“I fell in love with a Video Nasty…”THE DAMNED
My history when it comes to your regular horror movies is much like most I think. I would not call myself by any means a “horror fan.” Or at least not a horror-fanboy.
I mean I like Horror movies the same way I like Tirimasu. I’ll take a good one if offered. I remember the best ones. I don’t recall the bad ones. I spend very little time thinking about them unless I’m enjoying on. (This is a terrible analogy). But the point is, I don’t know the ingredients, the history, have Tirimasu t-shirts or cookbooks.
But I suppose that’s not only an absurb way to talk about movies, but also not true. Because I have always – ALWAYS – been drawn timidly towards them. (Horror films, that is. Not coffee-flavoured desserts).
If I think back, which is at my age, with my hip, pretty much all I can do these days, to my first memories of horror movies and tv shows and the like, my memories are screamingly vivid.
Scariest things of all time (small screen): Well I found The Incredible Hulk TV show terrifying. Those wide, white-iris scenes of Bill Bixby’s pre-tranformation still stay with me.
It was never the green Hulk that was frightening. He was a silly man in make-up running around the dust of Southern California pushing over prop cars and lamp-posts. But the uncontrollable “transformation” by David “you wouldn’t like me when I;m angry” Banner was very scary indeed. What if this really happened? To my dad? Would he come thundering, bellowing, up the stairs to my room? He couldn’t help it! It’s the gamma!
When I was growing up, I knew nothing about “gamma.” Aside from it wasn;t good. And it was the only fucking idea Stan Lee could come up with. Which is why Marvel may be fun, but DC is better.
Rewind, or fast forward, to a TV screening, somewhere between 1974-1980, of Carry On Screaming. Now, I have not seen this movie since I watched it at the old family house (pre-1980 when we moved, thus enabling me to place the period). I could not have been any older the 8yrs old. And to this day, even NOW, I would hesitate to watch until the last frame, when a frozen waxwork of Joan Sims winks at the camera. Fucking hell.
The Hammer-House gothic-ness of a shrieking Kenneth Williams, all wasitcoats and nostrils, and the gruesome Tom Clegg’s role as the looming, half werewolf, half Frankenstien’s Monster OddBod. I can remember, wrapped in my dressing gown, crying in front of my mother. Too terrified to go up the stairs to bed. I don’t know what I was particularly scared of. That monster I think. But it was enough to make, even today, me have second thoughts about watching. God even the theme tune is enough to have my shivering. No no no. Begone Carry On Screaming. I was too young and it was too goulish.
It was of course just inspired by all the old Hammer horror “haunted house” Mummy / Dracula / Wolfman characters and tropes. None of which I considered scary as a boy. Perhaps I didn’t watch them? Perhaps they were on “too late?” But I don’t even remember pestering parents to be able to watch them.
But other key horror memories of my youth include, in no fucking order whatsoever:
Going to bed during the 1957 Incredible Shrinking Man. Which I found spectacular in a wowzers special effects “how did they do that?!” way. I watched about half. But then, knowing as I did (donlt know how) there was a spider attack, I bottled it and went to bed early.
Being on holiday with my pal Simon. I would holiday with him and his parents some summers as his and my folks were churchy pals and we were similar age and temperament. We knew Ridley Scott’s Alien was playing on TV that night in the guest house. And we knew that something bursts out of something else at some point. And we were teasing and tickling and behind very “aww maaaaan, I’d love to see that!” about it. We were sent to bed. I don’t think we minded that much.
Halloween III – Season Of The Witch. I don’t know if I was re-watching this. Or maybe for the first time. But it was on telly late. I mean, 12.30am late. So I went to bed and set my alarm for midnight so I could then get up, sneak downstairs, close the heavy white front-room door, put the volume on 3, and enjoy the gore and jumps. I never made it. By halfway through, I was nodding off, my heavy head dropping and jolting me awake. I recall masks, that song (3 more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween, Silver Shamrock!), snakes coming out of eyes, punching synth stings, a scary villain who wasn’t quite Donald Sutherland but had a go.
I think a lot of this was about purpe eyed yawny bragging rights. To be able to say “and then THIS! And then THIS!” on the train to school infront of jealous pals and chums. I recall none of them giving a shit as they weren’t those types. Maybe Brian was? Hmn. Yes. He defiantly saw a porno before I did.
The Omen/ Damien II / III Final Conflict. Well all three fell beautifully in what I like to call “The Sanctus Series.” This is any cod religious movie that has churches, candles, devils, screaming and – most importantly, a thundering latin choir with echoey “sanctus, dominus, christus, meribus!” nonsense over the top.
I even enjoyed the ad for Old Spice as a boy because “it was a bit Sanctus.”
So none of these were “wet the bed, mummy read me a story, leave the light on, screamy nightmares.” They just gave me chills and a bit of a Catholic “God Is Watching!” spookiness. Enough to have one clutching a rosary under the duvet.
