May 30, 2009

Cinematters: The Big Influence?

This cinematters post contains some graphic descriptions of violent crime. There are also some violent images from controversial films. If that’s going to upset or distress you, please, read another post.

Yesterday in Norwich three people - two young men and a middle-aged woman - have been convicted of a horrific murder. They kidnapped a 19-year-old man, tied him to a tree, poured petrol over him, and then set him alight. He lived long enough to stagger away from the tree, but died soon after and was found three weeks later in a ditch. So why, on a ‘blog that deals solely with movies, am I relating any of this hideous story? It’s because this is just the latest in a long line of crimes that people, be it in the court system or the media, have attempted to tie to a specific film.

In this case it’s not terribly good Brit comedy horror Severance, which, in 2006, received an uncut 15 from the BBFC both at the cinema and on DVD. I saw the film at the time but my memory of it (other than the fact that I was unimpressed) is hazy, so I can’t comment on how apt comparisons are between the film and the crime. However the prosecution thought them strong enough that they played a scene from the film, in which the BBC website says “…a character was shown tied to a tree. In the movie a man is shown throwing petrol over and setting light to his victim.” Okay, so that sounds pretty similar, and could easily lead you to believe that Severance, which one of the criminals is said to have watched shortly before the killing, had a direct - even a causal - influence on this awful crime. It’s a charge that has been repeated in reference to films for years; it’s never been satisfactorily proven and yet it has precipitated many a moral panic. In this cinematters I’m going to look at some cases you will have heard of, some you won’t, and try and arrive at some conclusions about what influence cinema may have, and how that influence - or lack of it - is portrayed.

Of course moral outrage has dogged the movies since their inception, as far back as 1896 The Kiss was decried as “absolutely disgusting” but we in Britain do seem to have an extensive history of film related moral panics. Kubrick was prompted to withdraw A Clockwork Orange, not by the fact that British newspapers and lawyers attempted to put the blame for various violent crimes on the film, but by the reaction to those stories, which saw him receive threats against himself and his family. The film was released on VHS and DVD after Kubrick’s death, crime statistics remained unaffected. Though there are often isolated stories in the press making connections between (generally horror) movies and violent crime there have been, in this country, two major moral panics surrounding the issue, both of which had serious repercussions for both producers and audiences.

The genesis of the real fear about horror movies in the UK was the new technology of video in the late 1970’s. Though the technology was beginning to gain popularity the studios had not yet embraced it, which meant that small companies started buying up cheap films and releasing them, to sate the burgeoning market. To make an impact many of the titles released at this time were sensational, containing violent or sexual material that the BBFC would never have let pass (and in some cases had already rejected) for cinema release. The term by which these tapes are still known “Video Nasties” seems to have been coined, at least in reference to horror films, by the Sunday Times in 1982, at which time the moral panic that would engulf the British tabloid press was just beginning to be whipped up. The problem was that the BBFC, who had operated a rather censorious system of classification for Britain’s cinemas since 1912, had no say over the content of videos, and so companies could release films in whatever form they saw fit (which didn’t always mean uncut, the cost of magnetic tape meaning that even when it was banned Faces of Death was cut quite considerably). The thing that really exercised papers, politicians and pressure groups such as Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association was the fact that the viewer could manipulate this new technology. Not only was it in the home where, notionally, anyone could access it, but video also meant that people could dwell on the bits that they particularly liked. They could replay violent sequences over and over, or even pause them at a particular moment. Many saw this as a technology that would allow people to dwell in their sicker and more depraved fantasies over and over, in a way they simply couldn’t at the cinema.

In 1983 the Daily Mail published a story about Martin Austin, an 18 year old burglar convicted of two counts of rape, suggesting that his mind had been ‘warped’ by films like I Spit on Your Grave, and offering as evidence of that fact the suggestion that he had, on the two nights he had raped, ‘only’ intended to burgle. They said much the same thing the next year in reference to Malcolm Fairley, a serial rapist known as ‘The Fox’. They dubbed Fairley a video nasty fan on the evidence that he had once stolen two films from a house - National Lampoon’s Animal House and the John Carpenter remake of The Thing - neither of which was ever otherwise dubbed a nasty, or included on the list of titles liable to seizure and prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act circulated by the Director of Public Prosecutions. Once again the Mail pegged this man as ‘just’ a burglar who was ‘turned into a rapist’ by video nasties. The only other film ever named in connection with Fairley’s case was Sex Wish, a 1976 hardcore film, which apparently features some graphic violence against women. Again this sounds pretty damning, but Fairley denied ever seeing the film (despite the fact that saying he had might have helped his defence), no copy was found in his home, and no evidence could be uncovered that he had ever viewed it. The British tabloids, though, never let the facts get in the way of a good story, particularly when they’ve found a campaign issue (the Mail ran a campaign in 1983 under the banner BAN VIDEO SADISM NOW). You'll find that front page (as good an image as I could get) at the bottom of this article.

