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The Video Nasties

How a few graphic horror films led to the introduction of video censorship

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When video was introduced in the late 1970s, there was no specific legislation governing its content. This, coupled with the reluctance of major distributors to get involved with a medium they considered vulnerable to piracy, caused small independent companies to flood the market with low-budget horror films and lurid advertising campaigns.

Many of these videos were identical to the cinema versions approved (often after cuts) by the British Board of Film Censors, but some contained uncut versions and indeed films originally rejected outright

The original "video nasties", as itemised on a list issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions, were a motley collection of mostly low-budget horror films that relied on graphic violence, the overwhelming majority being American or Italian. The few British or British-set films on the list were Exposé (1975, d. James Kenelm Clarke), Xtro (1982, d. Harry Bromley Davenport) and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (Italy/Spain, 1974, d. Jorge Grau).

Most had little or no artistic merit, though the inclusion of work by respected genre practitioners Dario Argento, Wes Craven, Lucio Fulci and Tobe Hooper, arthouse auteurs Andrzej Zulawski and Paul Morrissey, and the then unknown Abel Ferrara led to a number of eloquent defences as the campaign against the nasties built up steam.

The first salvo in this campaign was fired by a May 1982 article in the Sunday Times headed "How high street horror is invading the home". This theme was enthusiastically taken up by the tabloid press, particularly the Daily Mail, and led to Conservative MP Graham Bright introducing a Private Member's Bill to bring about government regulation of video content. This led to the 1984 Video Recordings Act and the BBFC (renamed British Board of Film Classification) being given a statutory role for the first time as the official state video classifier.

Michael Brooke

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