Nucleus Films have just released a three-disc follow-up to Video Nasties: the Definitive Guide, comprising two discs of introductions and trailers to all of the seized and destroyed films under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, and a substantial new documentary directed by Jake West and produced by Marc Morris. Video Nasties: Draconian Days 1984-1999 details the years after the immediate implementation of the Video Recordings Act, through to the end of James Ferman’s tenure as head of the BBFC, when his unilateral introduction of the R18 classification and the effective legalisation of hardcore porn embarrassed and irritated the government into demanding his resignation. The irony inherent in Ferman’s fate, brought low by such a liberal gesture after a reign characterised by secrecy, snobbishness and censorship is not lost on many of the talking heads West and Morris have assembled. He was a hate figure for many horror fans irritated beyond measure by the death by a thousand cuts inflicted upon film after film, often because filmmakers had included one or more of the elements that Ferman seemed oddly obsessed with: power tools and throwing stars, drugs and nun-chakus. He refused certificates to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist, left Straw Dogs in limbo and actually reordered a scene in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer to his liking.
For all that, he wasn’t the simplistic censorian that some of his critics clearly want him to be. He was a clear head during the media flaps over Michael Ryan’s Hungerford massacre and the Jamie Bulger killing and their supposed connections to video violence, and saw off the idiotic crusade by MP David Alton, which would have removed from cinema any characters who weren’t good role models for children. The documentary takes you back to strange times when a piece of middling franchise landfill like Child’s Play 3 was treated like the very work of Satan himself, and know–nothing MPs and news reporters spouted fluent horseshit about the easy availability of actual snuff films to your children. It also documents a hitherto forgotten social scene of horror obsessives trying to track down and distribute all the stuff the BBFC and DPP had tried to remove from the public’s eager gaze, risking imprisonment to smuggle those precious video reels of Cannibal Ferox back from Amsterdam… The gleeful impression given by Draconian Days is that the video nasties that were supposed to turn the nation’s youth into sociopaths actually did something far worse: they turned them into filmmakers and writers. And the state’s reaction to the panic gave a couple of generations their first lesson in civil disobedience: the authorities are idiots.
Mark Stafford met up with Jake West and Marc Morris of Nucleus Films to talk about throwing-stars-obsessed censors, home-made nunchakus and hiding Blood Sucking Freaks under the bath.
Mark Stafford: I was one of those kids who didn’t have access to a VCR during the first years of the video nasty phenomenon, so I spent a lot of my youth with my sweaty little nose pressed up against the video library window imagining what these films were. Draconian Days has actually cleared up a few weird half memories for me – that cover to Pigs was fuzzily lodged in there somewhere.
Marc Morris: ‘Pigs eat anything, including evidence’.
I fnally know what that thing was. The film deals with a fascinating period and a character, James Ferman, who gives the film its backbone. Jake, you’re off camera, what’s your take on him?
JW: He’s fascinating because he’s contradictory. He was a filmmaker himself, and a highly intelligent, articulate intellectual.
MM: He had to balance the scales between the press, the government, the law.
JW: To begin with, he was quite idealistic. When he started at the BBFC, he got in censors who were highly educated and quite sceptical about censorship. But as far as videos were concerned they had to make up the rules as they went along.
MM: The idea being that because the VCR was in the home, different rules applied.
JW: And what emerged were Ferman’s own views and peccadillos, which then started to guide policy. The outcome of that, as Carol Topolski (former BBFC Examiner) reveals, is that he started to lose the plot, he got drunk on his own power.
MM: Like everyone says, it was his own fiefdom.
JW: It became clear that at the end of the day he was setting the agenda and policy. The fact was that he was altering the BBFC minutes, and other controlling behaviour. But he stood up against David Alton, and was instrumental in making sure that law didn’t happen.
MM: He had to stand up for the BBFC’s decisions, say that they’d already certified Child’s Play 3 and the like, and government couldn’t just come in and undermine him, say that they now weren’t suitable for viewing in the home.
JW: I think it was very important, as a filmmaker, to not just do a hatchet job on James Ferman. It would be very easy to just condemn him, but he’s a more nuanced character than that. Thankfully we got a brilliant archive interview with him. I really wanted to give him a big presence in the documentary. He was a man who shaped that era, and part of what was funny and what was tragic about it came out of that as well. His continual over-insistence in cutting horror films is what led to the emergence of the underground horror scene, and us all being here to talk about it now. He created the environment that made horror fans want to become criminals because we couldn’t stand what the BBFC sold us.
MM: You’d read about a film in Fangoria or wherever and hire it out and ‘fuck!’ all the good scenes were cut. What were you going to do? Try to find an uncut version.
