Video Nasties: Draconian Days “The story isn’t over yet”

Jake West and Marc Morris on video nasties, the horror community and the BBFC

JakeWest&MarcMorris-NucleusFilmsBack in 2010, Jake West and Marc Morris made Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, an acclaimed documentary that told the story of the infamous video nasties. Now, four years later, they’re back with Video Nasties: Draconian Days, which focuses on the development of the BBFC under James Ferman, how the horror community was affected by the increasingly litigious body and the tabloid treatment of films from Child’s Play 3 to The Last Temptation Of Christ.

We talked to West and Morris at FrightFest Glasgow after the film’s screening to talk about continuing the story, how Hollywood came under fire, and how the horror collector community has changed over the years.

So did you feel like there was something missing from the first documentary?

JW: No, there wasn’t anything missing, it’s just the first one was really the Video Nasties scare, which led up to the Video Recordings Act. So the first Video was about a five-year period, from the birth of the video magazine, 1978, 1979, through to the video recordings act being passed, which sort of enclosed that Video Nasties story.

But when we were doing that, obviously the story of when the BBFC then took over and what happened with censorship, it felt like a different subject. So it’s a continuation; the period of history we look at with this is actually a longer period and that’s why the film is actually a bit longer this time.

It’s from the 1985, with the BBFC then taking over the job of censoring for entertainment and then the ramifications of what that did to the industry and the events of videos being blamed for things like the James Bulger case. So it just felt like it’s not something I could have done in a smaller way if you see what I mean, kind of tacked it on the end of the last one,  because I realised there was this huge gulf. But it took a long time to kind of gather all of this, because there’s more incidents than before so it’s a bigger structure.

Was it a slightly easier process this time, having made the first film?

JW: In a sense it was easier, in the sense that we kind of knew who to talk to, but tracking them down and trying to find people who would want to come on camera saying they got arrested or things like that, some people weren’t willing to do that, so it took quite a while. We weren’t in any rush, “We’ve got to get it done by…” FrightFest had been asking about it for nearly two years, and we kept on saying “Oh, maybe next year.” They wanted it to play at the August event and we were still interviewing people, then I promised them that I’d get it finished for this one. So that kind of deadline, the last two months have been hellish because I’ve just been editing the thing trying to get it done!

MM: Yeah, trying to find archive stuff and people and newsclippings and all that stuff. We did have a lot because I had tons and tons of stuff scanned and just collected over years, all the video covers are from my own collection of geekiness. All the fanzines, I did have a lot of them but I still had to seek a few out from other people because over the years you just lose them. So it’s amazing how many were actually produced here.

What I also wanted to put across was how big the fanzine scene here was because there was a book that just came out called Xerox Ferox, written by an American chap focused mainly on the American scene, so I thought on this DVD box-set we’ll have a gallery of as many British fanzines as I can find.

Do you think the horror community has changed over the years, from those fanzine and collector days?

MM: I think it’s different now.

JW: In a sense, FrightFest like being here is a continuation of that feeling because obviously festivals like this in a way, many of the films we’re seeing at FrightFest you’ll never get a chance to see them on a big screen any more because the way video is delivered throguh video on demand or the internet or people streaming it on their computers or phone even. So having the chance to see these kinds of films on the big screen is I think what’s special, and that fan scene is closest to how it was at an event like this.

MM: It’s like the old shock around the clock stuff as well. But in those days you’d go there and meet people, but you’d also do a bit of tape swapping as well. And you don’t need to do that anymore and I quite miss that aspect of it. I used to think what tapes I could get, I’ll do five copies and you’d get your day’s beer money back and food and stuff, like 50 quid just for taking some sought after tapes down and selling them to people in the queue! “Anyone want Jess Franco’s Faceless?” Because Australia was a good place of trading for me, I had lots of connections there and I’d just send tapes back and forwards all the time and I’d get tapes that hadn’t been released anywhere else and they were all in English with no subtitles from like Holland and places, you could do really good trade to people. But nowadays if you want a film you just go on the internet and download it. I like the way things are now but in those days it was nice. But I have got a flat full of old tapes now which I’m finding hard to get rid of. Some sell for lots of money and some you can’t give away.

JW: You’ve got cupboards full of them.

One of the most striking aspects of the documentary is seeing just how recent all this was.

JW: Well, it’s in living memory for people and it’s interesting talking to people about their experiences afterwards, because obviously some people, depending on how old they are, remember the original scare or they remember seeing stuff on the news, or Chucky, so they’ve all got slightly different reference points on it. So by putting all this material together, people go “Oh I remember that bit but I didn’t know that…”

MM: I remember going into work on a Monday morning, it was March 15th and it was my birthday and someone had put The Sun or something on my desk and it said “BURN YOUR VIDEO NASTIES!” I can remember it really well and I remember wathcing the news, because I had loads of them recorded on old VHSs or at the end of movies I’d recorded. But then a lot of people who weren’t around then, younger people, can’t believe it happened.

