In a time when films lived or died at the hands of the censors, home video offered a loophole. VHS releases gave certain movies a second life. This was particularly true in the United Kingdom, where the BBFC was infamously rigid with its code of conduct. If a film was refused a cinema certificate even after rigorous edits, it was never to see the light of day.
But who remembers video stores? Many a future horror movie aficionado seems to share the same treasured childhood memories of weekends spent browsing the chunky boxes in the horror section, this writer included.
With the advent of home video, a marketplace boomed. UK retailers found access to a wealth of less censored cuts of notoriously gruesome films. Thus, video nasties were born. For a brief spell in the United Kingdom, video prints were not policed as rigidly as their cinematic counterparts. This led to films previously denied a cinema release, or heavily censored, being readily available via importing.
Movies were beamed into people’s living rooms in all their uncut glory. Outrage soon followed with a rise in crime being blamed on the “sadist videos.” Equally rigid legislation was introduced in 1984 which led to the recall, re-editing and outright banning of films considered “obscene.” Distributors of such films faced up to 5 years in jail.
When the panic eventually climaxed, an incredible 72 films, primarily from the horror genre were culled from circulation. 39 of these titles would eventually be banned outright and consequently remain infamous for many years to come. When releases eventually did emerge, they were heavily censored in the interests of “decency” and “public safety”
So, with that brief history lesson out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the worst offenders! The movies were about to discuss were at one time considered so harmful to society that they were made illegal… Little did the suits know that it would only propel the titles further into infamy and result in countless movies labelled “nasties” becoming cult classics and later regarded as ground-breaking within the genre.
DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE (1980)
Starting our list is a film that was never actually prosecuted. DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE was one of several “DON’T” titled movies seized in the panic. Movies such as DON’T GO IN THE WOODS, DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE, DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT and DON’T GO NEAR THE PARK all had their runtimes shorn considerably.
DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE tells the story of a violent thug murdering women around Hollywood enraged by his sexual inadequacy. Whilst the police are baffled, he chooses to taunt a local radio host with the details of his crimes.
To say this film is an uncomfortable watch is an understatement. It is seedy, unflinching and grim. With long, explicit sequences of violence against women it’s little wonder why it was targeted.
Whilst not denied a cinema release by the BBFC like others on this list, DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE was pre-cut by around a minute for its brief big screen run. Even with these censorship measures VHS copies were seized from shelves and confiscated in the resultant Nasties panic.
DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE wouldn’t see another UK release until 2004 when Anchor Bay acquired the property for its first official DVD release. This remains the only available cut of DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE in the United Kingdom and given the film’s censorship history the release is trimmed by an incredible 8 minutes.
If one feels brave enough to want to seek out an uncut print, American home media releases have been readily available for years. Although not an easy watch, Nicholas Worth delivers a truly chilling performance as “The Killer.”
ANTROPOPHAGUS: THE BEAST (1980)
Try saying this title three times fast! Joe D’Amato’s 1980 foray into gross-out gore tells of a group of vacationers stalked around a deserted island by a hungry cannibalistic killer.
ANTROPOPHAGUS was seemingly a film with a reputation when it arrived on both British and American screens. Prints presented to censors in both countries were pre-cut to ensure a wide release. This version omits the shocking gore that had caused such a stir in the movie’s native Italy.
Two scenes in particular plunged ANTROPOPHAGUS into immediate infamy. One details the killer ripping an unborn child from the womb whilst the other features the killer devouring his own entrails in his dying moments.
I know what you’re thinking… If these scenes were cut for wide release, how and why is the movie on this list? Well, in the panic to stop the public consuming anything deemed “harmful,” censors often recalled films based on poster art or title alone.
Such measures led to harmless films like THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS being seized and considered for prosecution. ANTROPOPHAGUS fell victim to the law due its provocative poster art featuring the killer chomping down on his own innards.
The movie was subsequently prosecuted and banned from UK shelves despite the fact that without the gore it is a relatively boring picture. However, if you’re game enough to see the infamous scenes, a subsequent 2016 UK Blu-ray release has been completely reinstated… Making it quite obvious that the unfortunate “foetus” is little more than a poorly skinned rabbit dipped in corn syrup… The often murky VHS prints really did make all the cinematic tricks seem shockingly real, didn’t they?
LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET [A.K.A. THE FUN HOUSE] (1977)
This grindhouse picture tells of Terry Hawkins, a man angry at the world after spending some time in prison. Along with a group of fellow misfits he decides to get revenge on those who have wronged him by featuring them in snuff movies.
The problem with films becoming popular via the drive-in circuit and regional roll outs is they often undergo various cuts and titles. When it arrived in the UK in 1977 LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET was known as THE FUN HOUSE and was instantly denied a cinema certificate.
This move is understandable. The film is highly disturbing, due to excessive scenes of cruel and unflinching mutilation many thought the movie real. The chief offender here is a woman being mercilessly disembowelled until little remains.
