Growing up during a moral panic

Sony_SLV-M20HF_VCRThis post was contributed by JA Kerswell.

The following is an update of an article that I wrote for my slasher movie website Hysteria Lives! back at the end of the 90s. The original article can be read at:

I am also the author of the upcoming history of the slasher movie, Teenage Wasteland. Which will be available in the UK from New Holland Publishing in October 2010:

When the perfect storm that surrounded ‘video-nasties’ began to really hot up in the UK I was all of twelve years old.

I remember passing those new fangled (at the time) video shops; gawking at their garish displays for such schlock busters as SS. EXPERIMENT CAMP (the poster for which actually formed the catalyst of the first ‘nasty’ bashing), and Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS. I have distinct memories of seeing the cinema poster for the latter outside my local Odeon; longing to join all those lucky people inside in the dark. The X-certificate meant that there was no way I was ever going to make it there, though. However, video emporiums offered a potential world of delights for a boy with a burgeoning interest in the horror genre. Pre-certificate tapes could be a boon for a tyke with a taste for terror!

Even before we got our own VCR I would visit video stores and fantasise about the gleaming boxes; not yet dulled by decades of dust. I snatched furtive glances at the top shelf – all those chunky, garish plastic boxes, full of the promise of horrid delights. Some of those video stores were an assault on the senses: enough macabre imagery to knock you out and make your eyes bleed; and the overwhelming smell of new plastic to bring you round again. Back then, a rogue swish from someone’s polyester slacks would have been enough to generate a spark that would have sent the whole kit-n-kaboodle into a raging inferno.

Previously, I’d had to satisfy my morbid curiosity and fascination for all things scary with relatively anaemic 70’s horror movies shown on the BBC, such as late-night mainstays RACE WITH THE DEVIL and ZOLTAN: HOUND OF DRACULA. There were many stolen moments with the remote control, as the rest of the house slept; immersing myself in some old Hammer nonsense or other. I also had to content myself with the latest James Herbert novel (actually often more horrific than the films I longed to see, as it turned out). You can imagine my profound disappointment when I eventually found out that there was no genital dismemberment with garden shears in John Carpenter’s THE FOG!

Seduced by the promise of forbidden fruit I pleaded, cajoled and practically begged my parents to drag our home entertainment unit into the modern age. They finally succumbed, but not until early 1984 – just when the video witch hunt was reaching its zenith and many films had disappeared from the shelves altogether. The hulking great silver monolith sat, wedged under the television. It was fed, almost exclusively, on a diet of soaps, my sister’s music videos and – shudder – THE SOUND OF MUSIC. At least to start with that is.

We hired the Sony VHS VCR from Radio Rentals in Guildford town centre. We never went the Betamax route (we were savvy like that). What sounds antiquated now was cutting-edge back then. Indeed, a friend once showed me the receipt for the VCR his family had bought in the early 1980s (and probably later regretted after it lost that other great video battle between Betamax and Sony’s VHS (and to a lesser degree Philips 2000)). It came in with a hefty price tag of over £500. Even now most of us would baulk at playing that for a DVD or Blu-ray player, but back then it was a small fortune and then some. It just goes to show that these were must-have pieces of equipment. People would sell a kidney to keep up with the Jones’; them with the video remote control that was connected to the VCR and could double as a skipping rope. It was like they were living the SPACE 1999 dream for real!

Radio Rentals had a small array of tapes, mostly dedicated to a family audience – but even they had films such as David Cronenberg’s RABID to rent. It was surely a sign of the times that such a respectable high street store (in-between C&A and Dorothy Perkins if I remember correctly) would proudly display those garish covers with stickers to further up the ghoulish anticipation. In the instance of RABID, Radio Rentals (or perhaps the video production company) had stuck a self-proclaimed double XX rating on the case. One X off hard-core pornography, I thought? How horrific could it be if they had to make up a new certificate? My young mind was reeling.

Whilst my longing for some illicit video tape action continued, the media war (led by The Daily Mail, naturally) rallied against the ‘nasties’. I recall watching a news report on this new ‘menace’, showing tapes by their thousand being crushed by huge digger trucks and shovelled across an enclosed wasteland. Presumably they ended in some mass burial. On one hand I was furious – what a waste! But on the other it just made them more appealing. They were so dangerous, so horrific, so deliciously terrifying that they could not be allowed to exist!

I recall listening, with absolute wonderment, to the stories of older kids who had seen some of these fabled movies – many of which, now that they had been banned and were especially sought after in the playgrounds across the country. These fellow children had not only been in video stores, they had actually been allowed to rent some of these fabled ‘nasties’ (or so they said). Word of mouth, becoming Chinese whispers of epic proportions created legends around them. Wild (and often bogus) stories of abject horror were told in a surrounding of hushed awe. LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT sounded like a movie from another planet for someone forced to watch BERGERAC and NATIONWIDE almost nightly. It was important to state that you had seen at least one of the films, even if you hadn’t – leading to wildly inventive, and often fraudulent, synopsis’. I remember one girl telling me – and me lapping it up – that FRIDAY THE 13TH concerned a series of accidents that occurred on ‘unlucky’ Friday 13th. One of which apparently involved a man driving along the freeway; his car filling up with water and him drowning! A year later I actually saw it and realised she was talking unmitigated bollocks.

