In 1983 during the birth of VHS rentals, the United Kingdom’s Director of Public Prosecution released, under the influence of Mary “Morality Monger” Whitehouse, a list of 72 VHS tapes considered to be in violation of the Obscene Publications Act 1959.
Whitehouse, who made a career out of telling other people how to live their lives, and coming off a failed attempt to ban Doctor Who and the beloved novelty song “My Ding-A-Ling” (it’s true), would coin these films, “video nasties.”
Consisting of primarily low-budget horror and exploitation films, video nasties were branded as sadistic, obscene, immoral, and evil.
Despite acknowledging she had never laid eyes on a single frame of any of the films she deemed “nasty,” Whitehouse knew with absolute certainty the only possible outcome of allowing such filth to remain on the shelves of the U.K’s video rental stores was that the children who were exposed to them would grow into rapists and serial killers.
Of the 72 films listed, 39 were successfully prosecuted and subsequently banned. It would take decades for some films to remerge complete and uncut.
Not surprisingly, many of the films under the video nasty banner were poorly made, suffering from a plethora of technical and artistic misfires, resulting in films that could be considered unwatchable. But like anything clumped into a censored cohort, there are exceptions. The following is a list of 20 video nasties that are actually worth seeing at least once (if you can stomach them):
1. The Evil Dead (1981)
This list begins with The Evil Dead – proof that great films often get a bum rap. Additionally, it has been said that this film topped the list of Whitehouse’s most reprehensible nasties.
Perhaps it wasn’t specifically the content that upset Whitehouse as much as the success The Evil Dead achieved during its 1983 video release, reaching the top spot for best selling videos of the year. To put it into perspective, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was released on video in the U.K the very same year. So, that’s saying a lot.
Released in 1981 and directed by 21 year-old wunderkind, Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead was a sleeper hit that was met with positive critical acclaim. And like a fine wine its reception has aged even better with time.
The plot may seem trite by today’s standards as the film’s legacy has influenced countless filmmakers, but understand that this film was the one that started the whole “cabin in the woods” horror film. This specific story centers on five college students vacationing at a shabby cabin in the woods who accidentally summon Sumerian demons hell-bent on possessing and swallowing souls.
It’s a pretty big accident. One by one the demons take control of the kids’ bodies and they’re left with no choice but to hack each other to pieces with rusty tools. There are tree rapes, dismemberments, disintegrations, hallucinations, and Three Stooges references – all masterfully filmed and effectively shocking, even on repeated viewings.
It should be noted that four time Academy Award winning filmmaker Joel Coen (of the Coen brothers) received his first screen credit on The Evil Dead for his work as an assistant editor of the film. He would later incorporate filming techniques created by Rami for his debut film, Blood Simple. So, if The Evil Dead is solid enough to be deemed worthy of Joel Coen’s time, it should be worthy of anyone’s.
2. Dead & Buried (1981)
How this film ended up on the video nasty is mind boggling. Oh yeah, that’s right, the people who made the list never watched it. If they had, they would know that Dead & Buried was nothing more than an R rated homage to The Twilight Zone and EC Comics, which pretty much sells it for any horror fan.
Dead & Buried follows a well educated police officer who has recently returned home to his small coastal town to become its sheriff. But things get weird when a mob of townsfolk begin murdering outsiders and the corpses inexplicably return to life as new citizens. Welcome to Potter’s Bluff, where nothing is as it seems.
With a script penned by Alien writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, Dead & Buried is more plot heavy than most horror films, keeps you guessing right up to the last frame, and sideswipes you with a twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan shed tears of jealousy.
With killer makeup by special effects wizard Stan Winston, and a stellar performance by Jack Albertson as the town’s enigmatic oddball mortician, it is truly one of the better horror films of the 1980’s.
3. The Burning (1981)
Although a relatively young subgenre, by 1981 the slasher film was running out of steam in terms of content and execution. Halloween and Black Christmas were among the first and best and what followed were often poor imitations of their former successors.
In 1980 Friday the 13th was released, and with the help of Paramount Pictures became an overnight success earning nearly $60 million in the worldwide box office on a mere $550,000 budget.
It made summer camp a staple location of horror films and anything that did the same was simply ripping it off, right? Well, yes, but the following year rookie filmmakers Bob and Harvey Weinstein took the summer camp slasher formula, turned it on its head, and made a (unfortunately) lesser known but superbly crafted horror film whose execution blows away Friday the 13th. Enter The Burning.
What separates The Burning from its counterparts is the fact that the filmmakers abandon the “whodunit,” or rather “whodoinit” formula. Instead, the killer is introduced to us during the opening of the film. We know who he is, and we know why he’s doing it.