However, by the time the home video market boomed, the movie had been re-titled for the third time. When authorities went looking for THE FUN HOUSE on store shelves, they instead seized Tobe Hooper’s very tame 1981 slasher of the same name.
Although escaping wrath due to a crafty name change, this writer wanted to include it here due to its truly disturbing nature. LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END STREET will stay with you, the unflinching portrayal of frenzied violence is truly uncomfortable. In the age of films like THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II: FULL SEQUENCE, it is somewhat of a morbid credit filmmaker Roger Watkins that his no-budget 1972 creation can still cause such discomfort and shock.
Although LAST HOUSE has subsequently been released on DVD here in the UK, a fully restored Blu-ray is yet to materialise… Any companies reading game enough?
NIGHTMARE [AKA: NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN] (1981)
Although passed with cuts for a 1982 cinema release this slasher-thriller would later suffer from an 18-year ban.
NIGHTMARE tells the story of George Tatum, a man with severe childhood trauma and psychotic tendencies that has allegedly been rehabilitated. We follow George’s bloody exploits as he escapes his doctors and flees cross-country. Although not a particularly well-made piece, the exploration of childhood instability and inherited violent urges is intriguing and even dares to raise the question if such traits can be passed on via genetics.
NIGHTMARE features some very significant and rather impressive gore, so it is little wonder why it was pre-cut for its UK cinema release. This film’s infamy started when it hit the home video market under the more provocative title NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN.
This, coupled with the film’s still relatively gory and genuinely grimy nature, was enough to secure prosecution under the 1984 Video Recording Act. The movie also ran into similar trouble in Australia and Germany when uncut video copies emerged.
The property remained illegal until 2002 when Anchor Bay released a slightly more censored version in their Box of the Banned.
Seeming relatively tame in the wake of more modern releases, NIGHTMARE becomes the first entry on this list to have attained a fully uncut release by the BBFC. The film is now widely available through 88 Films Blu-Ray and DVD releases, still proudly displaying the “previously banned” sticker.
An interesting titbit about NIGHTMARE is the controversy that still reigns over just who provided the film’s brutal effects. A photo of effects legend Tom Savini on set is widely circulated, however Savini claims to have never even heard of the film… Given some of the shocking effects Savini has produced, one does wonder why he opts to disown this film in particular.
THE BURNING (1981)
One thing we’re definitely learning here is that if your film featured gore effects by the legendary Tom Savini, it likely had trouble with the UK censors.
Tony Maylam’s 1981 slasher THE BURNING tells of a group of camping teens set upon by the maniacal Cropsy. After being horrifically burned years before, Cropsy is out for very bloody revenge.
Like others on this list, The Burning was approved for a UK cinema release. Some 19 seconds of cuts were ordered and every death scene in the movie felt the wrath of the censors. The main offender here was the infamous “raft massacre,” wherein 5 characters are brutally dispatched within a frenzied 30 seconds.
However, due to error, Thorn EMI released an uncut print of THE BURNING to the home video market. Despite the company attempting to remedy this with updated cassettes, it was impossible to recall every uncut print.
Since then, THE BURNING has received at least 2 fully uncut releases in the United Kingdom on DVD and Blu-ray, both proudly advertising the film’s link to infamy. Now we are free to see a young Fisher Stevens lose his fingers in all its uncut glory.
LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)
Wes Craven’s grindhouse remake of THE VIRGIN’S SPRING was denied a cinema certificate upon submission to the BBFC in 1972. However, due to the video market boom, LAST HOUSE showed up on store shelves 10 years later.
This imported VHS from Replay Video was as uncut as the movie could get. Scenes of humiliation, sexual violence and mutilation were in place meaning LAST HOUSE was presented to UK audiences for the first time in all its gritty glory and authorities raged.
When The Video Recordings Act of 1984 was imposed, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was near the top of the list of offenders and copies of the Replay Video VHS were never to see the light of day again.
This began a torrid history between LAST HOUSE and the BBFC. The movie was submitted for reclassification no less than 4 times over the next 18 years. When all was said and done, British censors conceded that the movie was suitable for release with 31 seconds of cuts.
This removed a great portion of the sexual violence, gore and death scenes. However, UK fans celebrated with cinema screenings attended by star David Hess. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT was passed as uncut as it will likely ever be in 2008 yet will likely forever be held up as one of the poster children for the Video Nasties movement… despite seeming tame next to more modern output.
What remains lost from the film can never truly be known. Director Wes Craven admits that the print was “hacked up” over the years as eager projectionists wanted their own copy of this shocking picture.
THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)
THE DRILLER KILLER ticked all the boxes for prosecution in 1984 as it had the lurid title, shocking box art and a tonne of on-screen blood.
Abel Ferrara stars and directs in his first foray into horror detailing an artist’s slide into insanity as he struggles with his work, home life and finances. He takes his growing rage out on the homeless, killing them with a power drill. Amateur lobotomies, a crucifixion and becoming a grim door decoration are just some of the carnage on offer.
