Saturday, 22 November 2008

Last House on the Left

Director: Wes Craven
Writer: Wes Craven
USA, 1972

In interviews Wes Craven expresses regret about some aspects of his first feature, feeling it was too coldly horrific. I agree there are problems, but the middle section of the film, which views the brutal torment of two female victims of a criminal gang with impressive detachment, isn't one of them.

Rather his pussyfooting around the subject, expressed in cuts from the violence to the victims' families and annoying comedy policeman sequences, detract from the cold, drawn-out torture and murder of the two young women which makes this film such a classic. It is only in the final stages of their long suffering that the stupid music and pointless scene cutting finally stops, and it is testament to the power of the scene that it is the one the film is remembered by – in beautiful Autumn woodland, pathetic physical dominance of man over woman is rendered with the unflinching attitude to violence it deserves.

Much talk of Last House on the Left concentrates on its retelling of Ingmar Bergman's “The Virgin Spring”; but this is a distraction, a directorial flourish that has little to do with the film itself. More interesting is Craven's insistence on placing a female character in the gang that carries out the misogynistic murders – Why? Is this a way of distancing himself from what goes on in his film? It doesn't make sense. She is only there to salve the director's conscience and deflect the inevitable criticism films like this receive.

Craven's strengths as an action horror director are revealed in the later revenge scenes, where chainsaws and cut-throat daggers are wielded in quick-fire cuts of exciting physicality. This is the director who made “A Nightmare on Elm Street”: action filled, fun and gory. It's a preview of eighties Hollywood slashers in all their daft glory.

Last House on the Left is a mess, but interesting all the same. The actual horror is horrific and deservedly notorious, yet infused with a strange reluctance on the director's part. The action of the final scenes is effective and Craven seems much more comfortable with that style of film. But given the power of that Autumn woodland scene, who knows what a director of his skill could have come up with if it was the other way round.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Zombie Flesh Eaters

Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Elisa Brigante and Dardano Sacchetti
USA/Italy 1979

Not one I was looking forward to watching again to be honest, but on second viewing it wasn't that bad at all (maybe my quality threshold has lowered since starting this blog). Nicely summed up by Mark Kermode while listing zombie movies to watch for Halloween in his latest BBC Radio 5 podcast as “Rubbish, but not bad rubbish”, Zombie Flesh Eaters is pretty much what you'd expect from a zombie movie, with some iconic scenes thrown in.

It's set largely on the Caribbean island fiefdom of a mad doctor, whose experiments with the living dead have left him with a makeshift hospital of full of chained-up zombies. Unusually for a zombie film actual voodoo legend explains the chaos, while a functional plot is used to string together gory set pieces in proper exploitation fashion. The most well-known of these, the infamous eyeball scene, is joined by undead Conquistadors rising from their graves, a gory gut-eating scene that pre-dates Romero's Day of the Dead, and nothing less than an underwater fight between a zombie and a shark, done with a lot more flair and technical expertise than you'd imagine. 

In fact, where it matters – the gore scenes – Zombie Flesh Eaters' production values are pretty high, and will have the squeamish covering their eyes. This being Fulci there's also plenty of nudity, with the gorgeous Auretta Gay getting her kit off more than once. There's certainly enough going on to keep you interested.

It doesn't get boring, the zombies keep on coming, and in my opinion Zombie Flesh Eaters vies with its sequel City of the Living Dead, a film which somehow escaped the BBFC's attentions, as Fulci's best. Both films are scored by Fabio Frizzi, whose strident yet melancholy electronic music is amongst the best in Italian exploitation cinema.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Death Trap, aka Eaten Alive

Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Alvin L Fast, Kim Henkel and Mardi Rustam
USA 1977

From the best film on the list so far to the worst - and both by the same director.

It's difficult to say just what makes Death Trap so bad, but its early promise is certainly a factor. With a decent budget to spend Hooper shoots on a fake, creepy Deep South swampland set, all dry ice swirling mists and red light district lighting. It kicks off with an anal sex-obsessed redneck driving a woman out of a whorehouse and into the clutches of a psychotic Norman Bates-style hotel owner, played by Neville Brand, and his pet alligator. What follows has all Hooper's trademarks - a well thought-out sound design of nighttime crickets and croaking frogs, mixed with a few jungle sounds and synth squelches for good measure; looming wide-angle close-ups and scenes shot from odd angles; bad trip atmosphere; a signature over-the-top crazed redneck performance from Neville Brand. But it just doesn't gel.

For a start there isn't any tension. The film uses fight and chase scenes right from the beginning and never slows or ups the pace, the result a constant and profoundly irritating Keystone Cops effect as people run up and down stairs and round and round the hotel. This is broken up in places by character exposition as people arrive at the hotel, but none of the characters are interesting or sympathetic. I felt indifferent to them, and couldn't engage with the film.