It’s amazing seeing just how much of the public perception of these films was influenced by the tabloids.

JW: Well that became… obviously they made the most noise, but a horror fan wouldn’t have a forum. The news was much more controlled back then because if it was in a newspaper or on the television, that was the only source of information you had. You’ve got to remember that there was only even four channels back then. There was no internet and I do think computers have changed our lives in a way that we almost forget what it was like then. So people would see something on the news and then they would get freaked out about something, whereas now you’ve got it streaming down on your phone.

childs-play-3It wasn’t just the obscure films either; it’s striking to see big Hollywood movies like Rambo under fire.

MM: The video nasties changed from being unclassified, under the counter type stuff to being highly polished videos in your local blockbuster.

JW: But that’s where it was, they were gunning for mainstream films. If he’d have had his way, horror films would have been banned. In the home, you’d only have been able to see those films in the cinema and you wouldn’t have been allowed to have any entertainment because a child might see it in your home. So that was crazy, but they were picking on mainstream targets because the video nasties scare, they’d already picked all the weird ones, so people were still getting arrested for owning them or swapping them but the news media were then trying to blame mainstream films and they were trying to clamp down on violance across the board and I think that is interesting. Because they were picking on big studio movies now, they weren’t picking on little independent things, like Rambo and Child’s Play 3, these are big things, so it’s weird the way they shifted their attention.

MM: And all the collectors they tried to lump in with perverts and paedos.

JW: But what’s funny is the horror fans, no horror fan would be particularly disturbed or even think something like Child’s Play 3, that’s not a particularly strong horror film, that’s a fairly mild, tame thing. So you just see the reaction of the media, but the media set the precedent. So your grandma watching the telly would go “Ooh, video nasties are destroying us.” And people would get up in arms about these things.

Then prestigious films that were controversial, like The Last Temptation Of Christ, would be passed uncut.

JW: Well I think once again  there was that prejudice, and I think there’s always been a bit of a class system, certainly the BBFC they may not admit it but if you’re intellectual then it’s OK.  But if you’re from a housing estate somewhere you probably shouldn’t watch this. So there was always that thing which we might delve into more in the disc.

MM: It’s all the stuff at Watford film fair because I had a friend who had a video camera and he just took it everywhere. And we’d go to the film fairs, and sadly he didn’t have any money so he just kept recording over the same tape. But he did keep that one and it was luckily the day we were both there.

Do you think there’s a potential for a third film to bring it up to the present day?

JW: Well we thought originally when we were shooting it that we would try and bring it up to date with more of the recent scares but in the end it didn’t mesh. Jumping forward ahead to now didn’t make sense because it wasn’t so relevant, it wasn’t the same political environment that those two documentaries were about.

MM: The story isn’t over yet, I’m sure.

JW: I think that those cases in themselves are quite interesting individually, and mostly it’s because of the BBFC’s historical problem with sexual violence and the idea of imitation as well. And that’s the Human Centipede 2, is a guy enacting the first film and that’s a classic problem that  they have, the BBFC have the same issues.

MM: They say if you watch this stuff you’ll become depraved and life imitates art, but they’re the ones who watch it all the time!

There was that uproar recently when the BBFC said that they were going to be tougher on classifying horror films.

MM: I knew, though, that it was all rubbish. They have to say things like that.

JW: But having said that, the good thing is now that people do get up in arms about it.

MM: Back then they didn’t.

JW: They’re clarifying their position or whatever, but the point is that fans and people now will speak out against that, they won’t accept it, so they have to listen more to what the public say. They do have public consultation, in the Ferman era they didn’t, it was basically  whatever Ferman wanted he decided how it would be and I think that was the problem with that era and why it was Draconian because the BBFC didn’t have a coherent policy on a lot of these things. It would be more like whether Last Temptation Of Christ, this is a worthy film, and then Nigel [Wingrove] makes Visions Of Ecstasy, but one is like an 80s pop promo and the other is a more serious film, so the idea of people being offended by that as blasphemy to me seems ludicrous and you can kind of see that he was cluthcing at straws when you look back at that it seems absurd but that’s the way it was!

Video Nasties: Draconian Days makes its London premiere at the Prince Charles Cinema tonight (03/07). Buy your tickets here. You can pre-order the DVD for £17.75 at Amazon.co.uk.