Cruel Britannia: six British ‘video nasties’

Films from Italy and the US may have taken the flak in the UK media frenzy surrounding films released on unrated VHS, but these horrors prove that Britain isn’t as innocent as we might think.

Killer’s Moon (1978)

In Censor, director Frederick North (played by Adrian Schiller) makes a series of confrontational British horror movies that trouble censor Enid Baines (Niamh Algar).

In the 1980s, the once flourishing British horror film industry was on a downswing. The ‘nasties’ list was dominated by American and Italian films, and their foreignness was a factor in the opprobrium heaped on them.

Many anti-nasty campaigners distanced the films they hated from the Hammer horrors that were despised a generation before but had now acquired a kind of heritage cosiness. But there were British nasties, and a few under-the-radar auteurs might have competed with Frederick North.

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In our June 2021 issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre, while Kim Newman revisits the ‘video nasty’ moral panic. Read if you dare! Plus Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, vintage Jack Nicholson and much more.

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1. Frightmare

Frightmare (1974)

Pete Walker, 1974

Directed by Pete Walker, who kept the British horror film alive throughout the 1970s, and scripted by David McGillivray, this downbeat, grim, seedy and deeply cynical picture combines several major nasties themes – cannibalism and murderous misuse of power tools.

It’s distinguished by strong performances from bloody-lipped matriarch Sheila Keith, guilt-ridden accomplice Rupert Davies and psychopathic teenager Kim Butcher.

2. Exposé

Exposé (1976)

James Kenelm Clarke, 1976

Exposé (aka The House on Straw Hill and Trauma), the only British film on the original nasties list, was written and directed by James Kenelm Clarke, and starred cult figures Udo Kier, Linda Hayden and Fiona Richmond.

A bestselling writer (Kier) can’t get started on his new novel, while his unbalanced secretary (Hayden) is alternately target and instigator of sexual violence. The rural English setting intentionally evokes Straw Dogs (1971).

3. Satan’s Slave

Satan’s Slave (1976)

Norman J. Warren, 1976

Another David McGillivray script, originally prepared as a Vincent Price vehicle, this was directed by the late Norman J. Warren, who was among the nicest people ever to make a nasty.

Warren personally preferred the less explicit cut of this ‘Satanic panic’ saga, in which Michael Gough presides over a devil cult in a draughty, gloomy country house. Warren also made the remarkable one-off Prey (1977).

4. Killer’s Moon

Killer’s Moon (1978)

Alan Birkinshaw, 1978

Directed by Alan Birkinshaw, who co-scripted with his uncredited sister Fay Weldon, this has four escaped psychiatric patients subjected to drugs that remove all inhibitions terrorise a bus-load of schoolgirls on a weekend trip.

Easily on a par with the most horrific American rape-revenge movies, but with a streak of cynical, very British self-aware wit.

5. Xtro

Xtro (1982)

Harry Bromley Davenport, 1982

This briefly graced one version of the director of publish prosecutions’ list – the only British nasty made while the controversy was actually in progress.

An alien abductee returns to Earth when a crab-walking creature impregnates a random woman, who gestates a fully-grown adult male (played by Philip Sayer) with fatal consequences.

Directed by Harry Bromley Davenport, it was spun out via sequels into a minor science fiction/horror franchise.

6. Suffer Little Children

Suffer Little Children (1983)

Alan Briggs, 1983

This might have been conceived as an exercise in tabloid-baiting.

Directed by Alan Briggs, it was produced by the Meg Shanks Theatre School and has an all-child cast and is among the first horror films shot on video purely for rental release.

A mute, sinister orphan casts a baleful influence on her classmates. Awkward, amateurish and a hard watch, it nevertheless manages one great scare.

Further reading

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