Worst of all though is that Hooper has descended into self-parody. The hysterical if-you-don't-laugh-you'll-cry humour of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been replaced by the dreaded knowing wink of irony. Everything is just a bit too silly or played up for the camera, and the dialogue is shouted and stagey. Towards the end a horribly misjudged sequence copies an iconic scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to little point or effect. It smacks of desperation, and you realise Hooper must have really struggled to follow his 1974 classic.

Hooper fans quite like Death Trap and I'm going against the grain in finding it so bad. So much so in fact that I've sat through this tedious and disjointed mess twice thinking I might have missed something, both times resorting to drink to get me through, glancing at the clock and praying for it to end. Without the low budget charm of other terrible films on the Video Nasty list, Death Trap leaves you with nothing to think about, nothing to laugh at, and no reason for it to be so bad. The sad thing is that it was probably more of a disappointment to its director after his amazing debut than to his fans, and it shows.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


I started this blog as a more focused and hopefully more interesting version of what I originally wanted to do, which was to review every single film I saw. Fortunately "microblogging" site has arrived, giving me the opportunity to do that in a pithy, one-sentence form that appeals to my love of keeping it short and to the point.

So if you'd like to see what I think of the other films I watch, along with my opinions on lots of other stuff I know nothing about, come and follow me!

Saturday, 11 October 2008

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper
USA 1974

The first time I saw this film, alone in the middle of the night, I received a phone call halfway through from a friend who thought she was being followed after getting out of a taxi. Staying on the phone with her while she found a police station with Leatherface’s chainsaw screaming in the background isn’t something I’ll forget in a hurry.

At the time the film had an almost holy mystique after being banned in the UK for so long. I was filled with anticipation and dread before watching it - and the unfortunate events of the night aside, it scared me rigid. Last month I picked up an uncut DVD version for three quid in my local Tesco. How times change.

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is the most respected, most influential and probably the most frightening film on the list. It excels in every area. The camera work is astonishing in its originality, the direction tight, the pacing unique. It eschews the traditional murky, dark tones of the time in favour of dripping colour, sunsets and sunrises providing a lurid background to the horror. And that horror hits you like a smack in the face, an abrupt switch part-way through the film that doesn’t let up until the very end.

Hooper uses unusual camera techniques – low level tracking shots, burnt-out lens flare, wide-angle lenses for closeups – to create a deeply unsettling, claustrophobic atmosphere. There are iconic scenes throughout – the blood-soaked, sobbing figure of actress Marilyn Burns as she is tracked at low-angle through sun-parched undergrowth; an extreme close-up of her terrified, fluttering eye; Leatherface's psychotic dance in front of a blinding sun. It's all shot on colour-drenched 16mm film, high-contrast and hyperreal, with an amazing sound design of chugging diesel generators, gibbering madmen and incessant, terrified screaming.

The subject matter and rural setting are commonplace nowadays but were unusual at the time. No-one had thought to exploit the city audience's fear of that other America of the isolated, inbred redneck. Hooper does it expertly, and though the formula has been imitated many times it's never been topped. There's even a queasy humour in there, hysterical in the literal sense, hardly ever commented on because the horror swamps it so utterly.

And it is absolutely terrifying. The speed at which the horror appears and then attacks with double-punches of cinematic shock and sickening cruelty leaves you breathless. The body count mounts so rapidly it seems the film must run out of steam but it doesn't, switching expertly to the drawn-out torment of a single character and a bleak, soul-destroying finale.

It's almost an insult to call this masterpiece a horror film, relegating it to the ghetto of the genre movie where it has never received the mainstream critical acclaim it deserves. But it is a horror film through and through, building on those that came before it and sticking to the same claustrophobic, tension-building formula that makes previous classics like “The Birds” and “Night of the Living Dead” so effective. It's proof that the horror genre is a vital and innovative part of cinema, driving the industry and giving it much-needed kicks up the arse, while remaining resolutely underground, independent and subversive.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


The guys over at Horroretc recorded a nice, long podcast a couple of weeks ago covering a selection of films they deem to be the most shocking of the exploitation genre: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust, I Spit on Your Grave and Thriller (the Swedish rape-revenge film, not Michael Jackson's admittedly brilliant music video).

The Horroretc guys are great reviewers, and I was pleased at their recognition of the use of sound as a horror device in a lot of these films - notably the constant hum of the generator in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Cannibal Holocaust's incongruous, gently melancholic soundtrack, which adds a dimension of sadness to the all-out gore.

They see these films as grueling, difficult and very effective horror movies, but otherwise opine that they have little merit - before going on to contradict themselves in long discussions about possible meaning and director intent. This is most notable their review of I Spit on Your Grave, which they dismiss as despicable before descending into a heated discussion about its possible feminist angle. I love the way I Spit on Your Grave provokes this discussion every single time, without fail.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

The New York Ripper

Director: Lucio Fulci
Writers: Gianfranco Clerici and Lucio Fulci
Italy 1982

Not strictly a Video Nasty this one, as it was banned prior to the 1984 Video Recordings Act and doesn't appear on the list. Nevertheless it’s a banned horror movie from the same era: a gory crime thriller in the Italian giallo tradition, with a dubious line in misogyny which somehow manages to stay just the right side of hateful.