And when I actually did get to see FRIDAY THE 13TH I loved it with a capital L. This was as good as I dared fear (despite the rather deceiving video cover I’d seen in Radio Rentals showing an idyllic still just before the film’s climatic shock ending). It came shortly after popping my slasher cherry with HALLOWEEN II at a friend’s house in 1982, or so. Again, a life-changing experience – and one I’d hankered after having been enthralled by the skull/pumpkin combo on the video cover.  It was made slightly surreal as my school friend’s Mum cheerfully made up chips and beans for tea and the rest of the family (including his younger sister) all sat with us with their plates in their laps watching Michael Myer’s second reign of terror before putting on that nice Michael Parkinson afterwards.

So, yes, I did get to see quite a few horror movies – including some of those mythical ‘nasties’, on friend’s VCRs. Despite the virulent crackdown on all things dubious there were still a number of local shops that had the odd unsavoury item tucked away on a dusty shelf and would turn a blind eye to a trembling fourteen year old with his parent’s video card. Even when I did get challenged I had perfected the look of innocence – “Really? BLOODY MOON is an ‘X’?”, and even though I had to leave sheepishly with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK instead, at least I didn’t get the card confiscated. That came later, after I made the mistake of making my Grandma watch Fulci’s AENIGMA. I wasn’t allowed to chose the family entertainment after that for quite a while.

Bunking off from school to watch ‘nasties’ (or at least the nastiest thing we could still find) became a disreputable habit. Shrieking and laughing through THE SHINING, SUPERSTITION, FINAL EXAM, HOUSE OF EVIL, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, and many more, became a rite of passage. Eagle-eyed in our school uniforms for the latest atrocity to hit the shelves, and ever mindful of the shop attendants most likely to turn a blind eye for a moment’s peace. “Look everyone – they let me rent THE FINAL TERROR! Let the horror commence!”

But even the days where one or two ‘nasties’ would cling to the shelves (or under the counter) was in decline, gradually replaced by highly censored FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels (which began to appear in 1987). Sometimes we wondered what all the fuss was about, as many former ‘nasties’ reappeared in video stores in drastically cut versions. Surely the utterly eviscerated version of LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE could have quite easily played on early evening TV without Barry Took’s postbag being too overwhelmed with complaints. It wasn’t until years later that I realised just how cut it had been.

Soon the ‘nasties’ were gone, replaced by certified and increasingly anodyne horrors. Instead they found new homes at boot fairs – although you have as much chance of finding the Covenant of the Ark as you do of happening across a copy of THE BEAST IN HEAT these days. The ‘nasties’ were forcibly ejected from the video stores, and one of the only other ways to see them was through someone, inevitably called Nigel, who advertised ‘collectable videos’ in the pages of fanzines such as Samhain. Of course, the more I actually saw the more I realised that many of the ‘nasties’ were undeniable dross – and the anticipation and lipsmackingly sensationalist artwork were the best thing about many of them. Having said that, I still maintain that the Bigfoot opus NIGHT OF THE DEMON is perhaps the funniest film I’ve ever seen!

Of course, today video stores are going the way of off-licences. Soon to be banished to the history books in the age of Lovefilm and Netflix. I remember coveting a Siouxise and the Banshees video in HMV back in about 1982. It would have taken me exactly 440 years to save up enough pocket money to buy it. People forget that, in this day of cheap-as-chips throwaway DVDs, that videos used to cost a veritable arm and a leg back then. Video libraries were literally treasure troves, and proprietors had to make those clamshells work for them – and were understandably peeved if the local constabulary came armed with bin liners.

Of course, those treasures soon littered charity shops up and down the country. Once shiny boxes dulled by years of dust and grime. When I travel back to Guildford I can still pick out the place I rented ROSEMARY’S KILLER (it is no longer there; obliterated by an apartment block is in its place). I’ve made up for my initially thwarted passion for horror by collecting tapes over the years, making my own dusty video library. Just as LPs are aesthetically more appealing than CDs, the large clamshell – complete with it cheerfully demented artwork – is more appealing than a DVD. I don’t know why, it just is.

Just a sniff of that degrading plastic is enough to transport me back almost thirty years. Back to the g(l)ory days of the video store and illicit afternoons in the company of madmen, werewolves and zombies.

One comment on “Growing up during a moral panic
  1. We’ve posted another blog containing pictures of rental stickers, one of which puts a VHs tape purchase at around the £80 mark. It’s amazing to think of the prices that video shop owners paid for tapes and how long it must have taken for them to make their money back on rentals.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *