Part fairy tale, part sex romp, part Buñuelian satire, Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast is as much of a quirky oddity now as it was upon its original release in 1973. Disparaged by Borowczyk purists and mainstream reviewers both (the New York Times called it ‘unfit for man or beast’), the film was originally rejected for UK certification by the BBFC and not seen here in its uncut form until 2001, when it finally underwent something of a critical reappraisal.
So how does the once controversial film look now, nearly 40 years on from its production? Certainly still transgressive; perhaps less so for its over the top scenes of prosthetic bestiality than its cheerful disavowal of current social mores (it’s hard to imagine the character of the priapic black servant passing muster these days, for one). The sexual liaison between woman and beast (King Kong with bodily fluids!) that so outraged reviewers at the time seems largely comic now; not simply because of the relatively primitive make-up effects, but mainly due to the fact that Borowczyk seems to be in on the joke, even if most of the critics of the period weren’t.
But beyond the more censor-baiting material, The Beast is still a barbed, funny satire on sex, hypocrisy and repression. Certainly its jabs at the aristocracy and the priesthood, although perhaps less daring with age, are still relevant several decades on. And the director’s visual command and deft pacing keep the bawdy hijinks from ever descending into complete silliness, even if he never seems to be taking any of it particularly seriously. It’s impossible to claim The Beast as a particularly poetic or meaningful film; without a doubt there are Borowczyk works that go deeper. But it nevertheless remains a defiantly entertaining one, political correctness be damned.
Just when you thought that the days of film censorship had been finally laid to rest, along come A Serbian Film (2010) and the remake of I Spit on Your Grave (2010) to prove the censors’ scissors have not rusted shut after all, with both films receiving significant cuts. The timing then could not be better for the release of Nucleus Films’ exhaustive three-disc documentary Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, which seeks to both explore the historical background that led to a parliamentary act determining what an adult British public can and can’t see, and showcase the 72 films that were prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions, 39 successfully, which were dubbed by the media as ‘video nasties’.
While film censorship is not a peculiarity to British shores, the ‘video nasties’ phenomenon certainly is - US and European film aficionados must look on with a mix of bemusement and shock. It’s a complex story and one that’s difficult to understand in today’s easy-access, multi-format environment, where a film can be downloaded and watched on your mobile phone in a matter of minutes.
But, in a nutshell, before 1984 films did not legally have to be certified on video and so a whole mass of bloody, lurid and usually pretty low-quality horror films made it onto video rental store shelves. Children being children, they wanted to watch these gory films as a status symbol. Religious fanatics, Tory MPs and The Daily Mail didn’t like this one bit so set about stopping everyone, not just children, from having access to them - rather brilliantly claiming that they had watched ‘I’m Going to Spit on Your Bloody Cannibal Brains next to the Cemetery Ferox’ and although it didn’t deprave and corrupt them it most certainly would anyone not as morally upstanding as them. Thirty-nine films were banned - thus giving horror fans a list of films that they must track down and illegally watch uncut.
The decision is as perplexing today as it was back then, particularly as most of the films are now available uncut on DVD: but as John Hayward, editor of video trade magazine Video Business at the time, eloquently states in the documentary featured on this release, it was as much about ‘control’ as it was about ‘content’.
Which brings us to the content that can be found on the three discs of this release. Disc 1 collects together the trailers for the 39 films prosecuted and banned, including the good (Bloody Moon, 1981), the bad (The Beast in Heat, 1977) and the plain repugnant (Fight for your Life, 1977). These can be watched as one long trailer reel or interspersed with roughly five minutes of talking heads as various experts (critics, academics, directors) discuss each film’s content and context.
Disc 2 is a similar affair but covers the rest of the films from the DPP’s original list, which were initially banned but subsequently acquitted. The 33 films covered on this disc include The Evil Dead (1981), Death Trap (1977) and The Toolbox Murders (1978).
The best of the goodies on disc 3 is the rather fantastic new documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, produced by Nucleus Films’ Marc Morris and directed by Jake West of Evil Aliens (2005) and Doghouse (2009) fame. While the trailers featured on discs 1 and 2 are certainly fascinating to watch as a revelrous homage to visceral gore, accompanied by prerequisite dirty phone-caller voice-over, it’s this new documentary that is the real highlight of the package.
It’s true that the world of the video nasty has been covered extensively elsewhere, but possibly never so effectively. Anyone familiar with the whole sordid history will recognise the archive news footage of ‘civil morality’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse on the warpath or Tory MP Sir Graham Bright (the minister responsible for introducing the Video Recordings Act) explaining that such abhorrent films not only corrupt children but dogs as well, but it is the new interview footage, especially with the likes of anti-censorship campaigner Martin Barker, critic Kim Newman and various horror directors who were influenced by these films (including Neil Marshall [The Descent, 2005] and Christopher Smith [Severance, 2006]), that makes the doc so compelling.
As a fan of horror and an opponent of film censorship, it’s hard not to watch the documentary and feel: a) outrage that you’ve been deeply cheated by an elitist ‘moral’ few and the hysterical rantings of the media; and b) shock that it went so far. The documentary finishes with a cautionary message about future censorship that all film fans, not just horror fans, would do well to heed.
Read the review of Possession, which was initially banned as a ‘video nasty’ and is now available on DVD in the UK for the first time.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Film, DVD & Book Reviews