The film tracks a Manhattan serial killer, following the movements of his victims and the police before revealing his identity in classic whodunit fashion. The serial killer's shtick is to quack and talk like a duck - actually pretty effective - the reasons for which are hurriedly and confusedly explained at the end of the film.

His victims are women and the murders sexualised, a stripper getting bottled in the vagina being one memorable scene. An extensive sub-plot follows a married woman’s risky sexual escapades and is quite well treated in the context of erotic cinema of the time, her inevitable comeuppance slightly off-key and ambiguous. The film’s best scene is a drawn-out erotic encounter she has in a seedy bar where she battles her lust and propriety at one and the same time, pulled between the two, neither winning.

The location work in “The New York Ripper” made the film for me. Fulci uses the old, grimy New York of the early 1980s to great effect, shooting on the Staten Island Ferry and in rotting tenement blocks; Puerto Rican bars and the mean streets of Lower Manhattan; and best of all, in the live sex shows and grindhouse cinemas of 42nd Street - a fine piece of self-reference that must have made the film a joy to see in those self-same theatres. Like a lot of these old horror films, it left me nostalgic for a time I never knew.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Should psychotics be allowed to watch horror films?

According to the Guardian a dangerous man in psychiatric care built up a collection of horror films while in hospital, and was accompanied to the cinema to watch horror films, before going on to rape a fourteen year-old girl - something that has played a significant part in his trial and upset relatives of the victim.

One does wonder what the hospital’s policy was. That he was also allowed to build up a collection of pornography is perhaps more perplexing. However, in the absence of any evidence that links horror films to actual violence, a hospital policy that refused access to horror films would have its basis in something other than medical science, and could possibly be an infringement of a patient’s rights.

It’s a difficult issue. Should psychiatric hospitals err on the side of caution despite the evidence, or do psychiatric patients have a right to access the same media as the rest of us? Of course, as the man in question had killed before and had a history of violence, his access to horror films may have no relevance at all.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Sexy Nazis

In response to the Max Mosely vs News of the World trial and in particular Mosely's claim that he can "can think of few things more unerotic than Nazi role play", critic Danny Leigh has written a short piece about sexy Nazis in film on the Guardian website. Unfortunately he's missed out the Video Nasties, but readers' comments fill in the gaps with mentions of "SS Experiment Camp" and "Love Camp 7" (as well as the classic Two Ronnies series-within-a-series "The Worm that Turned", much to my delight).

I didn't find "SS Hell Camp" in the slightest bit sexy, but should mention that lead actress Macha Magall did look pretty hot in an SS uniform.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The Funhouse

Director: Tobe Hooper
Writer: Lawrence Block
USA 1981

"The Funhouse" is a fairly traditional horror offering from Tobe Hooper, but one that nonetheless allows him to explore his love of gaudy, redneck Americana - in this case a creepy carnival that comes to town, much to the the delight of a group of pot smoking teenagers who decide to spend the night there. The carnival set-up is handled as expertly as you'd expect from Hooper, it being just his sort of thing, with unsettling sideshows, grotesque characters and (my favourite) what appear to be genuine deformed cows in an animal freakshow.

However "The Funhouse" takes quite a while to get going, and when it does it isn't a patch on "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre". Apart from an agonising chase scene set in the mechanical innards of a ghost train ride, there just isn't that much in the way of thrills. It's actually quite a slow film. Not necessarily a bad thing of course, but in this case it jars with the gaudy horror theme.

It's widely thought that Hooper lost his way after "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre", or even that it was a chance movie and he actually isn't that great a director. What can't be denied though is that his peculiar take on America has been a big influence on contemporary horror. It is great to watch a film like "The Funhouse" and see where the ideas in Rob Zombie's and Eli Roth's films come from. Unfortunately though, away from that colourful redneck vibe "The Funhouse" is a pretty boring and unremarkable mainstream horror movie.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

SS Hell Camp, aka The Beast in Heat

Director: Luigi Batzella
Writers: Luigi Batzella and Lorenzo Artale
Italy 1977

I didn't think there'd be anything on the Video Nasty list so tasteless it actually deserves to be banned, but it's hard to defend this Italian Nazi exploitation movie. The plot, for what it's worth, has a saucy female SS guard inject a caged man with a serum that turns him into a rampant sex beast. The beast is then used to torment the wives and girlfriends of local partisans, so they confess to their activities. The film ends with a partisan raid on the SS camp, and the tables being turned on the female SS guard.

I'm not going to be coy about what makes this film so distasteful. Several scenes are very unpleasant to watch. In the opening sequence, the caged beast rapes a woman to death, the rape continuing into necrophilia after her death. Later in a Nazi raid on a nearby village a woman is shot in the pubis by an SS guard. The following scene has a woman being tortured with electrodes on her vagina as she is strapped to a table. This isn't subtly done - her vagina is in full view and fake blood runs down her thighs. Later the caged beast eats parts of a woman's pubis while she is still alive. The film ends with the female SS guard getting her "comeuppance" by being raped to death by the beast in the cage.