JW: And they ended up criminalising everyone because they wanted to get hold of these versions. It was all a lot of fun until people genuinely started getting arrested and prosecuted.
There’s an interesting parallel with the 50s anti-comics crusade and the later underground cartoonists. Artists like S. Clay Wilson said that it wasn’t just the EC comics being an influence in themselves, but the fact that they were taken away by the powers that be that led them to fill their own work with as much depravity as they could muster. You’ve got Alex Chandon (director of Inbred) in your film saying more or less the same thing – filmmaking as a kind of hardcore punk gesture.
JW: That’s what happened with all of us. We were influenced by the very things we were told we weren’t allowed to watch. It created a whole generation, two whole generations of people who were deliberately bucking that.
Watch the trailer for Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two:
I’ve always thought that the censors’ obsession with the idea that kids would watch the nasty scenes over and over again and turn into serial killers…
JW: ‘They’ll freak out in their bed sitting rooms.’ That terrible classist view that Ferman had. He thought that there were some very disturbed people out there, he had this real fear of some sort of social disorder being created by films. And there was no real proof that that ever happened. But when the media purported that it did happen, in the Bulger and Michael Ryan cases, he firmly spoke out against that idea because he knew that those acts weren’t created by film. They criminalised the wrong people. Horror fans were the people who got affected by all this panic, like with Marc.
MM: Hiding my videos under the bath. You had to undo these chrome domes, then undo the screws, pull the side of the bath off and shove all the tapes under there, put the panel back… And then every time somebody said ‘can you do me a copy of Blood Sucking Freaks?’ you had to undo it all again. It was a pain in the arse. But if you left it undone you’d be scared that they’d come round and find all these depraved movies.
JW: There was a point in the 90s where raids on collectors were happening on a daily basis.
MM: You’d get a phone call saying that there were probably going to be some raids next week. It was either hide it under the bath or take it round a friends or a girlfriend’s house.
JW: Then you split up with your girlfriend and she ended up destroying your tapes.
MM: Smashing them up with a hammer.
JW: Now there’s a form of censorship!
I was on the side of all that. I moved to London in 1990 and began going to the Scala obsessively. I still didn’t have a VCR…
JW: The Scala was like the ultimate video collection anyway. And in better quality. They were heady times. You had all these energies, with the film festivals and the fanzines, in the pre-internet world of communication. People had a great sense of social grouping because of that. And that’s the side of the story that was positive, it did bring a lot of people together in interesting ways. So many people have friendships now because of that.
MM: People used to watch films in groups, have nights just watching movies.
I miss that. Now, if you mention a film you think’s interesting everybody’s watching it 10 minutes later. There’s no need to go round somebody else’s house.
JW: There’s no sense of discovery, of somebody finally getting hold of something.
MM: I remember somebody finally getting a copy of Men behind the Sun on VHS from Hong Kong. We all watched it, like… ‘Fucking hell!’ It was an original tape but the quality wasn’t very good, it was odd, VHS gave everything an even grimmer look.
The BBFC’s obsession with throwing stars and power tools seemed kind of odd. They were obsessed with ‘imitable behaviour’, but how many people in the annals of actual crime have ever been killed with a chainsaw?
JW: It was always absurd, this idea. Of course a power tool is a dangerous object but you can’t uninvent the object by not showing it.
MM: Any weapon is an imitable weapon. Any sword, any bottle, any fist. Do you reach a point where you say ‘we can’t show this because people might use fists to hit people’? It’s a cycle of stupidity to believe that there’s going to be a spate of throwing star murders because of a film.
Everybody in my metalwork class was making them. That was why we were doing metalwork.
MM: I made nunchakus out of broom handles. Of course anybody who made their own nunchakus quickly realised that they were going to do more damage to themselves than anybody else.
Over and over again in the intros to the Section 3 films the commentators are trying to understand why this or that particular film got seized.
JW: That’s because the Section 3 films weren’t prosecuted, they were just seized by the police and destroyed. You’re just left wondering as to what it was about these movies that led to them getting seized in the first place.
It’s funny watching Kim Newman talking about Final Exam, this tedious late entry stalk and slash effort, being utterly bewildered that anybody would find anything in it to be offended by and remember enough about it to complain. Did you try to interview any plod that were involved at the time, anyone who did the actual seizing?
JW: In the first documentary we interviewed Peter Kruger, who was head of the Obscene Publications Squad, but in the second film we didn’t interview any police. I don’t think they would have spoken, and I don’t think they would have known much. The reason these films got seized by the police is that they didn’t understand what horror films were. So any film that just sounded like a film that got seized in the past, a Driller Killer or a Zombie Holocaust, they would think, ‘well that’s the same thing’. There was no internet back then, no way of checking what these films were. So the police would just go by the back of the box: ‘oh, he’s got his eye gouged out, that’s offensive, we’ll seize it.’ It was as random as that really. (1)
In Draconian Days James Ferman comes across as complicated but David Alton seems just like an absolute screaming idiot.
