Video Nasties: Draconian Days


Reviewed by: David Graham

Chuck in Video Nasties: Draconia Days
"The sense of a community growing up in defiance of such nonsensical conservatism makes the second half hugely rousing."

While the early Eighties era of the infamous ‘Video Nasties’ had been covered before in countless documentaries, Jake West gave probably the most comprehensive and entertaining overview yet with his 2010 Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape. The following decade and a half may have seemed a little more liberal, but as this follow-up proves, it was actually riddled with ridiculous media scares, unjustified lynchings and misjudged attempts to move things along. Of course, at the centre of all this was the notoriously scissor-handed James Ferman, a figure West could easily have vilified, but to his infinite credit he’s fashioned the most balanced and insightful portrait to date of this much-maligned and misunderstood individual.

With the BBFC’s Nasties list clearing rental shop shelves of 72 offending articles and James Ferman’s certification system supposedly keeping minors from being corrupted, the UK’s fuss over horror in the home seemed to have died down in the second half of the Eighties. Then Child’s Play 3 became the tabloid scapegoat for toddler Jamie Bulger’s horrific murder at the hands of two pre-pubescent boys, and movie-goers were plunged into the Dark Ages yet again. With a black market for uncut and unavailable films springing up and police on the prowl for anyone in possession of such filth, it was the hardest time in history to be a horror fanatic. Another taboo that was to prove Ferman’s downfall, however, was his reformed attitude towards skin-flicks seeing him finally getting too big for his boots.

Where the first film covered familiar but infinitely important territory, this follow-on bravely tackles a less documented period where the powers-that-be seemed to constantly take two steps backwards with every hesitant step forward. It’s especially enlightening here to hear from the younger members of the BBFC who tried to counter-act Ferman’s egotistically fascist tendencies, but are sometimes shown to have had their own agendas. A complex picture of the process of censorship emerges where objectivity appears to be impossible, and critical thinking muddies the waters for the treatment of supposed B-movies in especial comparison to apparent art-flicks, a hypocrisy that continues to this day.

Some of the early scenes feel a little stretched, going into over-elaborate detail about the Video Standards Council and the efforts to bring in more flexible classification, but there are amusing anecdotes showcasing hilariously objectionable cover art and the warnings video-viewers had to endure of what to expect from each certification will elicit nostalgic smirks. From there the ground covered becomes ever more stimulating, from the archive footage of Scala shock-a-thons to the sensitive handling of the Jamie Bulger case, a tipping point for attitudes towards horror enthusiasts that saw them and the form demonised for years after.

As ever with this kind of documentary, occasionally the talking heads shoot themselves in the foot – a few interviewees’ taste in sleaze makes them difficult to relate to or sympathise with – but it’s impossible not to share their indignation and outright disbelief at the lengths the persecuting authorities went to post-Bulger. There are shocking tales of dawn raids on properties, video-shop owners being jailed and elaborate stings on smugglers of banned movies from abroad, the sense of paranoia palpable in everyone who fought for their cause. It really was a witch-hunt, with the tabloids lobbying for nothing less than the form of home video itself being burnt at the stake, an excessively reactionary return to Fahrenheit 451-style control that would have left UK citizens – especially children and the poor - deprived of arguably their main source of entertainment at the time.

Crucially, West’s touch is as light as it is informative, perhaps due to the still-tangible anti- authoritarian punkishness of the horror fans and film-makers, who risked criminal records establishing a black market for sharing their ill-gotten spoils. The sense of a community growing up in defiance of such nonsensical conservatism makes the second half hugely rousing, and will feel even more so for anyone who experienced the don’t-ask, don’t-tell under-the-table culture of the time. West structures it all brilliantly, keeping things flowing chronologically but also fluidly, each subject feeding into the next in a way that didn’t always feel apparent at the time, mixing frequently rib-tickling old-school footage with the many insightful interviews to keep viewers engaged throughout.

Presiding over much of this chaos, Ferman lingers as a deeply flawed but human character, whose own career – and failings - as a director led to his determination to tamper with the work of others. His ingenuity is even touted by the likes of his lifelong opponent Alan Jones, offering a priceless reminiscence of the time when Ferman managed to outrage the Frightfest don himself through a brilliantly edited sizzle reel. Ferman comes across as a hugely persuasive but also self-deluded character, almost tragic in his eventual attempt to get with the times, where he was in fact shown to be ahead of the curve for once.

For anyone who lived through all this madness, this will be a brilliant reminder of how far we’ve come but also how much we lost the collective plot as a nation; for youngsters, it’s a revealing time-capsule of a period not too long ago that should prove a cautionary example against future reactionary insanity. West has come up trumps with his best feature to date, a well-rounded and –researched overview that ranks beside Not Quite Hollywood and Machete Maidens Unleashed as one of the best genre docs of recent years.

Reviewed on: 28 Mar 2014
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The story of censorship in the British home video industry.

Director: Jake West

Starring: James Ferman, Christopher Smith, Kim Newman

Year: 2014

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2014

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