To a certain extent these scenes are mitigated by appalling special effects. There is a lot of underpant wearing and flaccid tackle waggling about in the rape scenes, the fake blood is bright red and copiously splashed about, and in purely visual terms the scene where the beast eats the woman's pubis is farcical. But it is the casual misogyny of this sexualised violence that is disturbing, not its realism. No matter how obviously faked a female corpse dripping in blood being raped is, it is still an upsetting sight. And a screaming woman undergoing vaginal torture is about as much as I can take, no matter how bad the acting or props.

What makes this worse is a lack of context. These scenes, and indeed the film itself, have no point, aim or agenda. It is pure exploitation. There is nothing wrong with exploitation for its own sake - I wouldn't be writing this blog if I thought there was - but in this case the exploitation is of sexual violence towards women explicitly for the titillation of a male audience.

This sets "SS Hell Camp" apart from other contentious films on the Video Nasty list. While opinions on, for example, I Spit On Your Grave's artistic merit vary, it is at least controversial. Its subtleties, presentation and revenge-driven plot provoke debate about a difficult subject. "The Beast in Heat" however is just badly-made, violent pornography, any merit lying solely in the unintentional humour that so often runs through films of its ilk.

"SS Hell Camp" is of course still banned in the UK. Despite an innate feeling that a film this ridiculous shouldn't be censored in such a heavy-handed manner, I find it virtually impossible to defend. But more than that I wonder about a film audience that made exploitation cinema like this a viable business model in the first place. This is an audience that no doubt nowadays finds its kicks in the darker corners of the internet. Just how big is it?

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Evil That Men Do

Another mention of Teeth in yesterdays Guardian, this time in a feature by Kira Cochrane on rape-revenge cinema. Cochrane is left feeling uneasy by Teeth and goes on to discuss films such as Thelma and Lousie, Dirty Weekend, Ms 45 and inevitably, I Spit On your Grave.

Given her problems with Teeth I wasn't expecting her to enjoy I Spit On Your Grave, but she is surprisingly positive. She thinks cuts made by the BBFC may have improved the film by abstracting its long and difficult rape scene into shots of the assailants' and victim's faces, which is an interesting point. I've just ordered the uncut Region 1 version of the film, having watched the cut version on release here in the UK a couple of times, and am looking forward to seeing how different it is.

A few months ago Lionel Shriver, also writing in the Guardian, reviewed I Spit On Your Grave in a feature about the possible reviving of the Video Nasty list that I missed at the time. She took a less charitable view of the film, inexplicably describing it as the "Lamest Picture Ever Banned" (she obviously hasn't seen Night of the Bloody Apes), adding that "the film's quasi-feminist message of female empowerment is merely an excuse for prurience."

If nothing else, it's good to see that I Spit On Your Grave is still dividing critics after all these years.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Warm, Rubbery Love of Video Nasties

Mark Kermode expounds on the delights of Video Nasties in the latest edition of the Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo Radio 5 Live podcast, while reviewing the interesting-sounding satirical horror movie Teeth. The film reminds the Good Doctor of the Video Nasty era, and he opines how nice it was of the BBFC to put all that wonderful, trashy horror on an easy-to-follow list - giving particular mention to The Witch Who Came From The Sea, which he reckons would have sunk into undeserved obscurity if it wasn't for the BBFC. It's nice to have your opinions confirmed by someone as brainy as Kermode.

Friday, 13 June 2008


"Filth", the Julie Walters biopic of Mary Whitehouse shown on BBC2 a couple of weeks ago, generated a fair bit of comment in the press and was warmly received. The dramatisation followed the early years of her campaigning, and didn’t stretch as far as the Video Nasty era.

A rehabilitation of sorts, “Filth” concerned itself with Mary Whitehouse the person, presenting a human side to the famously single-minded media campaigner, and her admittedly courageous confrontations with the then totally unaccountable BBC. She was portrayed as a plucky, slightly batty English eccentric with some rather old-fashioned beliefs.

To get a better insight into Whitehouse I went down to the BFI on London’s South Bank to make use of their new public access archives, where I found an earlier BBC film, an Everyman documentary from 1977 called “Blasphemy at the Old Bailey.” This impressively simple and informative film followed the trial of the British gay newspaper Gay News for its publication of the poem “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name”, famously the only work of literature still banned in the UK*, a prosecution brought by Mary Whitehouse.

“Blasphemy at the Old Bailey” reports on Whitehouse’s reasons for bringing her prosecution against Gay News in a series of short interviews. Here we see the Christian morals skated over in “Filth” explored, and they are frighteningly narrow and small-minded. She talks of the people involved in Gay News as “people who have turned their back on Christ” who strike at the very heart of the public, as “religious feelings are a person’s essence.” The trial was “somewhere where the great spiritual truths of Christendom are being fought out.” “I did what I did in the name of the Lord.”

