The term video nasty was coined by British tabloid newspapers in the late 1970’s to describe an influx of uncut horror films on the new home video format. At this time videos were not required to be classified or cut by the BBFC, thinking that some titles could be liable to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act (which still forms the basis of home video censorship in the UK) the Director of Public Prosecutions drew up a list of 39 titles that were to be seized and removed from shelves. Most of these films are dreadful, and would have died a natural and largely unmourned death, but their seizure and subsequent banning has made them cult classics. There are, however, several titles that deserve this following. Here are five that you really ought to see if you are a horror fan (I have excluded The Evil Dead, because it is a widely seen film). The films appear in alphabetical order by title.
WARNING: These are graphic horror films, and some of the pictures and descriptions in this article will also be graphic. If you're under 16 or squeamish, read another post. Cheers.
Dir: Lucio Fulci
The third of Italian director Fulci’s zombie quartet, three of which made the DPP list, City of the Living Dead bizarrely escaping censure, The Beyond is one of this erratic auteur’s finest films. Right from the off the film is absolutely in your face in its gore drenched nature, with an astonishingly nasty and convincing chain whipping sequence taking place mere minutes in.
Story and script were never Fulci’s strong suits, and The Beyond, with its cliché plot and clunky English dialogue (“You have carte blanche, but not a blank cheque”), is no exception and not all of the effects work (a spider attack is very obviously fake, though for fun try and spot the shot in that sequence that appears in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man). However the performances of leads Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck, both favourites of Fulci’s are proficient, and when the effects come together they are among the best of their era.
Fulci was a terrific and much underrated director, and many of The Beyond’s sequences stand as a testament to his visual power; the sepia toned beginning, a blind girl on a deserted highway, a head being impaled on a nail, and the film’s striking ending are just some of the most memorable moments.
Forgive the oddities (Warbeck loading a revolver by putting bullets down the barrel, a sign in a hospital that reads “Do Not Entry”) or revel in them and The Beyond is a haunting and impressively visceral piece of horror.
Get it: The UK DVD is uncut, as is the US version (avoid US versions under alternate title 7 Doors of Death)
Dir: Ruggero Deodato
Cannibal Holocaust, with its vile title and a cover depicting copious gut munching, was one of a few titles (along with SS Experiment Camp and the next movie on this list) often singled out by the tabloids as being especially nasty, and it is. The tape that was banned was shorn of several minutes, in an effort by its distributors to save on magnetic tape (a fate that also befell the infamous Faces of Death) and so the current legal version in the UK, cut by 5 minutes and 44 seconds, is actually the most complete we’ve ever had. Uncut though Cannibal Holocaust is a genuine test for even the hardiest horror lover. People are disembowelled, a pregnant woman is beaten, animals are (genuinely) slaughtered and that is the very tip of the iceberg. It would be easy to dismiss Cannibal Holocaust as base, disgusting, filth, except for one tiny problem. It’s a great film.
Ruggero Deodato constructs the film as first a documentary following an expedition to find three missing filmmakers in the jungle, and then as a showing of a selection of the filmmakers’ footage, showing what happened to them. It’s more convincing than any of the ‘found footage films’ that have followed it (and owe it an enormous debt, especially in the case of The Blair Witch Project, which is almost a remake), and this construction, and the strength of the illusion, makes it all the more shocking and frightening. The most recent US DVD comes with an option to see the film with the animal cruelty cut out but, tough as it is, a true horror fan owes it to themselves to, at least once, see this movie in its full version.
Get it: The latest US version is the best, with many extras and the animal cruelty option, but there are several uncut European releases too.
I Spit on Your Grave
Dir: Mier Zarchi
Probably the most reviled of all the nasties, Mier Zarchi’s debut film has been read as the ultimate in misogyny, a film that, for 40 minutes subjects us to the multiple rape of its main character (the extremely brave Camille Keaton, grand-niece of Buster) and then, that seemingly not being enough brutality, has her beaten almost to death. The thing is, I Spit is a vengeance movie, and an extreme one at that, and for a vengeance movie to work the act for which the revenge is being sought has to be terrible. In this regard I Spit delivers in spades. The crime is so utterly repugnant, so disgustingly protracted and so intensely portrayed that no sane person could argue that the vengeance of the film’s last half hour is unjust, or even overly extreme.
