Terror Cult: The Video Nasties

Our new weekly series focuses on different horror subgenre every Thursday. This week: films so 'nasty' they were banned in Britain! 

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

With the perennial splendor of the Halloween season fast approaching, the time is nigh to reflect upon the unique position occupied, within our shared cultural consciousness, by the horror genre. The horror film in particular, unlike other genres, is defined by its constant, agile modulations between transcendent catharsis and crass profanity. Like pornography, horror films are more than just a mindless distraction – they tap into deep, sub-evolutionary drives buried deep in the human psyche, fulfilling a primal and fundamental need for ecstatic release.

Horror films are a lot like psychedelic drugs, synthesized and ingested with the specific goal of unhinging your reality and undermining your most entrenched perceptions and beliefs. They’re designed to attack your brain at a deep level, to hit you in the guts and induce a pure, visceral, physiological reaction. Some of them bludgeon you head-on with an unrefined mess of wet, explosive gore; others sneak up quietly and pick you apart with the slow, methodical precision of a scalpel-wielding vivisectionist. Their variety and specificity makes their supporters particularly prone to factionalization. Certain horror fans gravitate toward Italian gore films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, with their gritty, raw, and unforgiving focus on guts and brutality; others are drawn to the moody, expressionistic ‘40s horror-noir of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur.

Having a satisfying experience with a horror film is always intensely personal, and because their power is recognized, horror movies are the most singled-out, condemned, and censored films in the history of the cinematic medium. Horror movies get banned specifically because they work – people seek them out because they want to feel destabilized, and to many other people, obsessed with control and normalcy, feeling destabilized is always bad. The ecstatic experience of fans seeking out the one specific combination they know will help them break away from their daily reality and explore darker, unknown places within themselves is as threatening to defenders of mainstream ideals as the most overtly political fringes of counterculture, even when all that’s really being censored is a dude in a cheap rubber mask flicking ropes of Karo syrup off an axe blade.

The fan culture surrounding horror films exploded with the advent of VHS in the 1980s, and it’s no surprise that the sudden ability to access, categorize, and trade specific titles based on furtive recommendations or dark personal curiosities was met with a backlash from political administrators. The most legendary episode of widespread censorship occurred in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, who condemned the gleefully permissive attitude of many gore-soaked delicacies flooding the VHS market, and organized a vast censorship apparatus to curb their distribution.  Scapegoated for an array of complex economic and social problems, blacklisted horror films were branded “video nasties” and lumped into the same category with hardcore pornography.

The official Video Nasty list includes a total of 74 films, mainly from Italy and the United States. With the exception of an occasional Nazi-themed BDSM softcore or recut Samurai movie, almost everything on the original list is a horror film. Some are quick-buck gore cheapies, others are somber and beautiful arthouse meditations that happen to include a lot of scenes where people convulse, scream, and vomit blood. What’s most interesting to observer about the Video Nasties list is how perfectly it encapsulates the problem with all content-based censorship. Some of the included films are amazingly boring and dry considering the level of controversy they inspired, some suppurate disgusting sleaze, and some are truly beautiful and haunting works of art.

The list below captures the general scope flavor of Thatcher’s Video Nasties list – it’s not a best-of or a worst-of, just an overall sampling, highlighting a few of the most remarkable titles. Many of these movies were made by filmmakers who are now widely recognized for their contributions to the art form, others are overlooked oddities or brash peons to bad taste that aspire only to shock and entertain. Ironically, all the films that made the original list have achieved an indelible cult status that’s likely to keep them on the cultural radar for generations to come, whether they truly deserve it or not.

Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981)

Shot in Italy but somehow serendipitously infused with the stench of 42nd Street sleaze-horror, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain was also released in America under the simplified title Nightmare. Featuring memorable recurring flashback sequences of a preadolescent in a bowtie and suspenders who looks sort of like that kid from A Christmas Story cutting the head off a prostitute with an axe, the film attempts to ride the coattails of popular American slashers like Halloween by slapping a dime store rubber mask on its violent antagonist for basically no reason whatsoever. Nightmare is occasionally draggy and slipshod, but its more brutal sequences are still cold and matter-of-fact enough to pack a bizarre and unsettling gut-punch.