The poem is about a Roman centurion who has sex with the dead body of Christ, an act through which he finds salvation. Although like most art its message is ambiguous, it is not a difficult piece of work. It juxtaposes its shocking content with love and spiritual ecstasy. Whilst technically necrophilic sex with the body of Christ is quite obviously blasphemous, in the poem that blasphemy is comprehensibly undermined by religious redemption.

That Mary Whitehouse didn’t understand this shows her disinterest in the subject she devoted her life to. Art was alien to her: all she saw were selected affronts to her values leaping from the page, their context lost. She completely misunderstood the things she read and watched. Yet Whitehouse dictated the censorship debate in Britain for decades, and was instrumental in the creation of the Video Nasty list - amongst much worse things of course, the sentencing of the editor of Gay News for Blasphemy being one.

In some ways Julie Walters’ affectionate dramatisation is fair enough. Now she’s gone, we can chuckle at Whitehouse’s crusade and be thankful things aren’t like that any more. But we shouldn't forget that through a mixture of arrogance, stupidity and hatred Mary Whitehouse did serious damage to the arts in Britain.


*The last piece of literature to be banned in the UK was the 1989 novel “Lord Horror” by David Britton, a gay sadomasochistic vision of an alternative Nazi-ruled UK which libeled the then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton. The ban was later overturned.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008


Director: Luigi Cozzi
Writer: Luigi Cozzi
Italy 1980

One of a handful of science fiction films on the list, Contamination starts promisingly with a helicopter flight over New York, featuring shots of the same Roosevelt Island housing projects that provide the setting for the US version of Dark Water. Excitingly the credits promise an appearance by Ian McCulloch, though to my disappointment this turned out to be some actor and not the floppy-haired founder of 1980s indie band Echo and the Bunnymen.

One of many films of the time inspired by Alien – including John Carpenter's superb The Thing and the gloriously silly British sci-fi horror Inseminoid – Contamination dispenses with internal logic and ups the gore, the result being what at first seems to be a very watchable, surprisingly pacey piece of B-movie fun. As in Alien, acid blood and bursting stomachs play a part, though ingeniously a mere touch of the alien blood in Contamination causes you to literally explode - a filmic device used as frequently as you’d hope.

Unfortunately, after about half an hour of pulsating alien eggs and exploding scientists Contamination loses its way and turns into a boring thriller. There are a couple more decent scenes and it is almost rescued by the daft finale, but ultimately Contamination is a disappointing experience, especially after such a promising start.

Some mention should be made of Goblin, the Italian prog rock band who provide the soundtrack to so many Italian Video Nasties, as this is the first film I’ve reviewed that features them. Though not up to the amazing standards set by the soundtracks to Tenebrae and Suspiria, the music and abstract sound effects in Contamination are well above average and make the long stretches of tedium that little bit more bearable.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008


Julie Walters is to play Mary Whitehouse, the most famous and outspoken critic of horror movies in the early 1980s and one of the driving forces behind the Video Nasty list, in a BBC2 play on Wednesday 28th of May at 9pm. Although I’m obviously not a great fan of Whitehouse and her moralist Christian agenda, I don’t know much about her and look forward to seeing it.

In a Daily Mail article Walters, formerly a critic of Whitehouse, says she softened her opinion of her a little while researching the part, citing early campaigning against that all-pervasive modern bogeyman, child pornography. I’ll reserve judgement for now.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Fight For Your Life

Director: Robert A Endelson
Writer: Straw Weisman
USA 1977

This is a very controversial film, and the only film from the Video Nasty list I’ve seen so far that’s still banned in the UK. "Fight For Your Life"’s notoriety doesn’t derive from its violence – though there’s plenty of that – but from its racially inflammatory content. Following the ordeal of a middle-class black family held hostage in their home by a racist gang, "Fight for Your Life" promised to actually shock, and I approached it with some trepidation. I seriously wasn’t expecting the powerful, courageous political work I was about to see.

The first thing to strike me about the film was its surprisingly high production values. Directed, edited and shot professionally with real artistic flare on high-quality film, this is about as far from "Night of the Bloody Apes" as you can get. The actors can actually act, and the dialogue is nothing short of superb – central to its success in dealing with its controversial subject matter.

"Fight For Your Life" is not a racist film. That it was released under the name "Getting Even" in cinemas in black areas of American cities more than hints at its resolution. Throughout the film clever and thoughtful scenes turn the tables on the kidnappers as they torment the family; with the father, a liberal Christian clergyman, showing civilised restraint at odds with the racial stereotypes held by the gang.

The language is strong, but we live in an age desensitised to the use of the word “nigger” in the arts - though thankfully we rarely hear it from a white mouth nowadays. Worse are scenes where the family are forced to act out racial stereotypes, for example being forced to tap-dance and sing at gunpoint. The way this is turned around on the captors is a clever, subtle and moving piece of cinema, and places this film miles above most of the others on the Video Nasty list.

