Vile VHS: unspooling the history of the ‘video nasty’ controversy

The arrival of uncensored horror films on video cassette in the early 1980s thrilled fans and appalled the nation’s moralists. We trace the ‘video nasty’ story, from its pulp fiction origins to pristine modern restorations.

Turning Nasty

The use of the term ‘nasty’ to describe a brand of horror fiction started in British publishing, as a descriptor for paperback originals like James Herbert’s The Rats (1974), Guy N. Smith’s Night of the Crabs (1976) and Shaun Hutson’s Slugs (1982).

Much read – and much confiscated – in the school playgrounds of the 1970s and 80s, these fast reads took their plot cues from 1950s and 60s science fiction monster movies. Concentrating on the ‘animal attack’ sub-genre, they often evoked Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), itself based on a British short story by Daphne du Maurier. Just as filmgoers – and Hitch himself – dwelled on shock moments like the farmer with his eyes gouged out or the birds assaulting Tippi Hedren’s Melanie Daniels in the attic, the readers of these disposable (but now collectible) items often turned straight to the most gruesome moments. Typical was the character in The Rats whose rodent encounter peaked when “the blinding pain seemed to run up his leg to his very testicles”.

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The horrific passages were read aloud often, with the kind of cackle associated with the Crypt Keeper, host of equally lurid stories found in the American horror comics banned during a previous moral crusade. Like the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers, the writers of these books – most of which had a streak of intentional or unintentional black humour – declared to the reader, “I wants to make your flesh creep.”

A fine point was made in the labelling – a paperback nasty wasn’t just a horror novel (Stephen King was just breaking big) but a delivery system for prose grand guignol. The ‘nasty’ tag was as easily applied to other types of paperback – the Leone-influenced westerns of George Gilman and Joe Millard, the juvenile delinquency novels of Richard Allen (Skinhead, etc), the swastika-stamped war stories of Sven Hassel. All of these had ‘good parts’, analogous to the sex scenes in smut.

Possession (1981)

When the term shifted from books to films, there was a similar blur of genres as the official video nasties list lumped together horror movies of vastly different subgenres and approaches (The Beyond, 1981; The Burning, 1981), a kind of violent melodrama known as ‘roughies’ in grindhouse circles (Fight for Your Life, 1977), Italian cannibal or Nazi exploitation films, and even the odd artistic effort (Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession, 1981).

As with the uproar over horror comics, there was a concern that British children were being exposed to hideous foreign influences. Seldom did the debate shift to encompass the rights of adults to read, watch or make stories unsuitable for the young. Even less common were arguments in favour of extreme horror as a legitimate form, though David Cronenberg – whose films were too obviously intelligent to rate the nasty label – and Clive Barker were busy making ‘body horror’ the subgenre trend of the decade.

At this late date, it’s hard to tell whether the term ‘video nasty’ – which surfaced in the early 1980s – was first used in the nascent video rental trade as a collective term for disreputable but nevertheless popular tapes or by the press in an escalating series of exposés which alerted the unwary to the fact that alien objects were being brought into British homes and might sprout tendrils to infect impressionable minds.

The Beyond (1981)

That the nasties were an almost exclusively British phenomenon (though only a few were British in origin) is down to a complex set of circumstances. Some were deeply embedded in a culture always hostile to horror cinema (in the mid-1930s, pressure from Britain persuaded Hollywood to stop making horror films altogether) and some sprung up as a reaction to the mushroom growth of rental video as an adjunct to the film industry. In the US, the popularity of home video was delayed by the market penetration of cable/satellite television – which wouldn’t come to the UK until well after the crest of the video wave. Even a format war between VHS and Betamax didn’t hold back video as home video recorder/players became the fastest selling consumer durable of the early Thatcher years. Like all new technology, the video recorder was suspect.

Major studios and their British distribution arms were wary of the upstart medium and held back their libraries for a crucial year or two, so a nation who now owned video machines looked for tapes to watch and didn’t find E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) available over the counter.

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Before the press took nasties seriously, video was the subject of jokes about the paucity, poor quality and obscurity of the films on offer. Newly founded distributors bought the rights to scads of orphaned films from around the world. Suddenly, the public had access to a raft of movies that had never graced a British cinema screen and therefore hadn’t been certified by the BBFC (then the British Board of Film Censors).

Typical was Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), rejected outright by the BBFC in the wake of a 1971 furore over screen violence pegged to A Clockwork Orange, The Devils and Straw Dogs. Craven’s film was now made available on video because there was no one to say it shouldn’t be released.

Other titles came to video without the cuts imposed by the BBFC. When Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) went round the UK cinema circuit as Zombie Flesh Eaters on a double bill with another nasty title, The Toolbox Murders (1978), a crucial eyeball-gouging was abbreviated. On video, the scene continued past the point where the censor’s scissors snipped. Horror fans were delighted. Others thought something should be done.

Genre mapping is a parlour game. Stating that Alien (1979) isn’t a horror film because it’s set in space will prompt a Twitter storm, but that’s as far as it goes. The issue of what was and what wasn’t a video nasty had real-world ramifications. Martin Barker and Julian Petley, who did early and useful work on the subject, disagreed about whether the nasty was a genre or not.

