When I was a child, there was one film that every 10-year-old I knew longed to watch and none of us was able to. It was called The Driller Killer, and our imaginations – and fevered rumour – supplied the excitements that actually watching it probably never could.
This was the age of the video nasty and little boys and their imaginations had never had it so good.
It is an unalterable feature of human civilisation that new technologies and genres cause cultural anxiety and, in some cases, outright moral panic. The ancients were suspicious of the written word; early modern folk had their doubts about the theatre; but in the early 1980s it was the turn of “video nasties”, cheaply made horror films whose buckets of fake blood and ingeniously absurd levels of violence scandalised the age.
A new horror film, Censor, pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to the lurid film-making of those days. Set at the height of the panic in the 1980s, its protagonist is a troubled young woman called Enid who works at the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), dredging through the torrent of grisly, straight-to-video exploitation movies.
It opens with her comparing notes with a colleague in the screening room. “If we’re going to pass it as an 18 it needs more cuts,” she says.
“The decapitation?” he asks airily.
“No, the decapitation is ridiculous. It’s the eye-gouging – it’s too realistic.”
Her male colleague, exuding worldly savoir-vivre, counters: “You’re missing the more intellectual layer, my dear. The heightened references take the edge off the more realistic violence. Don’t think of it as an eye-gouging, more as part of a grand tradition. It’s no worse than the Cyclops in Homer. It’s Gloucester in Lear. It’s... Un Chien Andalou.”
“I kept in the tug of war with the intestines,” she says wearily. “I kept in most of the screwdriver stuff. And I only trimmed” – she holds up finger and thumb – “the tiniest bit off the genitals.”
That captures well the absurdity of the material – but at the time it was taken very seriously indeed. Mary Whitehouse and her campaign group the National Viewers’ And Listeners’ Association led the charge. A determined woman with thick spectacles and a Gary Larson bouffant, Whitehouse was the nation’s foremost campaigner against filth and depravity in the arts and, having waged war against risqué plays at the National Theatre, and blasphemy in print, set about “video nasties” with characteristic vigour and the enthusiastic support of a red-top press never happier than when disapproving of something titillating.
Millennial and postmillennial readers, incidentally, may need a little catching up. Before there was such a thing as the internet, the videotape was a game-changing technology. Not only did it allow you to record programmes from the television so you could watch them at your leisure (if you figured out how to use the machine); it let you watch movies not in a cinema, but in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Naturally, this led to an explosion in pornography – but also in the sort of cheap horror movie that wouldn’t in a million years see a mainstream cinema release.
Furthermore, at least until the 1984 Video Recordings Act, which required them to pass through the BBFC, a loophole in the law meant that nearly anything went. And, of course, the nature of video made it far more likely – as Mrs Whitehouse argued with some justification – that this grisly material would find itself before the eyes of children. Criminal violence and “copycat” crimes were blamed on video nasties just as decades later they would be blamed on violent video games.
The Streisand Effect (by which attempts at censoring something just make it more popular) served the film-makers well. Indeed, the makers of 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust even had the nous to complain to Mary Whitehouse about their own film as a promotional strategy. Low-budget splatter movies became notorious, and accordingly coveted by those very children that campaigners hoped to protect.
When the Director of Public Prosecutions released a three-part list of named video nasties it deemed illegal under the Obscene Publications Act (1959), or liable to seizure or confiscation, it created an instant canon. Their names were the currency of the school playground in my childhood and live on in cultural memory to this day: The Driller Killer, I Spit On Your Grave, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Blood Feast, Cannibal Apocalypse, The Last House On The Left. Many of their creators, such as Abel Ferrara, Tobe Hooper and Dario Argento, are now lionised by scholars of cinema. And almost all of these films – once considered so depraving and corrupting that you could be placed under arrest simply for selling them in a shop – have since been passed for release uncut; in the odd case, even given a 15 certificate.
Indeed, they now look quaint. A curiosity of the post-video-nasty age is how much darker and grislier things were to get. As attitudes to cinema liberalised in the 1990s and early 2000s, the so-called “torture porn” genre, much influenced by the underground cinema of the video-nasty age, went mainstream. Eli Roth’s Hostel films, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise – to say nothing of notoriously sexually violent A Serbian Film – all made Cannibal Holocaust look like The Sound of Music.
Yet there are signs that the pendulum may now be swinging back the other way. In recent years, the BBFC has gone back and stiffened the certificates of a number of old films such as Rocky and Jaws – changing them from PG to 12A – in light of the violence they contain.
The board has also censured a flick as apparently harmless as the lavishly absurd 1980 space opera Flash Gordon, on the grounds that Ming the Merciless, an alien warlord, is offensively stereotyped as an Asian alien; and played, in a shocking instance of cultural appropriation, by a Caucasian human.
In the 1980s, the impulse to censor came largely from social conservatives such as Mrs Whitehouse; now, they are more likely to come from progressives – for whom sexualised violence against women can no longer be digested as entertainment, and for whom, perhaps, Cannibal Holocaust might be deemed to contain stereotypes harmful to members of the cannibal community.
All a step in the right direction, no doubt. But it does make those of us who grew up in the 1980s long, a little, for the simpler world that pitted The Driller Killer against a strident old lady in specs.
Censor is released in cinemas on Aug 20