Much of the violence is relatively mild - punches are quite obviously pulled – but there are a couple of very strong scenes, and one in particular is very shocking and would never make it past the British censors. But like "The Witch Who Came From the Sea", this is an unusual film that bluntly tackles the social issues of its day; though unlike "The Witch Who Came From the Sea", it is well structured, directed and acted, and tackles its subject matter with measured, well thought-out intelligence rather than the unsubtle cosh of cod surrealism.

I watched this film weeks ago and have struggled to write a review that does it justice. While I can see why it is still banned in this country for its inflammatory content, I despair that something this socially intelligent – and perhaps more importantly, so direct – isn’t available to a wider audience.

There are some Video Nasties that go beyond the joy of trash and are truly great: "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre", "Evil Dead", "Last House On The Left". This criminally ignored film joins them as one of the best films from the list, though in this case for its social comment rather than its horror.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Mondo movies and video games

Ben Howard and Dan Auty over at Mondo Movie make a brief mention of British media scares around violent films in their latest podcast, in this case the furore that surrounded the release of Man Bites Dog, Reservoir Dogs and the Bad Lieutenant in 1992. Ben and Dan are steeped in exploitation cinema and have a much longer relationship with it than I have, having been part of the ‘zine scene in the 1980s and 1990s, and seem quite unconcerned about these panics. Their take is that these things happen from time to time and never amount to much.

They point out that violent video games are now taking much of the attention away from violent films, most recently illustrated by censorial dithering and media outcry over Manhunt 2, which has finally been granted a release. Most of the fuss around video games seems to be centred on their availability to children. New laws are being mooted which will toughen up present regulations on selling violent video games to children under 18.

This is a welcome change in the parameters of the debate. Whereas in the past films were banned because of the possibility they could fall into children’s hands, now talk is of tougher policing of 18 certificates, stiffer fines for retailers and the possibility of prosecuting parents who buy 18 certificate games for their children. This much more sensible approach treats adults as adults while protecting children, and is to be welcomed.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Night of the Bloody Apes

Director: René Cardona
Writers: René Cardona and René Cardona Jr
Mexico 1972

"Night of the Bloody Apes" is a Mexican exploitation piece from 1972, with all the appalling production values that suggests. There are occasional bursts of unintended humour – not least that to be had by emphasising the “bloody” in the title – but overall this dull, simplistic film has little going for it. The version I watched, a Satanica VHS release from the late 1990s, is apparently cut by one minute, but even so it’s difficult to see how this incredibly cheap film could provide any real gore or scares.

The plot is basic Frankenstein stuff. A mad surgeon replaces his terminally ill son’s heart with that of a gorilla, which transforms him into a half-man, half ape creature - or at least a man in cracked, slathered on makeup who makes silly growling noises. In the build up to the transformation, the unfortunate gorilla is portrayed by a man in a particularly bad monkey suit alternated with stock footage of an orang-utan. And yes, there’s only one bloody ape, despite the title’s claim otherwise. Inevitably the ape-man goes on the rampage, dispatching with canoodling couples in the park, before a predictable King Kong finale.

None of the gore in the version I saw was worse than the average Hammer Horror, and I find it difficult to see why this film had to be banned. I can only conclude the BBFC took one look at the title and, realising no one would care, put it on the list anyway. Appalling behavior outside any sensible definition of a censor’s remit, but it’s hard to argue they did us a disservice.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Witch Who Came from the Sea

Director: Matt Cimber
Writer: Robert Thom
USA 1976

From rape to castration on the ever-cheerful videonastyproject blog! As well as the aforementioned emasculation, group sex, paedophilia and laughably small quantities of Class C drugs abound in this low-budget 1976 indie, but it is by no means the trash the censors apparently thought.

The title is from Botticelli’s "The Birth of Venus", a witch born in the sea of the water-borne sperm of a castrated god. A reproduction of the painting adorns the wall of one of the sleazy men the heroine, Molly, castrates throughout the film as she moves through the poisoned idyll of California beach life.

"The Witch Who Came from the Sea" is a blunt, direct, overtly feminist film. The exploitation genre’s usual disregard for acting and character development in this case works in the film’s favour, with Molly as a cipher for an entire sex’s revenge on the latent need for dominance in male sexuality. The supposedly liberal sexual mores of the time are exposed as a male-centric confidence trick, as any sexual aggression on the promiscuous Molly’s part is answered with snarled exclamations of “bitch”, “cocksucker” and most regularly and memorably, “cunt” – but Molly is no victim, and everyone gets their comeuppance.

It’s interesting that Molly’s sexual conquests never cross the line into rape – instead, their sexism is in the context of love play, their grinning faces oblivious to the offence they are causing. It isn’t one-dimensional either, tenderness often preceding and following outbursts of misogyny. In a refreshing role-reversal, it’s the men who are the lost, fucked-up, delicate little flowers in this horror movie. Molly turns on the men in what is presented as a Jackal and Hyde transformation, which we learn from flashbacks is a consequence of sexual abuse she suffered as a child. This underdeveloped idea is used to drive the film's plot, but has the side effect of presenting male violence as an ongoing constant in Molly's life, and by implication the female experience.

