of quality components with which to tell it: well researched and selected clips and cuttings, which include key interviews from news and opinion programmes of the time; alongside new interviews with people from both sides of the debate. These include those who campaigned at the time, both anti- and pro-censorship, as well as those who said nothing and perhaps regret it; and now-famous fans who lived through the era and have since gone on to prominent positions — filmmakers and journalists, primarily. It’s this array of informed opinion that makes the film such captivating, essential viewing.
Focusing on the scare rather than the films embroiled in it makes this less a “horror documentary” and more a social history/pop culture one, though the liberal use of extreme clips from the movies in question shuts out anyone without a hardened stomach. (If you did want more on the films themselves, the DVD set that contains the documentary — Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide — includes 7½ hours of special features discussing all 72 ‘official’ video nasties alongside their trailers.) There’s room for little asides amongst the main narrative, though. One of the highlights is the story of an interviewee who was invited on to Sky News in the wake of the James Bulger murder and asked if the film many were holding responsible, Child’s Play 3, should not be available on video… at which juncture he pointed out to the interviewer that it was currently showing on Sky Movies.
One of many fascinating aspects of the documentary is learning how little defence was given to the movies or, more potently, the idea that we shouldn’t be censoring media. It’s the Guardian’s own film critic from that time who highlights that certain papers should have been mounting some kind of defence, or at least counterpoint, but simply didn’t. He explains that they actually found the films a bit extreme and shocking too, which is why they didn’t step in, but — as he says — that’s besides the point: they should have been arguing against censorship; and it was that lack of an intelligent counterargument (or a paucity of one) that helped the ridiculous views take hold and the ill-thought legislation sweep through.
There was some counterargument, however, which leads us to the film’s best interviewee, and surely a new hero to many: Martin Baker. Baker was one of a few (certainly the first, and for a time the only) critical/intellectual-type voices to speak out in defence of the films that were outraging so many. He’s to be commended not only for his valiant defence of, essentially, free speech at a time when his views were immensely unpopular; but also because he remains one of the most lucid and fascinating commenters in the documentary. He makes the clearest points about the need to not forget both what happened and how it was allowed to happen, lest it occur again.
In a film overloaded with memorable points and sequences, two of the best come near the end. One is the aforementioned, a series of points (including Baker’s) about how the public must learn because politicians won’t. Very true, and surely the main take-away point of the film. Just before that, however, there’s a piece of vintage news footage. Over shots of innocent children in a playground, a reporter tells us that the potential long-term effects of children watching video nasties are not yet known — the implication being we should be terrified that they’ll all grow up either emotionally scarred or to become mass murders. What follows is a near-montage showing successful filmmakers and journalists of today attributing their entire careers to video nasties; and it only scrapes the surface of the tip of the iceberg of those, too.
For those of us not alive or aware during the period in question, it’s a massively informative film. Indeed, even for those who remember it well, this may offer a level of insight and explanation that was absent at the time. It’s important for film fans of all stripes, not just gore hounds, because the legislation passed in response to video nasties still dictates so much of modern British film releasing. And beyond even that, everyone has something to learn from the story of how mass government-sponsored censorship — to a level that, at some points, is reminiscent of Nazism or Stalinist Russia — was not only allowed, but encouraged, in such recent history. Indeed, such issues very much still play out today — after all, this is a country that has recently enacted ludicrous, ineffectual rules that force ISPs to attempt to censor what we can and can’t see on the internet, and just yesterday rushed through anti-privacy legislation without proper debate. Sad to say, many of the valuable lessons of the ‘video nasties’ brouhaha — lessons made explicit with superb clarity in Jake West’s excellent documentary — have not been heeded.
A new sequel documentary, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, is released on DVD as part of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide: Part Two this week.
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Violence placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.
* Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape isn’t actually listed on the BBFC websites, suggesting the makers decided that, as a documentary, it was Exempt. However, the rest of the DVD set on which it is available is rated 18 and, thanks to all the included clips, that’s certainly the appropriate category for the documentary. ^