Of course the industry at this time was hardly helping itself. Films were released with new and lurid titles, and there seemed to be a contest as to who could have the most provocative cover art (with Cannibal Holocaust, Driller Killer and SS Experiment Camp in a neck and neck dash for the line), while the total lack of censorship and classification did mean that audiences for whom these films were totally unsuitable were legally allowed to see them. That still doesn’t excuse the tabloid tactics, nor those of MPs campaigning to have videos like those singled out by the DPP cut or banned. Graham Bright was the member who proposed the Video Recordings Act. One of his main concerns was, as previously outlined, the way that video allowed viewers to see sexual and violent scenes out of context, and so, in a screening arranged to ‘inform’ MPs of the content of these films, that was how he showed them - excerpting the exact scenes he was accusing of having a tendency to deprave and corrupt their audience, through the very mechanism of being viewed out of context. Bright suggested that this screening (which lasted 22 minutes) would give his audience the experience of watching a video nasty (of course it did nothing of the sort, few films of even the most brutal type have 22 minutes of extreme violence in one long run), but it almost certainly won him the argument, reaction was largely appalled and the Video Recordings Act 1984 was passed in short order, banning the DPP’s listed titles at a stroke and allowing the BBFC 3 years to clear the already massive backlog of uncertificated videos.

The scapegoating of films by the right wing press (usually on the flimsiest of what could only charitably be called evidence) continued. Especially notable was the Hungerford massacre, perpetrated by Michael Ryan in August 1987. Ryan killed 16, and then himself. He was a friendless gun nut who lived with his Mother; the press decided that Ryan had been influenced by Rambo. There was no evidence that Ryan was obsessed with Rambo, there was no evidence that he had even seen either First Blood or Rambo on either their cinema or TV screenings, indeed the sole ‘evidence’ that could be offered up that he had seen either film was that he owned a VCR. It wasn’t, though, until six years later that the next, much more serious, moral panic would erupt.

I was 11 when, in 1993, 2-year-old James Bulger was kidnapped and murdered. The case made a real impression on me for several reasons; first because the killers Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were just a year younger than me and secondly because of the way the media attention on the case began to switch from the horrendous crime itself to blaming movies, or rather a movie. Disgusting though the details of this crime are it is important to know them in order to see just how shamelessly the tabloid press twisted the truth to fit the case they wanted to make. Thompson and Venables took Bulger from a shopping centre, after a long walk they ended up at a railway line near a disused station. There they kicked and punched Bulger, threw blue paint over him, hit him with bricks, stones and a heavy iron bar, fracturing his skull and ultimately killing him. They placed batteries in Bulger’s mouth. After the two year old was dead they placed him across the railway line, hoping that he would be run over by a train (which he later was, severing his body) and that that would make the Police think their crime was an accident.

During the media frenzy that followed this crime the tabloids - perhaps especially the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail - seized on blaming a film for the young killers actions. That film was Child’s Play 3, an especially rubbish entry in the series of slashers about a doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. Some of the similarities pointed out between film and crime were as follows: Bulger was splashed with paint; in the film Chucky is struck with a paintball. Bulger was murdered at a railway line; a set piece in Child’s Play 3 takes place on a ghost train. According to Thompson and Venables Bulger kept getting to his feet, no matter how many times they struck him; Chucky shows similar resilience. As David Kerekes and David Slater observe in See No Evil this list not only demonstrates no connections between film and crime, and fails to take account of many aspects of the crime, but it also posits the suggestion that BULGER was imitating the film.

