‘Video nasties’: It was the 1980s, and moral madness stalked the land

A child was possessed while watching a film, moralists claimed, and even dogs were corrupted

In 1984, Derek Malcolm, then film critic of The Guardian, found himself testifying in court on behalf of a zesty horror film entitled Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. He later recalled the events for the documentary Ban The Sadist Videos.

"This is what I said: 'not a classic, but well executed', producing this testy retort from the judge, which I can scarcely believe: 'So was the German invasion of Poland'. Well, if you get judges like that you have reached the end of the line," Malcolm said, still aghast. David Hamilton Grant, distributor of the film, was sentenced to six months in prison under section two of the UK's obscene publications act.

That bizarre period is recalled next week with the release of Prano Bailey-Bond's acclaimed horror film Censor. Niamh Algar plays a troubled woman working in the British censor's office at the height of the moral panic. The imaginary horrors blur with real trauma as the protagonist's life unravels.

Had Ms Bailey-Bond’s film been emerged in the early 1980s with a more salacious title – Drink the Blood of the Censor, perhaps – it may very well have found itself caught up in the escalating outrage.


Such panics come and go. The campaign against filth in Hollywood led to the introduction of a production code as long ago as 1934. In the 1950s, Americans became concerned with horror comics. Violent video games became an issue in the 1990s.

But none of these witch hunts delivered quite so much irrational discourse – and bad law – as the video nasty madness. Officers searching for Cannibal Apocalypse seized copies of Apocalypse Now. One raid pulled The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, an innocuous musical starring Dolly Parton, from the shelves. Films such as The Exorcist ended up being withdrawn from video for over a decade. Then everyone grew up.

It is, from this remove, difficult to grasp how huge this new video business was in the early years of Mrs Thatcher’s reign. As traditional industries shut down, many laid-off workers used their redundancy payments to set up video-rental shops. So desirable was the service that owners could charge as much as £50 for membership.

Within a few years, the United Kingdom had the highest number of video recorders per capita in the world. But what we would now call "content" was hard to come by. Initially suspicious, the major studios were slow to deliver their films to video and, to fill the gap, independent distributors popped up with cheap and exotic titles.

Horror was a big seller and, treated as a publishing medium rather than a form of cinema exhibition, video was not yet subject to scrutiny by the British Board of Film Censors (renamed British Board of Film Classification in 1984).

Mary Whitehouse, the already legendary campaigner against sex and violence in the media, wasted no time in kicking up a storm. The Daily Mail obliged with one of its characteristically overheated campaigns. "Ban video sadism now", the headline read. Another Mail story headed "Rape of our children's minds" claimed that a child had been possessed by watching one of the horror films.

It was, however, Peter Chippendale from the sober Sunday Times that first put the words "video nasty" in news print. In article from 1982 titled "How High Street Horror is Invading the Home," Chippendale pointed his finger at titles such as The Driller Killer, SS Experiment Camp, Cannibal Terror, Cannibal Holocaust, Blood Feast and I Spit On Your Grave.

It has been suggested that the producers of Cannibal Holocaust, noting the publicity such campaigns garnered, wrote anonymously to Mrs Whitehouse complaining about their own film. If this was true, they, like many before them, had underestimated the guile and determination of the veteran watchdog. Soon she was talking about a "battle for the soul of the nation". The Conservative government was listening. The Director of Public Prosecutions released a now-notorious list of 72 films that might violate the Obscene Publications Act. Inevitably, horror fans made it their business to seek out every one of these now governmentally disapproved video nasties.

Not everyone lay down. The folk at Palace Pictures were disciplined in their approach. When the law came for The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi's now classic splatter comedy, Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell, the company's founders, decided to fight back. "My partner Nik really put himself on the line by testifying for the film," Woolley, later Oscar-nominated for producing The Crying Game, remembered. "We hired lawyers and took it to court. We wanted it to try it before a judge and jury." The jury decided The Evil Dead was not guilty of obscenity.

Much of what followed would be hilarious if so many largely blameless distributors were not having their livelihoods put in jeopardy. The agony aunt Claire Raynor, usually a sensible sort, appeared on TV to complain about how the material "desensitises the child to violence".

In most such conversations, there was more treatment of the lurid titles than of the film itself. Graham Bright, Conservative Member of Parliament for Luton South, introduced a private members bill that required all commercial video recordings to carry a classification (some years later he campaigned against the "acid house" craze). His contemporaneous interviews are classics of the genre. "Research is taking place and it will show that these films not only affect young people, but they affect dogs as well," he said.

Our investigations have been unable to confirm if any unfortunate bassets were strapped down and forced to endure SS Experiment Camp, but the research that was published attracted immediate media attention. Guy Cumberbatch, professor of Psychology at Aston University, talked about the kerfuffle in Ban the Sadist Videos.

“The first awareness I had of the research done by the so-called parliamentary group video inquiry is when there was newspaper headline saying that four out of six children had seen a video nasty,” he said. Cumberbatch got hold of the relevant questionnaire being handed out to children. One hundred and sixteen titles were listed over six pages. “By page two the ‘if you have seen’ conditional gets forgotten and kids go on to rate whether they like the sound of it or not,” he said.

To demonstrate this, Cumberbatch and his team gave the questionnaire to several classes of children, but “with one important change”. They took all the video nasties out and put in the titles of films that didn’t exist. “Lo and behold, over two thirds of kids claimed to have seen films that don’t exist,” Cumberbatch remembered.

Nonetheless, the moral juggernaut continued to roll. The Video Recordings Act became law in 1984 and led to the withdrawal on video of films such as The Exorcist and Straw Dogs that had been passed for exhibition in cinemas. Eventually, the generation that grew up on videos achieved adulthood and proved no more psychotic than those who had grown up on rock and roll or horror comics.

But the conversation never fully died down. Following the murder of James Bulger in 1993, tabloids claimed that Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had gained inspiration from watching the jokey horror film Child's Play 3 (not really anyone's idea of a video nasty). Venables father had rented the video, but no evidence was presented that Jon had seen it. Inspector Ray Simpson of Merseyside Police noted: "If you are going to link this murder to a film, you might as well link it to The Railway Children."

The whole bizarre saga tells us much about terror of new technology and the British public’s perennial addiction to the fainting couch. There are also, as ever when dealing with hierarchies in that country, some lessons here about class.

Following a screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, James Ferman, head of the British Board of Film Classification, delivered a line that you would pause to include in a satire of the establishment. "It's all right for you middle-class cinéastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?" he puffed.

The temptation to paraphrase the prosecution counsel from the Lady Chatterley trial is irresistible. Is I Spit On Your Grave a film you would wish your wife or servants to watch?

Censor is released on August 20th