Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet
VHS Nasty (aka VHS Nasty: VHS Lives 3)
Directed by Tony Newton
Shlock Films / Vestra Pictures
95 minutes, 2019
I’m on a bunch of horror Facebook groups where I mostly keep good company; it seems, however, that the holy trinity of big obsessions of modern horror fandom is Freddy, Jason and Michael. Maybe Chucky playing the cameo as the baby Jesus and Pennywise as the nanny, as well. While I will not poo-poo on anyone’s tastes, and I actually quite like those films, too, compared to some of the stuff that was coming out on VHS in the 1980s, it pales in comparison. Mother’s Day, Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, I Spit on Your Grave, and any of several Italian cinema releases, were all beyond the realm of WTF at the time.
In America, we had passed through the days of the Hays Office, a gatekeeping film industry body that set strict guidelines on what can and cannot be seen or said onscreen. It ended in the late 1960s, when the Rating System was started. Everything exploded in the ‘70s and took hold into the VHS period of the ‘80s, as the pendulum swung the other way. Meanwhile, in England, where this documentary originates, there were some restrictions, but nothing as harsh or consistent (Hollywood was the main output for cinema, so the focus was stronger there) until the advent of VHS, where control of the British film viewing was taken away from theaters by marketers and video stores. The film industry and government were not pleased.
The British government set up a censorship board against what was deemed as “video nasties,” or films this august group of older women decided the rest of the populace should not see, as they considered them too violent, sexually explicit, or sexually violent. If I may digress for a sec, the different between gatekeeping and censorship is that the former is set up within an industry to police it (the Hays Office; the Ratings Board), while censorship is from an outside organization (e.g., church groups, government); either way, the control is usually over-enforced.
This film focuses on the effect of British “nasties” on modern day filmmakers who were exposed to these pariahs in their youth, including the likes of Jim Towns, Jason Figgis, Shawn C. Phillips, Domiziano Christopharo, Tony Newton (the director of this release) – all of whom have had work that has been reviewed on this blog – as well as many others. The biggest name to contribute here, even though he is also an indie director, is the irrepressible Lloyd Kaufman (who only lends his voice). This international group of talking heads discuss what it was like to be a fan and try to get hold of this illicit merchandise, and its effect on them. Note that all of them are involved in the independent side of filmmaking, where all the truly interesting releases are now coming from (in my opinion), much as the nasties were back in the day. For example, one of the banned films from back then in England (but not the States) is Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a touchstone to many of the people interviewed.
There is a bit of repetition as these monster menches discuss their memories of watching these delights, and it is quite fascinating. What also drew my attention was looking behind them at their collections, some with mixed media (VHS, DVD, Blu-ray), masks, posters and other film memorabilia. This is the kind of trivia I find fascinating along with the main subject matter being discussed.
I also found it quite relatively beguiling the various levels to which some agreed on some censorship in certain cases. Child abuse, of course, is a given, but one, for example, says he can see more censorship leaning towards the human slasher than the fantasy of Evil Dead (yes, that was also on the nasties list thanks to a certain tree branch). On one hand, I can understand the general difference between human monsters vs. zombies and creatures; but where would you fit in supernatural unkillable killing machines in a human form doing unsupernatural murders (again, Jason, Michael and their ilk). This could be an interesting debate.
Also, while some are opposed to any censorship, others believe it’s okay to put a sticker on the box (this would be more classic gatekeeping than censorship), like the PMRC wanted to do to music around this time in the States. With films though, if you listed “necrophilia” on the sticker, as one person interviewed suggests be done, that is kind of a spoiler to what goes on in the film; and as someone else points out, for others it would just make it more enticing to watch or own.
Because of the illegality of renting these nasties, it created a black market of bootleg versions of the films of various and dubious qualities, and many a fan was turned on to the horror genre not quite making out what was on the screen thanks to murky visuals. I remember even the legit copies of VHS not exactly being clear due to the medium itself. Add fifth generation copies, and yikes.
One of my favorite parts of this was each relating their favorite films, why that was so, and what was too much for them, if anything. That is not to say there is still that level of video nasties out there, such as much of the catalog of extreme video labels like Unearthed.
Someone in this film mentions that when censorship is employed, eventually whatever they are trying to repress becomes the norm. While I believe that to be an oversimplification, on some level it’s true that it becomes more widely accepted in the long run.
Others interviewed include Dustin Ferguson, Peter Goddard, producer John West, Nathan Hill, Gary Smart, Christopher Griffiths, Jimmie Gonzalez, Richard Mogg (with fake blood on his face), Mathew Fisher, and Richard Chandler. It’s definitely a boy’s club, sadly, with the exception of actress Julie Anne, who appears right near the end. I wish there would have been more women involved, as they are quickly becoming a large part of what used to be a male dominated fan base.
As for added visuals, there are short clips from a smattering of the trailers mentioned in the documentary (Don’t Look in the Basement, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.), some artistically altered stills from said pix, and some decent editing (i.e., the interview clips are not long, but fortunately they don’t zip by as if they were for someone with the attention span of a flea, either). There is also a low background sound of reels feeding into a projector and some VHS visual “noise” added to the images.
My only two complaints are that the descriptive cards for each person are only shown once, and with my memory, it would have been a help to repeat them at some point; the other, as I said before, is that there needs to be more women interviewed, as women are fully integrated into the horror genre, I’m happy to say.
This film is actually part of a trilogy (so far) that includes Newton’s tome, VHS Nasty: The Essential Guide Book to Video Nasties, and also his Horror Movie Poetry book related to these films. I would like to see it expand to a fourth, perhaps as a documentary about the filmmakers, cast and crew of the nasties themselves. They’re dropping like flies as time passes (Romero in 2017, Craven in 2015, Fulci in 1996, etc.), so this is a good time to do it. Meanwhile, this documentary of their influences is still a milestone.