As the social climate shifts and streaming services pull and edit movies to prevent any further backlash, it's an excellent time to look at banned films of the past. More specifically, the "Video Nasties," a slew of 72 films once deemed legitimately dangerous to young viewers by British Conservative activist Mary Whitehouse.
In 1983 during the emergence of VHS rentals, The UK's Director of Public Prosecution released a list of those films, under pressure from Whitehouse, as they were labeled to be in violation of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959.
Whitehouse, who essentially made it her job to instill paranoia about media's detriment to vulnerable viewers, coined the term "Video Nasty." Despite admitting she had never seen a single frame of the films she considered to be "nasty," Whitehouse was convinced the presence of these 72 titles on U.K. video store shelves was destined to turn children into sadists.
Of the 72 films listed, 39 were prosecuted and banned. It took until the 2000s for many of these movies to again see the light of day in their uncut forms.
Nearly all of the Video Nasties fall under the category of horror. In Whitehouse's words they're sadistic, obscene, immoral and evil. What she probably didn't understand at the time is those sorts of labels only make films more appealing to the average horror lover.
The Video Nasties range in notoriety, and vary greatly in quality. Many were incredibly low-budget, grainy flicks from little-known directors that relied on the shock of brutal violence, or other unsavory subject matter like rape and tortue. Other titles come from masters of the horror genre (that isn't to say they aren't also brutal in some sense.)
These flicks spread across a number of subgenres. A large portion of the Nasties can be considered slashers. Quite a few others are cannibal flicks, a subgenre that saw its heyday in the early 80s when Italian exploitation directors like Umberto Lenzi, Joe D'amato, and Ruggero Deodato really took to and ran with the idea of showing people having their parts devoured by other human beings. There's of course also a select few highly polarizing revenge flicks in the mix.
What each Nasty does have is a distasteful depiction or two that at least slightly merits the label "Video Nasty." Some films are obviously far more vile than others, while several seem tame by today's standards and beg the question, "How could get this banned?"
Let's have a look at the notorious Nasties that are actually worth your time. Many may already be familiar titles, given legends like Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, Argento, and Fulci landed themselves here. Other more obscure movies also might be known, at least to fans of sick cinema. My hope is at least a couple of these flicks are new to you. They certainly will be if you're not demented.
The Funhouse (1981)
We'll kick things off with one of my personal top 10 favorite horrors ever, and criminally underappreciated gem The Funhouse, directed by Tobe Hooper. In truth, it has no place being among the Video Nasties. It's even been speculated that it only landed on the list because Whitehouse confused The Funhouse with The Fun House, an alternate title for the far more disturbing film Last House On Dead End Street. The latter is a grisly, offensive for the sake of being offensive film that absolutely warrants a Video Nasty position, so it's safe to assume the rumors are true - Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse was included by mistake.
Nevertheless, it's an underseen chiller with a ripe for horror setting and spooky atmosphere that isn't short on scares. The flick follows teens as they spend the evening at a carnival where hellish events take place. It's mostly slasher, with a splash of paranormal. If you've ever wanted to see a deformed man in a Frankenstein mask murder an elderly fortune teller with large boobs after soliciting her for sex, this is your chance.
Last House On The Left (1972)
Last House On The Left is a monumental piece of terror for several reasons: For one, it gave Wes Craven a name. It broke away from the tired fantasy of creature features and haunted house flicks in depicting real, "this actually happens" horror; brutal horror at that. It also inspired several other almost carbon copy movies on the Video Nasty list, proving subject matter so violent and raw could actually pioneer a subgenre.
Last House On The Left is just as difficult to stomach today as it probably was upon release. More impressively, it manages to be a solid, artistically impressive film despite its horrific subject matter. As Roger Ebert so perfectly summarized it decades ago, it's "about four times as good as you'd expect." Craven took a risk in shooting a The Virgin Spring-inspired, less restrained horror in guerilla-esque style, but it works. So well that it remains one of the most uncomfortable flicks in history.
You can't make a list of "nasty" films without including the work of Lucio Fulci, and Zombie is one of 3 entries from the Italian gore-master. Fulci's answer to Dawn Of The Dead is still one of the nuttiest films in the undead canon, thanks mainly to a visually stunning scene showing a zombie fighting a shark. Though much of Zombie is silly by today's standards, it's still gory as hell and a fun watch. The graphic close-up of wood jutting through a woman's eyeball is probably what landed it on the list, but who's to say?