Inspired by the urban legend of Cropsey, The Burning follows a group of campers being terrorized by a former caretaker of a neighboring camp who was recently released from a hospital after being horribly disfigured during a prank gone wrong five years prior. The kills are creative, exceptionally gory, and heinous. The cast (for the most part) has actual chemistry and their histories together are believable. The editing is superb which makes for a well paced and well balanced picture.
Consider the talent associated with this film. Sure, The Burning doesn’t have Kevin Bacon, but it was written and produced by Bob and Academy Award winner Harvey Weinstein, respectively, who would go on to oversee landmark films such as Pulp Fiction, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Gangs of New York and The Fighter.
It starred four-time Golden Globe nominee and seven-time Emmy nominee Jason Alexander. Academy Award winner and three-time nominee Holly Hunter even has a few lines in this one too.
Director of photography, Harvey Harrison, makes use of a moving camera, drawing the viewer into the unsettling perspective of the ill-fated campers, and once inside, we’re assaulted by the graphic carnage of Tom Savini, whose work on this film far surpasses his work on Friday the 13th. The Burning is a must-see for any slasher fan.
4. Inferno (1980)
Dario Argento’s Inferno is the second installment of his Three Mothers trilogy, following his magnum opus, Suspiria, and preceding his final lackluster installment, The Mother of Tears. It’s not his best film, but it most certainly isn’t his worst and is well worth the 105 minutes of run time.
When a young woman living in New York discovers an ancient text detailing the history of a coven of witches who rule the world, she begins to believe one of them dwells in her building, so she recruits her brother from Rome to help investigate. As the people around them are brutally murdered one by one, the investigation grows more bizarre and dangerous.
The kills in Inferno are as original as any Argento film, but what is most remarkable about the film is its pacing and tone. The entire film, from start to finish, emits and unrelenting sense of dread. It’s hypnotic in its pacing and its editing is both dreamlike and nightmarish.
Cinematographer, Romano Albani, at the direction of Argento, channels Mario Bava in his use of a gorgeous blue and pink color palate, and with Bava himself assisting, pulls off some incredible camera tricks, forcing the film to dip its toe into moody surrealism. Inferno should be on the list of any fan of Italian horror.
5. Bay of Blood (1971)
In 1971 nearing the end of his filmmaking career, Italian horror icon Mario Bava released his most violent and controversial film to date: Bay of Blood (also superbly titled, Twitch of the Death Nerve).
The film opens with an elderly woman’s wheelchair being kicked out from underneath her while being strangled by a noose at the hand of her husband. And just as soon as he off’s her, an unknown assailant stabs him to death. It’s a hell of an opening, and what follows is 80 minutes of the most captivatingly nonsensical plot ever filmed.
Seriously, this movie is so confusing it makes Chinatown look like Benji the Hunted. To put it simply, even though it’s not, it’s about a bunch of people trying to murder each other over the inheritance of a bay, and the final shot comes so far out of left-field your jaw will drop as you ask yourself “what the hell just happened?”
With a body count of 13 at 84 minutes of film, one person is killed, on average, every six-and-a-half minutes, so the creativity and rapid succession of carnage more than makes up for the incoherent plot. Historically, this film is largely regarded as the primary predecessor to the modern day slasher film and often appears on lists of most influential, as well as best horror films of all time. But you should decide that for yourself.
6. Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974)
It’s unfortunate that Jorge Grau’s Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is one of the lesser known zombie films to come out of the 1970’s. When a horror film, especially a zombie one, focuses on plot and theme rather than blood and guts it can often be overlooked by an audience in favor of a flick with more money-shots.
That’s not to say Let Sleeping Corpses Lie doesn’t have blood and guts – it most certainly does and was nastied for a reason – but its depictions of violence are restrained and only used when necessary. It’s a film with the ambition to communicate something social and political.
When two “hippie” strangers find themselves traveling the countryside together, they are inadvertently accused of a murder committed by a zombie brought back from the dead by a radioactive pesticide being used in the area. While they attempt to find the proof to clear their name they are pursued by a obstinate and sanctimonious detective who will stop at nothing to see them held responsible.
In the same way its predecessor, Night of the Living Dead, communicated socio-political themes, so did and does Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Refreshingly, its themes can still be considered relevant today. With two young, counter-culture protagonists fighting against an older, authoritative antagonist and the dangers of radioactive agriculture, it’s easy to see which side of the social spectrum the filmmakers fall under.
Both the detective and the government he represents are depicted as short-sighted in their unrelenting pursuit to conquer their agendas. Be it bringing the dead back to life in exchange for a lush countryside or a death sentence for two innocents in exchange for a sense of justice – ‘the man’ is the enemy.
And the most beautiful part is these themes are never discussed outright, but instead subconsciously communicated through story and imagery. A prime example of this direction is the juxtaposed image of zombies walking among a rich, green landscape provided by the Department of Agriculture. This film has craft and should be recognized for it.