Despite the fact that the beautiful Keaton is often exposed the film never, at least in the rape scenes, exploits her nudity, it is never, ever titillating (something one can’t say, at least in intent, for scenes in the likes of Basic Instinct and The Accused, for example). I Spit on Your Grave will make any viewer, particularly a man, feel dirty and ashamed. Which, frankly, is exactly how it should make you feel. The fact that its heroine not only comes through her ordeal, but outwits her assailants and avenges the wrong done her in a way that fits both the crime and the manner of its commission, suggests that I Spit can easily be read as not misogynist but radically, almost militantly, feminist. I Spit on Your Grave is one of the most difficult films ever made. Almost every frame is completely repugnant (to the point that seven minutes have been cut for its UK release), but it is undeniably an incredibly effective film, it puts you through an ordeal just as it does the main character and that overcomes the terrible acting and the thin story to create a film of enormous power.
Get it: The Elite Millenium Edition from the US is the only release to have.
The Last House on the Left
Dir: Wes Craven
I can’t really make any claims for Last House on the Left being a great film, but it is an important one, because it began the careers of several men who have since shaped the horror genre. First there is director Wes Craven, who went on to helm several of the genre’s true classics. That’s not true of Sean Cunningham, who produced Last House, or Steve Miner, who was essentially a production assistant, but both of them have had important careers and contributed to franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween. Last House is Craven’s take on the themes of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (yes, really) and sees a gang led by an escaped convict kidnap, torture and murder two teenage girls, before their car breaks down and, by coincidence, the end up at the home of the parents of one of their victims, who realise what has happened and extract vengeance. Last House is at its best in the truly disturbing, documentary like, sequences in the woods during which Krug (David Hess) and his ‘family’ torture their captives. The atmosphere on set was apparently very realistic and Sandra Cassell, the actress playing Mari, was apparently genuinely terrified for much of the shooting, it shows in all the performances, which have a truly disquieting reality and give the film a terrible sense of voyeurism.
Last House does tail off after this sequence, and suffers from both an abysmal set of songs (composed by David Hess) and a comic subplot that run totally counter to the rest of the movie, but it’s interesting even in its weaker moments to see Craven finding his feet as a filmmaker, and exploring several themes that would come back over and over in his later features (notably the use of booby traps, and the fact that Krug later lent his name to Freddy Kruger). The violence is actually not as explicit, bar a brief shot of viscera, as you might expect, but the atmosphere of terror is strong, and fools you into thinking that you see more than you do. Interestingly Last House has now been remade, and the new version is set for US release soon.
Get it: The new UK release is (finally) uncut, and boasts amazing extras, including a thrid disc with the documentary Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea
Dir: Matt Cimber
‘Bizarre’ hardly begins to describe this dreamlike, almost hallucinatory movie. Movies like this are one reason to be grateful, in a way, for the DPP list; the preceding films on this list would likely have survived anyway, they would have been important or infamous (or both) with or without a ban, but this odd little film, with its shocking theme and its blend of arty drama and extreme violence, would probably have vanished, thanks to ban though, people stayed interested. The Witch Who Came From the Sea boasts an image that, while not explicit, I was shocked to see on screen, and I rank it as one of the most confrontational and difficult things I’ve ever seen. There are more explicit scenes of abuse out there, but this one, brief as it is, ranks as perhaps the most disturbing for me.
Adding to the weirdness is the sight of Millie Perkins, most famous as Anne Frank in the 1959 film, stripping off, playing a lunatic, and mutilating and murdering men. It’s odd, given that the last time I saw her was in English class when we watched The Diary of Anne Frank. Perkins is excellent though, giving comfortably the best performance in these five films and perhaps the best in any of the nasties I’ve seen, and making the often confusing film play all by herself, though her husband and director Matt Cimber also contributes some memorable moments.
Get it: The UK version is only available in Box of the Banned 2, but it’s uncut and you’ll also get Contamination, Dead and Buried, Don’t Go Near the Park, Evilspeak and Tenebrae, all uncut.