INTERVIEW: JAKE WEST AND ED WOOD
“The wonderful irony of the Video Recordings Act of 1984 was that the government published a list of horror movies that were banned, and unwittingly created a must-see list for horror fans everywhere!”
It also provided Jake West with the inspiration for his new documentary. Video Nasties: Mental Panic, Censorship and Videotape explores the Video Nasties phenomenon of the 1980s, when horror films became the target of a sensationalist campaign launched by the English government, strongly supported by that balanced voice of moralistic reason, The Daily Mail. Under the Video Recordings Act, 72 horror movies such as The Evil Dead, Cannibal Holocaust and I Spit On Your Grave were declared so depraved and corrupt that they posed a threat to society, and were banned.
“It was a very carefully constructed campaign,” says West. “The government had an agenda, and were using this outrage over horror films as a smokescreen for government acts. This was the era of vast unemployment, the Faulkland Islands, the Brixton riots – they needed to provide the public with a unifying enemy other than the government themselves, and horror movies were it.”
The moral panic that surrounded the campaign reached unbelievable heights, as typically objective headlines from The Daily Mail proclaimed that horror movies were responsible for the “rape of our children’s minds!” and were inspiring copycat acts of violence. Similarly, Sir Graham Bright, the MP who succeeded in legislating the Video Recordings Act, terrified parents and pet-owners everywhere by declaring that “research is taking place and it will show that these films not only affect young people, but, I believe, they affect dogs as well.” (Rumour has it that Bright’s next campaign is a move to ban the film Cujo on the basis that it affects cats, and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds on the basis that affects worms. Research is taking place…)
“There was also a man called Pete Kruger who was part of the Obscene Publications Squad,” West chuckles, “who was actually responsible for the burning of offensive videos. There’s footage of this huge basement furnace, controlled by a man called Kruger…I don’t think he ever realized the irony! The whole thing was sheer madness, it was genuinely like a Monty Python sketch.”
Though it wasn’t funny for distributors found guilty of breaching the Video Recordings Act. In 1984, David Hamilton Grant was sentenced to 18 months in jail for distributing Romanao Scavolini’s Nightmare in a Damaged Brain. “The version he distributed had less than a minute of extra footage than the approved version, and this was deemed enough for him to serve jail time. It’s insane. Nightmare isn’t even a particularly extreme film!” exclaims West. “But the anti-horror wave just spread like a pandemic. No critic would stand up for the films and say they had merit, because they were scared it would seem weird, or evil. And when Martin Barker finally convinced the Guardian critic Derek Malcolm to attest in court that some of the banned films were worthy films and were well executed, and the judge’s infamous reply was ‘Well executed? Well executed? The German invasion of Belgium was executed, that doesn’t mean it was any good!’ You couldn’t make this stuff up.”
The shameful period of Britain’s history explored in Video Nasties is one that younger film fans may not be aware of, but West is adamant that the effects of the era can still be felt. “We haven’t learned our lesson, which means it could happen again. In a way, it already has. In the 90s there was another scare, when the fairly mainstream Chuckie films were accused of inspiring crimes like the Jamie Bulger murder, and even now the original I Spit On Your Grave has just been banned in Ireland.”
The 1978 low-budget rape-revenge thriller was indeed banned by the Irish Film Classification Office last month for its depiction of “acts of gross violence and cruelty” – a euphemism for a brutal 20 minute gang rape scene followed by the victim’s vengeful disembowelment and castration of her attackers. The remake, however, has escaped such a harsh fate, and is premiering in Ireland at IFI’s Horrorthon this month. Like West, Horrorthon’s director Ed King has defended its inclusion.
“Personally, violation in films isn’t my thing, but the remake is very different to the original, and makes a completely different impact, and that’s what makes it interesting. And don’t forget, the original had a lot of support. Lots of people claimed it was exploitative, but then academics like Carol J. Clover viewed it as a feminist film. It has its critics, and these arguments are understandable, but both versions have made audiences cheer as the woman in the film wreaks her revenge. And that’s the point, really – if a film is open for interpretation and debate, then it’s worth making and worth seeing, which is why we’re showing it at the festival. People need to be free to make up their own minds.”
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Horrorthon takes place in the IFI from October 21 to 25. Video Nasties: Mental Panic, Censorship and Videotape will be shown on October 25 at 2.15pm and I Spit On Your Grave is on October 23 at 9pm. Tickets are available from irishfilm.ie