Article/ The Number One Nasty

Cornerhouse Front of House Manager Mashall Trower explores Video Nasties…

The Evil Dead is one of the most popular and best loved horror films ever released. It carries a 100% fresh rating on rotten tomatoes and always appears highly in online polls. It’s spawned 2 sequels and a musical adaptation; was acknowledged by the American Film Institute in a list of its most thrilling films and is currently in production for a big budget Hollywood remake. Back when the film was released on video in 1983 it was an entirely different matter. The Evil Dead was banned outright in West Germany, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and the UK.  Religious groups branded it evil with Mary Whitehouse declaring it “The number one video nasty”, whilst newspapers branded it obscene. MP Graham Bright claimed it was so dangerous it could harm not only you and your children but also your pet dog.

With the emergence of VHS in the late 70’s people were for the first time able to own and play full length feature films in their own homes.  Video rental shops appeared everywhere and the market flourished. One genre of film that did particularly well was horror. With little advertising video depended on suggestive box covers to attract viewers. The more violent and sexually suggestive the cover the more the video would sell.

Horror as a genre was changing too with the old guard of Dracula, Frankenstein and the wolf man loosing what was most important, the ability to shock and scare. Italian Gialllo films prompted the slasher genre whilst Herschel Gordon Lewis had created a love for gore.  Now video horror had a new water mark, if you couldn’t offer jungle cannibals, ‘snuffs’ footage or sexed crazed Nazi’s your film wouldn’t sell.  Films competed with each other constantly; if one cannibal film had animals being tortured then the next would have double the amount of torture.

All this wasn’t going on unnoticed; Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light had already campaigned against content on television and in the theatre. Rumour has it that the distributors of Cannibal Holocaust sent a copy of their film to Whitehouse in an attempt to create publicity for the film (a similar stunt had been pulled with a film titled Snuff in America where feminist groups had unwittingly promoted the film through protesting its release). The distributors clearly underestimated how influential Whitehouse’s pressure groups were and she soon had the backing of a national press and then Prime Minister Margret Thatcher who was happy to be seen to support family values. A national campaign was launched and the term ‘video nasties’ was coined, soon video rental stores were being raided and anything the local police deemed dangerous was confiscated and burnt. Whitehouse particularly hated ‘The Evil Dead’ declaring it to be ‘the number one video nasty’, amazingly by her own admission she had never seen it.

Exerts were taken out of The Evil Dead and other ‘video nasties’ and shown in a special parliamentary session by Whitehouse to prompt action against these films.  The police clumsily continued to raid video shops even though there were no clear laws on this new medium and could only use the 1959 Obscene Publications Act.  A list was drawn up by the Director of Public Prosecutions giving the police (and any horror fan) an idea of what to look for, and effectively banning anything on it even though the British Board of Film Censorship had no involvement in this decision. The now famous DPP nasties list had in total 72 films on it at various times with 39 being successfully prosecuted for obscenity.

A raid took place against the distributor of The Evil Dead (Palace Video) and they were promptly taken to court. Palace lost several smaller obscenity trials through not being able to form a legal team fast enough whilst some video stores across the country were found innocent for stocking the same film. Confusion reigned with enforcement in the hands of people with no understanding of the medium, the Police. Farcical incidents occurred such as dolly Parton’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and Sam Fuller’s war biopic The Big Red One being confiscated for fear they were pornographic.  One court would sentence a man to prison for owning a copy of The Evil Dead whilst another would let him go. Finally Palace Video managed to bring about a test case to both prove that The Evil Dead wasn’t obscene but also stop it from being taken to court again. Sam Raimi even gave evidence before the judge ruled in favour of Palace Video citing its successful theatre run, lack of concern from the BBFC (the then head of the BBFC James Ferman regarded The Evil Dead more as ridiculing the excessive horror films rather than joining them) and few successful prosecutions. So in November of 1985 The Evil Dead was finally removed from the nasties list which meant it could be cut (again) and released on video with a certificate under the new 1984 Video Recordings Act (passed the previous year to return censorship back to the BBFC instead of the courts).

It wasn’t until 2001 that The Evil Dead was finally passed uncut in Great Britain and shown how Sam Raimi intended. The video nasty list is now just a short hand for horror fans and the once banned VHS tapes are prized artefacts for collectors (Devil Hunter can fetch anywhere up to £500). What shouldn’t be forgotten from this is how ignorance and hysteria caused great films like The Evil Dead to be rounded up and burnt whilst people were sent to prison for wanting to watch them.  It’s insane to think of now but with the spread of online streaming free of censorship and new waves of violent and disturbing horror films (Saw, Martyrs, How does she do it…) all it takes is an election year and someone on a morale crusade before it all happens again. Finally a warning for anyone looking into the video nasty saga, the history is both interesting and rewarding but most of the films on the list DPP list are terrible. Mary Whitehouse’s self-righteous crusade managed to ban The Evil Dead but surely her biggest crime was creating a future for films like Boogey Man and night of The Bloody Apes.