It was suggested that Thompson and Venables had seen this ‘evil’ film because Venables father had rented it. Both of Venables parents denied that he had ever seen the film, as did everyone closely involved in the case. The Police checked videos in both homes, and rental records for both families, finding no evidence that Child’s Play 3 had ever been in either home, and yet not only did the press continue to place the blame on Child’s Play 3, they went out of their way to attempt to have it and other ‘video nasties’ banned. The Sun even resorted to something tantamount to a call to fascism, with its infamous headline “Burn your video nasty” which called on video shop owners and regular movie buyers alike to make a bonfire of the films, led by Child’s Play 3, that the Sun deemed unacceptable. You will also find this front page at the bottom of the article.

The hysteria over this ‘connection’ was reflected in the Newson Report - a rather grand title for an eight page paper titled Video Violence and the Protection of Young Children, which demonstrated its level of bias immediately, by explicitly referring to the Bulger case in its introduction. More seriously the case and the panic surrounding it resulted in David Alton’s proposed amendments to the VRA, which, had Alton had his way, would have outlawed on video any film “Unsuitable for home viewing”, in effect meaning that only films whose content was suitable for the entire family could be passed for home ownership. This potentially devastating piece of legislation, thankfully, didn’t get far, but the VRA was tightened with a 1994 amendment, and for some time afterwards both the BBFC and distributors seemed inhibited by the ridiculous controversy, because of the way the public had bought into it wholesale (to the degree that I still have to correct misapprehensions about the Bulger case and Child’s Play 3 to this day).

In the ultimate victory for the tabloid press CIC video pulled Child’s Play 3 from distribution, the film not seeing a re-release in the UK until its DVD bow in 2002. Even this, though, wasn’t honestly reported. The film was pulled, but it retained its BBFC certificate (an uncut 18) until resubmission (at which point it was again passed uncut as an 18). This, however, did nothing to dissuade the Daily Mirror of April 13th 1994 from declaring the film “BANNED thanks to your Daily Mirror”. This from a paper whose masthead, at the time anyway, read “Honesty, Quality, Excellence”. Other films also disappeared from the release lists, most were considered banned, but almost none were. Natural Born Killers had received an 18 uncut on video just before the Bulger case happened, prompting Warner Brothers to delay the release for many years, something often unjustly pinned on the BBFC.

While BBFC didn’t ban many titles around this time they often delayed the issuing of certificates. Reservoir Dogs, for example, had passed without incident for cinema release, but in the wake of the Bulger killing and Alton’s revisions to the VRA the video certificate was delayed until 1995, three years after the film was released in UK cinemas. The Good Son, which again had an easy passage at 18 for cinema release, found itself caught up in the controversy due to its theme of child criminality. Its video release did come at the scheduled time, but it was cut by 33 seconds until the 2003 DVD release. These delays and cuts also afflicted titles like True Romance, Bad Lieutenant and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. There was also one notable ban, of Mikey, a film about a 9 year old boy who kills several adults in the course of the film, the film has never been resubmitted and so it, in effect, remains banned, a victim of truly dreadful timing.

To their immense credit the BBFC has, since about 1999, liberalised and in the process they have become far less reactive to tabloid hysteria than they were in the mid 90’s. The tabloids haven’t calmed down in their rhetoric, they’ve demanded action over films like Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs, Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE and, predictably, Bride of Chucky, they’ll probably do it again soon when Antichrist comes before the board in, as the distributor has promised, its uncut form, but the BBFC have ignored them, and at cinemas and in the home they have been allowing adults, to a very large degree, to choose their own entertainment. In 1998 the controversy came close to me, when two students from Hadlow agricultural college were convicted of murder, there were apparently thirty five films found in their rooms, of those three were mentioned by title (suggesting that they were the only three that could be construed, even tenuously, to be influential) of those The Evil Dead was singled out, because the killers had dumped their victim in the woods (never mind the fact that he was killed in an area close to the woods, which would be to logical place to dump a body so it would not be immediately found, it MUST have been The Evil Dead). This extremely tenuous link was reported with headlines like "Judge blames video nasties for murder" (The Sun) “Murder by Video” (Daily Express) and “Life for Horror Video Copycats” (Daily Star). A picture of The Sun's story is available below.