Barker (in his essay “Nasties”: a Problem of Identification, in The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media, 1984) discerns common elements that make the nasty seem like a loose, definite genre term like film noir.

Petley (in More Controversy than Debate, Monthly Film Bulletin, 1984) considers as essentially arbitrary the director of public prosecutions’ list of “titles of video cassettes which have been successfully proceeded against under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 or a subject to pending proceedings”. In strict legal terms, which were important since the livelihood – and in some cases liberty – of distributors and the proprietors of rental shops were at risk, a film was only a real video nasty if it made that DPP list.

That filmography, which underwent several revisions, was something of a mess. Policemen charged with seizures of tapes just had a mimeographed, typewritten list to go by, so classing Tobe Hooper’s Death Trap (1976) as a nasty when Sidney Lumet’s Deathtrap (1982) was on the same shelves was bound to cause mix-ups. The list was also arbitrary. Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) was a nasty while his equally explicit and – to 2021 eyes – more problematic Blood for Dracula (1974) escaped the net.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978)

Inevitably, the DPP list was used by horror fans like the i-SPY book of garden birds – there was competition to see who could see and tick off all the films. This is all the more surreal for the piecemeal way it was assembled. Some titles on the list – SS Experiment Camp (1976), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), The Driller Killer (1979), The Evil Dead (1981) – were cited in every article, speech and conversation. When Graham Bright, parliamentary sponsor of the Video Recordings Act – which introduced the requirement for video classification – screened a highlights reel to persuade his fellow MPs of the need for urgent legislative action, he drew from these top-tier nasties. Other titles got on the list for their lurid packaging or use of a keyword in the title (everything with ‘cannibal’ got listed) or simply because – and this is key – one person somewhere complained.

Take Murray Markowitz’s melodrama I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses (1978) – on the DPP list as I Miss Your Hugs and Kisses. A relatively glossy, forgettable picture starring Elke Sommer, this graced the list for reasons no one has ever satisfactorily explained. It features one or two violent moments, but nothing out of the ordinary – nothing to match the head-in-a-fishtank shock of Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978), for instance. But someone, perhaps misled by the title, rented it expecting something else (a romcom, maybe) and lodged a complaint that earned this film its mark of Cain. Fans seek the film out to tick it off the list – as I did in 1984 – and are puzzled by its status as a canonical nasty, whereas Michael Armstrong’s graphic Mark of the Devil (1972) somehow didn’t make the grade.

In a later moral panic, which might be labelled ‘Video Nasties II’, the hapless Child’s Play 3 (1991) was pushed as some sort of far extreme of horror cinema by people who hadn’t seen it, or apparently any other horror film.

Child’s Play 3 (1991)

It’s a low-cost moral stand to condemn something you have no interest in. Conversely, there’s little incentive for self-declared champions of free speech to stand up for material they’d never watch. Politicians always embarrass themselves when they venture into cultural areas that mean nothing to them.

In Britain, this is compounded by a deep-seated sense among the arbiters of film culture that our national cinema is best represented by period literary adaptation or miserablist social realism. Atonement (2007) or Sorry We Missed You (2019) are worth fighting for, but Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) or House of Mortal Sin (1976) aren’t.

The debate around video nasties raged for years and led to a botch of legislation, but it wasn’t just the Video Recordings Act that changed the landscape. The video industry, weary of being on a par with sex shops and drug dealers, made a concerted effort to present itself as respectable – and by the time the Act arrived the major studios were fully aboard with rental video. Malcontents (like me) regretted the disappearance of the nasties – and, indeed, of all manner of other non-mainstream material – from increasingly family-friendly video outlets. Now, you could find rows and rows of Beverly Hills Cop (1984) cassettes but were less likely to stumble over something as rich and strange as Queens of Evil (1970).

The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

But, as horror cinema has always proved, exorcisms rarely take. An effect of the official eradication of video nasties was the formulation of a lively underground scene – trading in bootlegs of Night of the Bloody Apes (1968) or The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976), but also publishing fanzines, hosting screenings (an irony was that some key nasty titles had BBFC certificates so could be shown in cinemas), and sponsoring valuable scholarship and debate.

Eventually, with new formats and censorship standards and modes of distribution, almost all the films came back into circulation. There are purists who prefer blurry pan and scan VHS to 4K widescreen restoration because the cassette version of, say, Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (1982) was the nasty and subsequent releases are something else (not nice, exactly – but proper).

Before these films were put on a list, they were just films – from various countries, made with different levels of skill and ambition and resources, with a tone varying from knockabout comedy to high seriousness. They could be discussed as works by auteur or journeyman directors… as entries in the filmographies or actors, composers, effects artists or other creatives… as examples of generic or subgeneric cycles. They weren’t supposed to be grouped together, but they were – and so they remain, even as the battleground of provocation and restraint has shifted to other media. In our memory, there is always a corner of some forgotten high street video rental outlet that will remain the haunt of cannibals and fiends and bloody apes and the SS and driller killers, a shelf that is forever nasty.

Further reading

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