Sitting jaw agape as John Carpenter’s The Thing unspooled on the TV one night. Dogs becoming men, heads becoming spiders, chests becoming bear-traps, flesh becoming everything… Still wit the power to make the audience join in with the cast with a “you gotta be fucking kidding …” it remains, to me anyway, the pinnacle of in-camera latexy goey, non CGI real-life plastic effects.
And trying to describe the transformation scenes at length on a train to school to those boys not fortunate enough to have seen it was a ghoulish delight.
Finally I’ll give a nod to two nasty little chillers that, again while not nightmare inducing, have been dark and looming and suspenseful enough to have stayed with me years and years later. Both of these would have been watching on a bix bog wood-panelled television in the lounge, possibly on a late Friday or Saturday night, possibly with family in tow. Dark Night Of The Scarecrow, a 1981 Made For TV American stalk-n-slash jump-scare gore-less screamer about the ghost of a special-needs chappy (I don’t know what the word is. Slow? Retarded? Touched?) who is murdered when he hides inside a scarecrow to escape the town mob.
And then returns to pick each mob member off with farming equipment. Those huge pale scared eyes of Larry Drake within the hessian sacking of his scarecrow mask? Still gets me.
And of course The Medusa Touch (1978). A thriller, rather than a horror I think. Although some blood splatter and head wounds and comical crushing death under polystyrene church pillars.
Richard Burton in his later years, being top menacing Mauler, bellowing at a post Omen Lee Remick about disasters and catastrophes and finally, much to and alarmed Gordon Jackon’s horror, a shaky handed “Windscale…” written by a dead hand. Brilliant.
Movie posters as I grew up in my pre-movie going teens oft caught my eye. Never EVER to the point of trying to “sneak in” or anything like that. But the glorious posters for An American Werewolf In London, Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Fly, Alien etc. Always made me stop, stare and wonder.
I had a thing of Special Effects. That I do remember. I was absolutely captivated by any kind of behind-the-scenes, or “making of” I could catch on TV. Watching balsa wood Tardis’s being handled on Swap Shop, make your own Blake’ 7 blaster on Blue Peter, tiny stop-motion mine-carts in the documentary about The Temple Of Doom. Model railways, remote control cars.
Anything illusion I adored. I would rather have watched “The Making Of…” than any of the movies. Clash of the Titans, Superman, Star Wars. If it had miniatures and trick photography and latex make-up and masks and whatnot, I was IN. I remember as a shorts wearing, smudged faced pre-teen, hours on the lino in my bedroom with my “useful box” (paints and crafts stuff) covering a plastic toy zoo gorilla in plasticine to try and recreate a Dark Crystal/King Kong movie monster of my own devising. To what end, I have no idea. Even then, fantasies of Hollywood SFX and Industrial Light and Magic and Stan Winston and Jim Henson…
Teens arrived of course, and with it…well. This brings us to now. Because I was born at “almost” exactly the right age for the prime years of the VHS Horror Movie.
The British Board Of Film Censors – who were responsible for slapping U, A, AA and X certicates on movies on general release, had no authority for “home movies” when rental VHS and Betamax machines hit the market in the late 70s.
The machines were expensive so few folk owned them, however your local Rumbelows or Radio Rentals would let you hire one for a weekend so you could plug on into your mammoth PYE, Grundig or Trinitron and then go tripping down to your newsagent to pluck a choice item from their gloomy shelves.
And what a selection there was! Unlicensed, unregulated, uncertificated, unlawful, unwatchable (often) and unrestrained to eager teenage paws, the lurid black, rotting reds, garish greens and yucky yellows – these were handmade, home-made, often Italian, often down right nasty, often soft porny slash and stalk horrors of every stripe. And only the discernment, attitude, morality, conscience or profit line was there to help the bespectacled news agent make their renting decisions.
All of this came into the public light of course in the early eighties two things happened. Firstly the distributers of Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer took out very large newspaper ads in grotty video-rental magazines that began to catch the eye of John Q Public.
Plus one too many 8 year olds were caught bunking off school on sunny summer afternoons, curtains drawn, high on Monster Munch and Tizer, glued to grainy bleached copies of Cannibal Holocaust, The Burning, SS Experiment Love Camp and Don’t Go Into The Woods on the family Hitachi.
With great red-top fury and Daily Mail righteousness, Mums and dads banded together under the flag of campaigner Mary Whitehouse to, as the headline read, “ban this sick filth!”
Hastily brought in to quell the hysteria, the British Government rapidly swept in with the Video Recordings Act (1984). This allowed police to raid, search and seize, prosecute, fine and jail peddlers, distributers and renters of movies considered “corrupting.” Of course, given the efforts the producers had put in to the titles, boxes and cover-art of the garish monstrosities to try and tempt the gore-hungry teenager, deciding which movies should be banned outright from sale wasn’t too tricky. Pretty much the rules went:
Anything with Cannibal in the title. Anything with “Don’t…” in the title. Anything with screaming women in their underwear on the box. Anything mentioning a power-tool of any type. And bung in something satanic and witchy. And you had – ladies and gentlemen – The BANNED 72!