Like pretty much every other film that will feature on this blog, the good bits are interspersed with sections of plodding dialogue, and its rich ideas are underpinned with clichéd, tedious plotting. But no matter. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an unusual and powerful piece of work. Although there are a couple of disturbing scenes, it is remarkably gore-free and intelligent. That the BBFC banned a film so obviously attempting – and succeeding – to question the liberal sexual mores of its time is a damning example of the conservative, reactionary institution it once was.

On the other hand, without the allure of the banned label this film could well have sunk into obscurity like many other low-budget grindhouse films of the nineteen-seventies. The Video Nasty label gives The Witch Who Came From the Sea a notoriety it doesn’t deserve, but may well end up giving it the audience it does.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Banned again?

Last month saw the introduction of a private members bill by Conservative MP Julian Brazier to allow MPs to override BBFC classification decisions, with the old Video Nasty list in mind. It all seems pretty irrelevent until you see he has considerable support on both sides of the Commons, and even recognition of sorts from Gordon Brown who "expressed his concern" about the availability of the films according to the Guardian.

In an article for the Cornerstone Group, Julian Brazier MP drags up the discredited media scare stories surrounding the Jamie Bulger murder case, and more unusually an episode of the BBC TV drama "Casualty", but also touches on the controversial subject of depictions of rape in cinema. In light of a recent spate of sexualised murders in the UK, this is something worth looking at.

Whether onscreen sexual violence influences men to rape or not - and most evidence says it doesn't - banning films that depict it is effectively banning artisitic exploration of the subject. Films like Irreversible, I Spit On Your Grave and The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael approach the subject in ambiguous, challenging ways absent in other areas of the arts. Unfortunately murder, rape and violence are part of our lives, and as such need to be addressed as a subject.

That Julian Brazier doesn't understand the subtleties of horror cinema, no doubt through disinterest, is fair enough. But I can never understand the mindset that forms an aggressive opinion on something without taking the time to research and understand it.

Don't Look in the Basement

Director: SF Brownrigg
Writer: Tim Pope
USA 1973

It's difficult to know where to start this blog -- I've seen a few of the films from the Video Recordings Act 1984 list already, but feel it would be cheating to write reviews years later without watching them again. On the other hand, as anyone who has watched much low budget exploitation cinema knows, sitting through some of them twice would be akin to torture.

So I've decided to compromise, and review the last Video Nasty I saw before drawing a line under my previous viewing and starting again, repeats and all. Funnily enough this happened to be a film I wouldn't have minded sitting through again.

"Don't Look in the Basement" is a 1973 film by maverick Texan director SF Brownrigg. Set in a lunatic asylum complete with a domineering matriarch head nurse, the film aimlessly follows a handful of patients before delivering a twist that makes the whole thing worth while.

For a number of reasons "Don't Look in the Basement" is perhaps the ideal film to start this blog with, being a great example of what gives exploitation cinema its appeal. So low budget it appears to have been filmed exclusively in someone's house, this constraint nevertheless creates a sense of claustrophobia that fits the subject matter perfectly. The amateur actors have a great laugh playing the lunatics, and there are some funny over the top performances.

But the most interesting thing about "Don't Look in the Basement" is that deep inside there is a serious arthouse film trying desperately to burst out. Out of necessity, young directors of the time often dressed serious work in gore and blood to get financial backing and a viable release. In the case of "Don't Look in the Basement" this is laughable -- tame, hurriedly made gore scenes have been tagged on at the beginning and end, and when its status was finally reviewed by the BBFC in 2005 the film was only awarded a 15 certificate. The film's original title, "The Forgotten", has a resonance lost on backers who changed it to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Not to say the film isn't challenging to watch. Much of it is rambling and pointless, with most of the dialogue seemingly inserted just to fill time (which it quite possibly was). A misogynist streak typical of the era ruins a lot of the humour, and the acting is of course atrocious. However, the ideas behind the film, claustrophobic atmosphere and obvious passion with which it was made make "Don't Look in the Basement" a film worth seeing.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

The Project

In 1984, the British Conservative government banned scores of horror films under the Video Recordings Act in response to a media orchestrated moral panic. They became known as Video Nasties. Good sense was gradually restored, and since the mid 1990s most of these films have become available again. There are 73 Video Nasties in all, and I aim to watch them all.