We'll smoothly transition into the other Fulci flicks (by stating we're transitioning.)
The Beyond (1981)
The most notable and critically acclaimed of Fulci's Gates of Hell trilogy, The Beyond is his quintessentially Fulci take on haunted house horror - eye gore, spiders, buckets of blood, and void of any hope ending included. The Beyond centers on a young woman who takes over a Louisiana hotel, where creepy, often violent occurrences begin plaguing her. Fulci has a true gift for shooting horrific moments beautifully, and that's on full display in The Beyond.
House By The Cemetery (1981)
House By The Cemetery usually gets the least mention among the Gates of Hell trilogy, and that's not necessarily fair considering The Beyond and City of the Living Dead are undebatable horror classics.
House By The Cemetery is very appropriately about a house by a cemetery. Specifically, it's about a house in which an unknown psycho dwells in the basement. It's a fantastic, creepy flick if you can ignore the atrocious dubbing going on with the child "Bob." As someone who consumes a shameful amount of Italian horror, even I can admit the kid's voice is a tad distracting. Regardless, House By The Cemetery is in fact Fulci - Very lacking in script, and packed to the brim with creepy sights, grossout antics, and stylish depictions of violence.
Its inclusion makes you wonder, why wasn't City of The Living Dead labelled a Nasty? Was a woman puking up her entrails not enough for these stiffs?
The Evil Dead (1981)
Sam Raimi made low-budget horror history with The Evil Dead, and paved the way for a campy cult horror franchise that's almost unrivaled in terms of fan appreciation. Given the over-the-top extreme violence and excessive use of blood, it's really no wonder The Evil Dead made it on the list. Plus we can't ignore the infamous tree-rape scene, which even Raimi has admitted he regrets.
A Bay Of Blood (1971)
Some call it the first slasher. Many would mark it one of the best giallos ever. High praise aside, A Bay of Blood is Italian horror master Mario Bava's bloodiest giallo, and particularly graphic in comparison to the rest of the subgenre. A Bay Of Blood is a brutal thriller throughout which you're not left to guess who's killing, you're merely curious who's going to survive. Bava uncharacteristically spares some atmosphere in favor of more blunt brutality, but it's still his still signature flare.
Dead and Buried (1981)
Like The Funhouse, Dead and Buried also ranks among my favorite horror films of all time, and it too is severely underrated. Additionally, its spot on the Video Nasty list is questionable. Dead and Buried is by no means a disgustingly violent film, nor does it depict anything heinous like rape. It's a through and through interesting take on the zombie genre, in which an eerie coastal town inhabited by cold locals plays a huge part in the overall creepiness. It's more atmospheric than it is shocking, and much of the film's effectiveness is due to a uniquely bizarre build. Don't watch Dead and Buried expecting a despicable Video Nasty. Go into it knowing you're about to witness a one-of-a-kind sci-fi zombie flick that's heavy on mood, in the vein of Messiah of Evil and even Carnival of Souls.
Island of Death (1976)
Let's get this fact out of the way first: Island of Death AKA Psychic Killer 2 is an awful film. I'll go so far as to call it an unbelievably shameful piece of trash. There's zero artistic merit about this Greek exploitation flick, and director Nico Mastorakis clearly made it either to cash out on a shock trend, or just for the sake of making something so contemptible. With that being said, Island of Death meets every single piece of Video Nasty criteria, and depicts any loathsome act you can imagine seeing on film. It's worth watching purely for how reprehensible it is.
Here's a rundown of what you're in for with Island of Death - An incestuous brother/sister duo head to the island of Mykonos to rid it of any and all sexual deviancy, yet act as complete sexual deviants in the process. Our lead fella has sex with a goat for no explainable reason, then proceeds to slit its throat. He forces his sister to have sex with guys, and photographs these sex acts while angrily referring to the dudes as "perverts" before killing them. It's the only film I can think of in which a man is killed by having paint dumped down his throat. As if the flick needed any more disgusting elements, it's terribly anti-gay. It's also ridiculously hateable to the point of being hilarious. If you need a laugh which you'll immediately feel very bad about, check out the unmatched garbage that is Island of Death.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust is The Godfather of sick cinema, and respected as such. It's a feat in found-footage horror. In fact, the newness of found footage in combination with real depictions of animal violence led many to believe that actors were actually harmed during the film's production. Though Deodato and others have confirmed none of the human violence was real, the animal abuse certainly was, and for that reason among others Cannibal Holocaust is a tough watch. Deodato didn't go on to make anything quite as notorious, but how could you? It spurred other cannibal films, and while that craze has died out we know very well how commonplace found footage horror is even today.
