That’s Nasty: Why Many Horror Films Didn’t Make It to the UK.

Cover Photo:
The Evil Dead (1981),
New Line Cinema.

Many low-budget horror films were pursued for prosecution in the early ‘80s for being too obscene to be released in the United Kingdom. Popularized through a campaign by Mary Whitehouse, a British educator and conservative activist as well as the NVLA (National Viewers and Listeners Association), those movies coined the term “video nasties.”

Whitehouse’s campaign gained traction when complaints—seeking to protest full-page adverts for Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979), a dark comedy slasher film—started coming through.

Nevertheless, when the distributors of Ruggero Deodat’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) wrote to Mary Whitehouse anonymously, complaining about the film in order to whip up some hype for the controversial release, it became yet another trigger that set the wheels into motion for the campaign to take place.

Abel Ferrara in Driller Killer (1979) | © Rochelle Films

In 1983, the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) published a list of 72 films that they believed had violated the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The list was made public to aid local authorities as they attempted to seize films from video shops that they thought would break the act.

Dr Mark McKenna, an academic at the University of Sunderland, has examined the issues surrounding these films. He said: “The Conservative Government was struggling in the aftermath of the Brixton and Toxteth riots, the sinking of the Belgrano, and by reacting to the issue of Video Nasties they could demonstrate resolve to largely fictitious problem.”

McKenna then continued: “What we have to remember is that this type of reaction is nothing particularly new. In the 1950s comic books were causing the same type of outcry, while in more recent years, the internet and social media have been blamed for many of society’s ills.”

John Carpenter’s Halloween created the template for films like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The 1978 independent slasher film focused on the killer and made Michael Myers the main focus of the film, including different point-of-view shots to put the viewer in his position. This film made the killers become the centre of attention.

A lot of the films included in the DPP list are simply not good due to their extremely low budget and the fact that most of them have been made only to jump on the massive surge in the popularity of horror films after Halloween popularized the slasher genre. The “video nasties” list is B-Movie heaven for many horror movie fans.

The Evil Dead (1981) | © Allstar/New Line Cinema.

Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead made the list too. It was banned from being released and its distributors narrowly escaped a £20,000 fine. However, this is my favourite film on the list. It’s made with an unbelievably small budget and is one of the most entertaining horror films ever created. Its sequels build on the comedy aspects of the first one, creating one of the best yet most bizarre horror trilogies.

Having not seen many of the films on the DPP’s “video nasties” list due to it being quite long and featuring a great number of inaccessible movies, I can’t review them all, but I would like to point out some spectacular names of just a handful of these films:

  • Joseph Ellison’s Don’t Go in the House (1979)
  • Lawrence D. Foldes’s Don’t Go Near the Park (1979)
  • James Bryan and Brother Bryan’s Don’t Go in the Woods (1981)
  • S. F. Brownrigg’s The Forgotten/Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

These first four sound like COVID-19 regulations, am I right?

  • Giulio Berruti’s Killer Nun (1979)
  • Miguel Iglesias’s La Maldicion de la Bestia/The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975)
  • William Asher’s Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker/Night Warning (1981)

It also looks like “cannibal” became a buzzword for horror films in the late ’70s/early ’80s.

  • Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)
  • Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (1981)
  • Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
  • Eloy de la Iglesia’s The Cannibal Man (1972)
  • Alain Deruelle’s Cannibal Terror (1981)
  • Sergio Martino’s La montagna del dio cannibale/Prisoner of the Cannibal God (1978)

“Video nasties” are now categorized under the genre of exploitation films mainly because of their emphasis on gore, which was a massive trend in the early ’80s. Those movies didn’t require a big-budget and they could be as extreme as possible.

Cannibal Holocaust is one of the biggest standout films from this genre, mainly thanks to the popular belief that it was a real snuff film due to its found-footage setting. In 1984, the director Ruggero Deodato went to court as he accused of the murders that happened on screen; these accusations were dropped after he contacted the actors to prove they were still alive.

In 1985, it was approved by law that the BBFC would have to provide age ratings to all future cinema and video releases. However, when many of the banned films were re-released in the 2000s, it was obvious that the UK didn’t miss out on much from not seeing them.

The early ‘80s had a massive boom in more extreme horror films yet so many of them were held back by small budgets or trying to jump on the extreme horror trend. Except for The Evil Dead, which is a masterpiece, a lot of those films failed to achieve success.

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