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Paul Flanagan

Related: video nasties - covers

Imagine a scene where you enter a small, family-owned video shop and you are confronted by a section of shelving labelled 'Horror'.  Working your way along these shelves you see hundreds of obscure titles and bizarre artwork.  You can select titles such as The Driller Killer (USA, 1979, d. Abel Ferrara), Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, 1979, d. Ruggero Deodato), and SS Experiment Camp (Italy, 1976, d. Sergio Garrone).  A poster on the wall, reads ‘Faces of Death’, and shows a close-up of a man’s face, he has a metal clamp on his head and is blindfolded.  He is being executed in the electric chair.  This scenario seems impossible.  A video shop is a large, multinational store, such as Blockbuster Video, and the Horror section comprises of five copies of Scream (USA, 1996, d. Wes Craven), five copies of Scream 2 (USA, 1997, d. Wes Craven), and ten copies of Urban Legend (USA, 1998, d. Jamie Blanks).  Posters on the wall depict good-looking teenagers from I Still Know What You Did Last Summer (USA, 1998, d. Danny Cannon).  Everything is safe and standardised, but the first scenario was commonplace less than twenty years ago.  It was the former three video titles mentioned above, that led to the public outrage and Video Nasty furore which resulted in the enforcement of state censorship in the form of the Video Recordings Act, and the Video Packaging Review Committee. --Paul Flanagan

Killer covers

In the early 1980’s video recorders rapidly became a standard household item.  A new form of mass entertainment was readily available in the form of the (then) unregulated videocassette tape.  The most popular films, apart from pornography, were low budget horror films, many of which were to become known as Video Nasties.  There has been a great deal written about the Video Nasties issue from the point of view of censorship, but very little about the artwork used in the promotion of these videos.  The lifespan of this style of artwork lasted only a few years before government regulation took effect; indeed part of the appeal of the Video Nasties phenomenon lies in the ephemeral nature of these videos and their covers.

The Video Nasty was not a particular genre of film identified by film critics.  It was not a style of film making which suddenly emerged at a particular point in time.  The thirty-nine films that made up the Director of Public Prosecutions’ banned list in the mid-eighties, consisted of films spanning the years 1963; H.G. Lewis’ Blood Feast (USA), to 1982; Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (Italy).  Subject matter was varied; zombies, cannibals, psycho killers, mad doctors and aliens all featured in the films.  None of these characters were strangers to the genres of horror and science fiction.  What was different about this batch of films?  There have been attempts to identify a common thread between these films.  Martin Barker identifies the way of showing (unflinching camera shots of extreme violence), the absence of heroes and heroines, the denial of a centre from which to view things, a grim perception of the world and cynical anarchism.  All descriptions of modern/modernist fiction in general.  (1).  This may be true for some of these films, but others such as Blood Feast were made purely in the spirit of exploitation.

The over-the-top, and obviously faked gore featured in exploitation films appealed to drive-in audiences.  They provoked a visceral response rather than emotional or intellectual involvement.  (2).  They were a cheap thrill, they had no pretensions to high art.  Exploitation films had always relied completely on their advertising campaigns; they were heavily hyped, then released simultaneously around the country.  This prevented people who had seen the films from warning others against going, should the films fail to deliver promised thrills.  When released onto video, the shortcomings of these films would be masked by sensationalist video cover designs.  Films made by reputable directors, or featuring big stars, do not have to resort to the same methods of promotion; their success is usually ensured by the mere presence of a particular star or director.  (However the inclusion of big name stars can often be seen as an attempt to compensate for a weak script).  Horror films have always occupied a low position in the hierarchy of cinematic production, and exploitation/horror films are even less reputable.  Producers had to put extra effort into the promotion of these products.  They identified the potential audience and selected visual imagery that would be most effective in attracting their interest.

Of course there is another very simple common thread between the films classed as Video Nasties; the fact that various video companies selected them in the early 1980’s for release into the home video market, purely for financialgain.  The films selected had been largely forgotten after their circuit of British cinemas, in double-bill format, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  Horror films, like pornographic movies, were chosen because they are always popular, especially amongst teenagers who constitute the bulk of the home video audience.  The cycle of exploitation continued, and like the original promoters of these films, the video companies adopted packaging and advertising that would cause as much offence as the movies themselves. --Paul Flanagan via http://mysite.freeserve.com/contamination/killer_covers.htm [May 2004]

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