It's only a movie. You can remind yourself of that fact while watching, yet Cannibal Holocaust still exudes a snuff kind of feeling. That's the power of inventive filmmaking, I suppose.
Italian legend Dario Argento made possibly his biggest mark with Suspiria, but Tenebre is one of his more violent entries that's far more psychologically-involved than your average giallo. It offers an abundance of blood to please the gorehounds, yet it's authentically Argento in flare. Graphic as the kills may be, the moments between are so meticulously crafted. Top that off with a macabre early 80s Argento score, and you've got a hit shocker.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie a.k.a. The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (1974)
The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue is another terribly underrated flick that's not just superb for a nasty, it's worthy of being deemed a zombie classic. This Spanish undead romp, set in the British countryside, follows 2 hippies wrongfully accused of a string of murders. All the while, pesticides being used on farmland are turning people into rabid lunatics.
The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue is a brilliant exercise in atmosphere. It has its share of bloody kills, though not to a Fulci extent, as mood does most of the horrifying heavy lifting. The zombies here are subtle, and scarier for it. The countryside makes for a gorgeous yet grim setting to escape to. It's also drenched in that right amount of 70s strange.
Eaten Alive (1976)
Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive is the kind of film you need to take a shower after watching. It oozes sleaze and contains historic levels of violence, in addition to some rather unpleasant sexual acts. It's everything you could hope for from a film about a sadistic hotel owner who feeds victims to his pet alligator. Repulsive as it may be, Robert Englund is fun to watch as a horned up psycho hick.
If you're somebody who needs your fix of cinematic indecency, Eaten Alive might just fulfill that. As a follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre it's severely sophomoric and disappointing, but it's sick and shlocky enough to maintain your perverse interest.
The Burning (1981)
I've included The Burning on so many lists I've lost track. I try to wedge in this gory gem wherever applicable, because more horror fans need to see it. While Friday The 13th is the most renowned woodsy summer camp slasher, The Burning is debatably better.
As for it being labelled a nasty...that's fair. The Burning is particularly graphic, even for a slasher, and the scissor kill may be what sent in from standard 80s slasher into Nasty territory. Despite it hitting on all the run of the mill slasher tropes, it exceeds every expectation. The kills are bloodier. The characters are slightly more hashed out than your average 80s horny teen. There's also a palpable feeling of dread throughout, rather than just being slash 'em up after slash 'em up with zero effort to construct a feeling. Plus, the butt of the horror takes place in the daytime, and there's something especially unsettling about horrific murders going down at a scenic summer camp in broad daylight. A final selling point - young Jason Alexander with hair.
Inferno is the second of Argento's Three Mothers trilogy, following Suspiria. Although it's not in the same league as Suspiria (few films are,) Inferno does have that all-too Argento pink and blue look and surreal feel.
After a young girl in New York uncovers an ancient text which describes a coven of witches who rule the world, she becomes convinced one of them is living in her building. She enlists her brother in Rome to help with the investigation, and the bodies begin piling up as their searches grow deeper.
The script is slightly incoherent, but that's hardly a hiccup for fans of Italian horror. If you're interested in an outing that brings imaginative kills, a hypnotic mood, and a darkly fantastic score, Inferno is a must-see.
House on The Edge of The Park (1980)
Buckle up, sickos, you're in for a Last House On The Left knockoff that's more vile than its inspiration. Cannibal Holocaust director Rogero Deadato gives us some highly questionable art, here. The concept is so reprehensible it shouldn't work, but Deadato transforms what should be pure exploitation into something memorably disturbing, and dare I say respectable.