THE DRILLER KILLER is perhaps the best representation of grimy, poverty-ridden New York in the 1970’s along with Frank Henenlotter’s BASKET CASE. Ferrara’s film is a rather effective commentary on just how hard it was to survive in those circumstances. However, Ferrara’s coping mechanism is… not advisable.
THE DRILLER KILLER became the literal poster child for the Video Nasties panic. The film’s lurid poster depicting a drill entering a man’s forehead was often reprinted in newspapers with headlines like “corruption!” and “sadism!”
It is little surprise then that the movie was removed from circulation in 1984 and subsequently prosecuted. The Driller Killer would remain unavailable in the United Kingdom until 1999 when it was passed with a considerable 54 seconds of gore footage trimmed.
Since then, the film has become a grindhouse classic, receiving a fully uncut release in 2002. This writer recommends the stunning Arrow Video Blu-ray release.
An interesting side note is that the movie had similar troubles in Australia, being denied certification 4 times and is still unavailable fully uncut.
HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1979)
David Hess makes his second appearance on this list with what many believe is guilt by association but a film that is still by no means an easy watch in its uncut form.
Ruggero Deodato’s second controversial film in a row that year features Hess and Giovanni Lombardo Radice portraying two sexual sadists as they infiltrate an upscale gathering.
HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK features all the common traits of the much freer Italian cinema. Nudity is here a-plenty and Deodato continues his exploration of violence against women and the consequences it can bring.
It was unsurprisingly denied a cinema certificate in 1981. However, the movie slipped through the video market loophole and subsequently was seized and successfully prohibited.
This film, like the previous entry, stood no chance with the censors. Hess was still heavily associated with the controversial LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. Similarly, Deodato was embroiled in controversy over CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. add to that a lurid poster featuring a straight-razor and it’s no wonder this movie was seized.
HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK remains one of the most heavily censored films of the Video Nasties Panic The movie was resubmitted in to the BBFC in 2002 and passed with a staggering 11 minutes and 41 seconds of cuts.
Any sequence involving intimidation or the assault of women was removed, as well as a truly disturbing sequence wherein Hess slashes a woman’s legs with a razor. The movie has never been resubmitted for an updated release, however import copies are uncut for any readers curious enough.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1979)
A lot of labels have been attached to Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST over the years but the one that sticks is “the most controversial film ever made.”
The movie details the search for a missing documentary crew and what their footage reveals about their time studying an Amazonian cannibal tribe.
With a title like CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, the movie stood no chance with the notoriously strict British censors and was denied a theatrical release.
However, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST was a film so controversial that it even came to court in its native Italy. The usually lenient Italian censors threatened to prosecute Deodato on Obscenity charges, fearing all the tribal footage was real. This resulted in a court case wherein actors were called as witnesses to prove they were still alive.
Back in the UK, the cloud of controversy over the movie guaranteed its removal from the video market. Along with others on this list, it became one of the core titles often mentioned in the press. With such a reputation, the film didn’t see re-submission to the BBFC until 2004 and 5 minutes and 42 seconds of cuts were ordered.
In subsequent years, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST has been embraced as a daring film ahead of its time with the found-footage aspect. Despite the controversy, it has a lot to say about human nature and how the Western world perceives different ways of life.
The movie was released with only 14 seconds cut in 2011, restoring all the on-screen gore but thankfully removing any of the very real animal abuse.
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)
This unflinching movie follows Jennifer Hills as she is brutally raped, beaten and left for dead by a gang of rednecks. Miraculously surviving, Jennifer sets about getting her revenge.
Originally titled DAY OF THE WOMAN, the movie was denied a British cinema release in 1979 and subsequently showed up for VHS rental with a new lurid title.
With a brutal 30-minute stretch, wherein star Camille Keaton is mercilessly assaulted by a group of four men, it is little wonder that I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE caused shock waves. However, it is the only entry in this article to be linked conclusively to real life crimes.
Director Meir Zarchi flew to UK shores to defend his film in September 1983. He appeared on TV with a distraught mother, who claimed that her son Martin was driven to commit crimes against women after watching “an unhealthy diet of violent videos every day.” I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE was named the primary offender and was the film to spearhead the Video Nasties panic.
Receiving bans in the UK, Germany and Australia, it was even heavily censored in its native US. Subsequent UK submissions have ordered up to 7 minutes of cuts and today, it is still censored by 80 seconds.
Although it has gotten a remake and a sequel, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE’S controversial shadow still looms larger than any other film on this list.
As stated at the very beginning, this is only the briefest look into some of the chief offenders singled out during the UK’s Video Nasties panic. With 72 titles in total either banned or heavily censored, it would be quite easy to dive back into this blood-soaked and controversial world to examine a few more in future!
Words: Reece G. Donnell