JW: I think David Alton is a lot like Graham Bright from the first film. Graham Bright has not changed his views one iota since the 80s when he put the Video Recordings Act through. Alton was a right-wing Christian and a political agenda. Spreading the idea that Child’s Play 3 was destroying society was just politically expedient to get a large following of voters and newspapers on his side to further his own agenda, which seems quite transparent when you look at it now. You can always learn how stupid moral panics are by looking at one that happened previously. The format that they play out is always the same thing. Somebody in power gets offended and decides that nobody should gets to see something because they don’t like it.
There was a little ripple a few years back. I remember walking into a newsagents and seeing a tabloid headline trying to whip up fury about the fact that a lot of the DPP’s list were now emerging again on DVD, but the hysteria just didn’t take. Nobody cared.
JW: It’s a lot harder for them to do that. Back in those days, if you were a fan you had no outlet. Unless you were published or could get on television and your views were broadcastable, you weren’t represented by anyone. Now with the internet you have a platform. So the situation has changed, you can’t scapegoat something on that level because people will come forwards to defend it.
Also, back then a tabloid could grossly distort the nature of a film and people would believe it. Nowadays people can check stuff out for themselves and see that the tabloid version is bullshit. ‘Hey!’ this film isn’t evil, it’s just stupid!’ Where are the censorship flashpoints of the future for you?
JW: The internet. The internet is being more and more controlled in a very subtle way. It’s not the hammer blow of ‘Video is Evil!’ There are things like Cameron’s porn block and parental filtering going on that you don’t necessarily know about.
MM: People watching what you’re looking up, everything logged somewhere by search engines.
There was that TED talk where the head of Netflix, who had lots of left-wing friends and lots of right-wing friends, got them to type the word ‘Egypt’ into Google during the Arab Spring and take screen shots of the results. The left-wingers all had headlines about the uprising on the first page, the right-wingers all had adverts for holidays, with the news stories only turning up on page two… And this isn’t some definitive conspiracy by some Bond Villain, it’s just algorithms, cookies, bits of code shaping how you see the world.
JW: The internet is a Pandora’s box of problems. You want to keep it free for people to use, but all this information being gathered by people who could use it against you is a worry.
So what’s next? Is this your last documentary on all of this?
JW: We don’t have a plan to continue the video nasties story. We only made the second one because we realised there was more to tell. But beyond the Ferman years things got a lot more relaxed. There were still problems but there weren’t big scares, that era is over, which is good. Draconian Days was a surprise to us, that people wanted more, and it took us two years because it was a labour of love.
MM: And Nucleus will be putting out more stuff, more trailer compilations, like Grindhouse Trailer Classics 4. (2)
Watch the trailer for Grindhouse Trailers 4:
By coincidence I’ve recently come across the first one, so together with Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part Two I have subjected myself to a hell of a lot of concentrated filth over one weekend.
MM: We have depraved and corrupted you.
It was only my lack of power tools that stopped me going on a kill crazy rampage.
MM: We’re lucky you don’t own any, with your background in film viewing you could only be a danger to society.
Interview by Mark Stafford
1 In the first documentary, which I bought and devoured after this interview, seizures of Dolly Parton’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One by clueless coppers are reported. Sam Fuller’s film presumably because its title suggested something to some copper’s filthy dirty mind.
2 Of which what can one say that it features the expected lively mix of blaxploitation, sexploitation, Euro sleaze, horror and kung fu promos all screaming for your attention. Fans of nipples won’t be disappointed. Additional enjoyment can be gleaned charting the career trajectories of the stars popping up in the likes of Strange Shadows in an Empty Room or The Late Great Planet Earth (Martin Landau! Orson Welles!). Or wondering whether Stuart Whitman fired his agent after Las Vegas Lady. Maybe you’d expect Karen Black, Warren Oates, Eli Wallach and Ray Milland to pop up in this sort of stuff, but Christopher Plummer in The Pyx? Sir John Mills in A Black Veil for Lisa?! What happened there? Possibly the same 1970s drugs that led to Monkee Mickey Dolenz tearing up the screen in Dirty Dan’s Women. Prize for best tagline: ‘If it’s hot she’s got a hand in it, or on it’ from Too Hot to Handle, though Sacred Knives of Vengeance’s ‘a masterpiece of martial arts kung fu karate’ does have the virtue of covering the bases.