House On The Edge Of The Park follows a psycho and his learning-disabled buddy who get invited to a posh party in a New Jersey mansion. Their presence is to be ridiculed, given their lower class status, but the jeering doesn't go on for long. Matters quickly turn sadistic.
For a home invasion/torture flick, it's layered, and meaningful commentary on class lays beneath the revolting acts. Our villains, who shouldn't be anything but detested, do merit sympathy.
There's no gore to be seen in House On The Edge Of The Park, so if it's blood you seek you're in the wrong place. There is, however, an onslaught of uncomfortable rape scenes. Needless to say, this isn't for everybody. If you can sit through horrific shit you're met with a final, ridiculous twist, and whether you condone it or not you won't forget it.
I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
I won't give this film an extensive write-up, because quite honestly I hate it. It's the only film I've ever had to turn off midway through out of disgust, but for that very reason many of you might find yourselves intrigued. I, a lover of the most disturbing flicks in existence, couldn't swallow this revenge pill.
Some viewers don't mind overly long, almost intimately shot rape scenes. They aren't put off by mistreatment of autistic adults. If you identify with this hypothetical group of maniacs I'm describing, I Spit On Your Grave could be worth your time. Above all else it's a revenge movie, although I couldn't make it to the revenge. You possibly can (just don't watch it on a first or second date.)
Don't Look In The Basement (1973)
Here we have an extremely early 70s (thus weird) little low-budget slow-burner that's widely disliked yet far better than most are giving it credit for. It was originally released to drive-ins on a double-bill with Last House On The Left, and many believe it was solely named a Nasty for that reason.
Don't Look In The Basement tells the story of a young nurse who takes a job at an asylum where patients are free to do as they please, and what a colorful cast of characters these patients are. There's a nympho, a veteran with severe PTSD, a gross guy who laughs incessantly, a killer lady who cares for a doll, and a slew of other unlikable psychos. The nurse soon suspects something grim is going on behind the scenes.
The acting is strange, to put it simply. The low-budget makes for additional creepiness. There's something uniquely ominous and strangely good about Don't Look In The Basement, but that something is hard to place. The film offers not a sliver of hope, and it could be that lack of anything cheerful or even normal that makes it pleasingly unpleasant.
The Driller Killer (1979)
Abel Ferrara's first film, Driller Killer, is a look into one man's violent descent into madness in late 70s New York. It's grainy and grindhouse; gorey as all get out, and utterly depraved. While it's a passable slasher and very dark comedy, it's more obviously the work of an ambitious young filmmaker with very little money who wanted to stir up controversy by serving up shocking trash. For most, Driller Killer is nothing more than a guilty please, or a sickening trip down memory lane for those who romanticize the early 80s punk scene.
A sordid drama that can easily be misconstrued as horror, Possession is Andrzej Zulawski's tale of *very* disturbing marital troubles. Without giving away too many details Isabelle Adjani stars as Anna, who spontaneously decides she wants a divorce and insists it's not due to infidelity. Turns out she's seeing a man, and something not quite a man.
Adjani commits wholeheartedly to this bizarre role, and Sam Neill gives a hell of a performance as well. Possession's greatest strength is the performances from our leads, and the reliance on being just flat out strange. It's a puzzling flick, to say the least. One might even call it frustrating. Whether you're satisfied with the wrap-up or not, you'll at least be thoroughly disturbed along the way.
Don't Go In The House (1979)
On the surface, Don't Go In The House is a pretty derivative slasher about a man who falls victim to psychosis after the death of his mother, and begins luring women back to his home where he burns them alive. Beneath the service, it isn't much beyond what was just described, but it's hilariously violent and actually well-acted. Don't Go In The House plays into the commonly seen "man with overly protective mother goes crazy" trope, and isn't pretending to do anything else. The first kill is horrifically unforgettable. Nothing after lives up to it, but for that death alone this is a sick flick worthy of a late-night viewing.
Night Warning a.k.a Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1983)
Also known by its exhaustingly long title "Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker," Night Warning is a deeply psychological, above average slasher about an orphaned boy whose sexually-frustrated aunt loses her marbles and turns violent. It's like a late 70s soap opera with gruesome murder an over-the-top homophobia thrown in. Susan Tyrell is completely unhinged as Aunt Cheryl, and a delight to watch. It also features one of Bill Paxton's earliest performances. Obscure mania that all should look into.