Absurd (original title: Rosso Sangue -- released with 2m 32s cut in 1983)
The Anthropophagous Beas
t (original title: Antropophagus -- released with approximately 3m of pre-cuts in 2002)
Axe! (original title: Lisa, Lisa -- re-released uncut in 2005)
The Beast in Heat (original title: La bestia in Calore) (Banned outright)
The Beyond (original title: E tu vivrai nel terrore - L'Aldilà -- re-released uncut in 2001)
Blood Feast (re-released uncut in 2005)
Blood Rites (original title: The Ghastly Ones) (Banned outright)
Bloody Moon (original title: Die Säge des Todes -- released with 1m 20s cut in 1993)
The Bogey Man (original title: The Boogeyman -- re-released uncut in 2000)
The Burning (re-released uncut in 2001)
Cannibal Apocalypse (original title: Apocalypse Domani -- released with 2s cut in 2005)
Cannibal Ferox (released with approximately 5m of pre-cuts plus 6s of additional cuts in 2000)
Cannibal Holocaust (released in 2001 with 5m 44s cut to remove all scenes of animal cruelty)
Cannibal Man (original title: La Semana del Asesino -- released with 3s cut in 1993)
Cannibal Terror (original title: Terror Caníbal -- released uncut in 2003)
Contamination (released uncut in 2004 with a 15 rating)
Dead & Buried (re-released uncut in 1999)
Death Trap (original title: Eaten Alive -- re-released uncut in 2000)
Deep River Savages (original title: Il paese del sesso selvaggio -- released with 3m 45s cut in 2003)
Delirium (released with 16s cut in 1987)
Devil Hunter (original title: Il cacciatore di uomini) (Banned outright)
Don't Go In The House (released with 3m 7s cut in 1987)
Don't Go in the Woods (released uncut in 2007)
Don't Go Near the Park (released uncut in 2006)
Don't Look in the Basement (original title: The Forgotten -- released uncut in 2005 with a 15 rating)
The Dorm That Dripped Blood -- re-released with 10s cut in 2001)
The Driller Killer (released with cuts in 1999 - re-released uncut in 2002)
The Evil Dead (re-released uncut in 2001)
Evilspeak (re-released uncut in 1999)
Exposé (re-released with approximately 30s cut in 2006)
Faces of Death (released with 2m 19s cut in 2003)
Fight For Your Life (Banned outright)
Flesh for Frankenstein (re-released uncut in 2006)
Forest of Fear (original title: Bloodeaters) (Banned outright)
Frozen Scream (Banned outright)
The Funhouse (released uncut in 1987)
Gestapo's Last Orgy (original title: L'ultima orgia del III Reich) (Banned outright)
The House by the Cemetery (original title: Quella villa accanto al cimitero -- re-released with 33s cut in 2001)
House on the Edge of the Park (original title: La casa sperduta nel parco -- released with 11m 43s cut in 2002)
Human Experiments (released with 26s cut in 1994)
I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses (released with 1m 6s cut in 1986)
I Spit On Your Grave (original title: Day of the Woman -- released with 7m 2s cut in 2001)
Inferno (re-released with 20s cut in 1993)
Island of Death (original title: Ta Pedhia tou dhiavolou -- released with 4m 9s cut in 2002)
Killer Nun (original title: Suor Omicidi -- re-released uncut in 2006)
The Last House on the Left (released with 31s cut in 2003)
Late Night Trains (original title: L'ultimo treno della notte -- released uncut in 2008)
Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (original title: Non si deve profanare il sonno dei morti -- re-released uncut in 2002)
Love Camp 7 (Banned outright)
Madhouse (original title: There Was a Little Girl -- released uncut in 2004)
Mardi Gras Massacre (Banned outright)
Night of the Bloody Apes (original title: La Horripilante bestia humana -- released with approximately 1m of pre-cuts in 1999)
Night of the Demon (released with 1m 41s cut in 1994)
Nightmare Maker (Banned outright)
Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (re-released with pre-cuts in 2005)
Possession (released uncut in 1999)
Prisoner of the Cannibal God (original title: La montagna del dio cannibale -- released with 2m 6s cut in 2001)
Revenge of the Bogey Man (original title: Boogeyman II -- released with additional footage in 2003)
Shogun Assassin (re-released uncut in 1999)
The Slayer (re-released uncut in 2001)
Snuff (released uncut in 2003)
SS Experiment Camp (original title: Lager SSadis Kastrat Kommandantur -- released uncut in 2005)
Tenebrae (original title: Tenebre -- re-released uncut in 2003)
Terror Eyes (original title: Night School -- released with 1m 16s cut in 1987)
The Toolbox Murders (released with 1m 46s cut in 2000)
Twitch of the Death Nerve (original title: Reazione a catena -- released with 43s cut in 1994)
Unhinged (released uncut in 2004)
Visiting Hours (released with approximately 2m cut in 1986)
The Werewolf and the Yeti (original title: La Maldición de la bestia) (Banned outright)
The Witch Who Came From the Sea (released uncut in 2006)
Women Behind Bars (original French title: Des diamants pour l'enfer) (Banned outright)
Xtro (released uncut in 1987)
Zombie Creeping Flesh (original title: Virus -- released uncut in 2002)
Zombie Flesh Eaters (original title: Zombi 2 -- re-released uncut in 2005)

Info courtesy of Wikipedia.