Dead and Buried (1981)

Probably the most mainstream American entry on the list, as well as one of the most patiently and effectively crafted, Dead and Buried is set in a small town beset by a string of bizarre serial killings. The movie features Jack Albertson as a zany weirdo undertaker obsessed with the art of his craft and constantly frustrated by everyone else’s lack of interest in convincing corpse rejuvenation. In addition to some really skin-crawly embalming and reconstruction sequences, the movie features a host of bone-chilling murder sequences (the syringe-through-the-eyeball scene was famously cut from almost every print that was originally distributed, restored only with the advent of digital home video). The movie’s chilling atmosphere and shocking twist ending are as powerful as its visuals, and the hallucinatory power of its storytelling make its inclusion on the list appear particularly wasteful.

Cannibal Man (1973)

An oddly contemplative and melancholy gore film from Spain, Cannibal Man shocked censors as much for its frank and humanizing portrayal of homosexuality as for its buckets of gratuitous grue and violence. Punctuated throughout with graphically real footage of slaughtered and butchered livestock, Cannibal Man paints a sympathetic portrait of a working class slaughterhouse employee named Marcos, oppressed by his lack of money and social position, whose already tenuous existence begins to deteriorate further after he accidentally kills a belligerent cab driver. Although certain sequences in Cannibal Man are certainly gory, its redemptive exploration of Marcos’ budding relationship with an effeminate male neighbor were just as thematically verboten for the era in which it was made, and its uppity suggestions about class inequality likely didn’t sit too well either.

The Beyond (1981)

Lucio Fulci is an Italian filmmaker best known for his participation in the ‘70s Italian grindhouse explosion, which mostly involved a lot of cannibals and flesheating aboriginal zombies. The Beyond is perhaps his most ambitious film, and although he’s not as universally respected as Italian gore counterparts Dario Argento or Mario Bava, even his more derisive appraisers often identify The Beyond as a creative standout. Set in Louisiana, it chronicles the supernatural goings-on at an antebellum hotel recently purchased and slated for renovation, and features Fulci’s trademark fetishistic intensity.

Axe (1974)

A strange American hybrid between gritty action and moody Gothic horror, Axe chronicles the downfall of a band of thieves who attempt to avoid the fuzz by bullying a young girl and her vegetative, wheelchair-bound grandfather into letting the criminals lay low in their isolated farmhouse. Unbeknownst to the perps, the apparently timid young lady of the house is a violently deranged sociopath who begins quickly and unceremoniously to dispense with them. Its grainy film stock and blaringly repetitive electronic soundtrack give the entire movie an unpredictable, demented edge.

The Slayer (1982)

In many ways a typical knockoff isolationist slasher, The Slayer riffs on the standard cookie-cutter premise of a band of friends enmeshed in a remote vacation resort, inaccessible to civilization and left dangerously vulnerable. Although its execution isn’t always effective, the movie incorporates some weird and ambiguous elements that successfully inject at least a little bit of fresh intrigue, and its few memorable murder sequences include a frequently cited pitchfork-through-the-chest shot, and a surprise final-shot reveal that is either silly or horrifying, depending on your aesthetical preferences, personal values, and/or age.

Bay of Blood (1971)

Though it’s not the director’s strongest film, Mario Bava is broadly acknowledged by modern critics as a significant and talented contributor to the medium. Bay of Blood (aka Twitch of the Death Nerve) is a giallo-inspired proto-slasher, and although it runs a little slow by modern standards, it’s beautifully photographed and much wittier than the average early gore film.

The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)

Starring Millie Perkins, most famous for her role as the titular historic figure in The Diary of Anne Frank, The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a twisted psychological character study rife with incest, frivolous tattooing, and sadistic sexual murder. It’s also amazingly restrained and atmospheric, and its nuanced tone gels perfectly with the extremity of its subject matter. Probably one of the most enjoyable, subtle, and least-talked-about banned films on the list.

Come back next Thursday for another chilling installment of CraveOnline's Terror Cult!