There have been so many films enveloped in controversies like this, and so many violent crimes that people have tried to explain this way. Thomas Hamilton’s Dunblane masscare prompted The Times to run the headline “Who supports violent films now?” Martin Bryant’s similar crime in Tasmania was pinned on Chucky, the Daily Express said of a series of robberies “Crime spree caused by Reservoir Dogs”, author John Grisham filed suit against the producers of Natural Born Killers, blaming it for a crime spree in which two of his friends were killed. Perhaps the most disgusting of these stories, aside from the Bulger one, was that of nail bomber David Copeland, a Neo Nazi who targeted gay pubs, and whose crimes several papers blamed on Hellraiser - the News of the World going so far as to run Copeland’s mugshot alongside a picture of Doug Bradley as Pinhead. This last story is also pictured below.

It’s easy to say that with so much data, the overwhelming number of crimes that appear to be inspired by films, that there is a causal link, but lets think about it. It’s easy to understand why people want to be able to place the blame for crimes like these on films, it’s easier, and it’s comforting. If films warp the minds of previously good people we don’t have to look at the considerably more disturbing possibilities that perhaps there are societal problems that fuel violence, that perhaps some people are so mentally ill that they are always prone to be violent or, worst of all, the possibility that some people may purely and simply be evil. Even if films can be shown to have had a direct influence on the mode of the commission of a crime you still can’t blame that crime on that film, for the unarguable reason that it was not the film that committed the crime. Film is an experience, we interact with it to some degree, but what it cannot do, will never be able to do, is stand with us in a moment and goad us to action. A film never put a knife or a gun in anyone’s hand, a film never lit a match that was then used to burn someone, a film never dumped a body in the woods. These are the actions of people - angry people, sick people, evil people - it really doesn’t matter, people do these things to one another, films do not, will not, can not.

Another striking argument against the causal link between violent film and violent crime is the historical one. If violent crime is caused by violent film then violent crime should post date violent film, which it quite clearly doesn’t. BUT, people will say; since we’ve had violent cinema the amount of violent crime has risen. This is true but, in the years since cinema has been around, the world has also seen a population explosion, in 1900 the world was home to a mere 1.6 billion people, in 2000 it was more like 6 billion. Its really simple maths: more people = more violent people = more acts of violence. If films really caused violence I’d be writing this post from prison. Over the last 20 years I’ve seen a LOT of movies that probably should, if it were possible, have warped my fragile little mind. I’ve seen rape, murder, dismemberment, shootings, stabbings, slashings, beatings, death by missile, bomb, razor, club, chest of drawers, car, train, boat, people thrown from buildings and bridges, peoples throats torn out and people hacked in two, and that’s an incomplete list. Here’s the thing though - I’m fine. I’ve been in perhaps two fights my whole life (both predating my interest in horror films), and while I write long ranting blog posts like this one, and quite often get cross, in life you’ll seldom hear me so much as raise my voice in anger. It’s not just me though, I know dozens of horror fans, some of whose tastes run even more to the extreme than mine do, and they are all fine too, in fact they are usually among the nicest, gentlest and best adjusted people you can meet.

Of course horror and other violent films attract violent people, and I’ll even give you the fact that some violent people may get ideas for the mode of their violence from violent films (as Scream had it “Movies don’t create psychos, movies make psychos more creative”) but if there were a direct causal link to the root of a persons violence then every horror fan would be violent. We demonstrably aren’t Pavlov’s dogs, and yet the press persists in suggesting that we must be. My final, and biggest, problem with all of this isn’t about the fact that it means there are films we don’t get to see, it’s not about the misinformation surrounding the issue, it’s the fact that blaming violence on movies cheapens the crime. It reduces the act and the perpetrator, it makes the criminal the victim, and when they’ve done something as sick as tying a young man to a tree and burning him alive, that’s just not okay. Even if that act has been inspired by a film we must never allow that inspiration to take away from the gravity of the action, or from the responsibility of the person or people who took that action, and if you blame a movie then that’s what you are doing - plain and simple.

Thanks for sticking with me all this way, I know this was a long post, but it’s such a complex issue that I didn’t want to reduce it to a few paragraphs. I’d be fascinated to know what you think about both the article and the issue more generally, so please use the comments. Thanks.

This article has taken a lot of research, I owe a debt to many and various websites, but particularly to the BBFC site, whose searchable database of decisions is invaluable. This article would also have been impossible without See No Evil, David Kerekes and David Slater’s seminal book on the video nasties and the moral panics surrounding them. A good deal of the background on the cases I’ve mentioned is from their exhaustive tome, my thanks to them.

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