These 72 of course quickly became absurdly well-known, notorious, discussed, debated and most importantly, hunted down, watched and collected. The Act had essentially given Britain a “must watch” list and ticking off titles such as Mad Doctor Of Blood Island, Snuff, Cannibal Ferox, Death Weekend and I Spit On Your Grave became the 80s equivalent of swapping Pokemon cards. Had you seen this one? Did you know someone who had a copy of that one? How many beheadings in that one? How much blood in the next one?
I knew nowt really of these movies. This all happening when I was about 12 years old. And I wasn;y one of those kids. I didn’t have cheeky mates or cousins or cheeky older boy mates of cousins who could get cheap beer, fags, porn mags and dodgy VHS knock offs. And I would have steered clear of the opportunity if it arose.
I remember now the embarrassed, red faced sweaty awkwardness of being a teenage boy (14, maybe 15) and going round to a social club owned by Robert O’Malley’s father one afternoon. There was about 20 of us. Lots of fizzy pop and crisps. And Robert wheeled out a boxy telly (no doubt used in the club for Wrestling or Darts or something, this being pre-SKY). And in he slipped what was no doubt a dad’s copy of the legend “Confessions Of A Window Cleaner.” Breathless and confused, we all sat, bent cocked and light headed in the dark, munching our Skips and sipping Quatro, while ACTUAL WOMEN showed their ACTUAL TITS and PUBES to us while Robin Askwith fannied about with swannee whistles and denim jackets.
I found the whole thing terribly exciting, this being my first exposure to “adult entertainment.” But I did spend most of the time trying to relieve the palpable tension with stupid jokes and sound effects, praying we wouldn’t get caught.
Which tells you how much of a rebel I was.
But it was the allure of the boxes that clung to me. The garish covers of magazines like Fangoria. Blindingly bright lurid letters and bloodied gore-streaked stills of monsters and zombies and skulls and killers. How Evil was the Evil Dead? I had no idea. But I’d heard stories. How much of a Massacre WAS the Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Not a clue. Who LIVED in the last house on the left? Nope. Why did the hills even HAVE eyes? How much drill would actually kill? All of these questions tempted me. But I never caved.
But then I got older. And suddenly it wasn;t up to mum how late I stayed up. Or up to dad what I spent Saturday job wages on. And little portable colour TVs, made by Currys and Dixons under the Saisho and Tokai labels – with built in noisy VHS players – were affordable for the bedroom.
I’m not saying I dived head first into gore guts and grue. Most of my nights in with Philias Fogg tortilla chips (made in Medomsely Road, Consett) and 2 litres of coke, were cop movies and comedies.
But once in a while, from the corner of Blockbuster or, as it was then, Home-Run Video, on Station Road in Harrow, something a bit “scary” might be taken home for my £2.50.
This was where joys such as The Evil Dead, Texas Chainsaw, Halloween sequels, The Thing, The Fly, Fridays of the thirteenth variety, Christine, Salem’s Lot, Fright Night, Videodrome and Demons were finally consumed. Along side silly Billy Crystal and steroided Stallone.
So, to make a long story even longer, time to put that right I think. I am fascinated to know a number of things about the 1980s Video Nasty scare, and have downloaded a couple of books which cover the subject. I have already read plenty of Kermode on Horror. Kim Newman’s definitive guide is another that lurks in the depths of my Kindle. I am wading through Schlock Theatre 1&2 and the very chatty, yet screamingly repetitive VHS Nasty.
So I what I’m looking for in this project which will take me chronologically from 1963’s Blood Feast to 1985’s Demons is
:1. A change in sensibility. What did we – or the government – find shocking then, that – 30 years later – we either still are repulsed by, or now just laugh at.
2. Are there very very good horror movies that got on this list that deserve to be seen?
3. How have special effects, visual effects, latex effects and body horror gore effects improved over the 20 years of the banned movies.
4. How good can a Video Box look compared to the poor quality of the product inside. Hooray for marketing.
5. Do these movies deserve the reputation they have?
6. Is an academic reading of a film in which a girl in a nighty has her head sawn off a desperate attempt to just legitimise juvenile titillation?
7. Are there, as Joseph Campbell once said, only 7 stories in the world. And if you add zombies, does that make 8?
So. There we are. Along side my regular updates on Comedy and Quizzes and such, I’ll post a movie review once in while. These aren’t going to be long academic treatise with a lot of film theory. Just what I think. I’m not a reviewer. Just an eager spectator. Perhaps folk might join me along the way.
Just stay on the path. Beware the moon. And don’t go into the woods… etc