The video market of the 1980s was the greatest thing to happen to low-budget horror filmmaking. No longer were splatter fests confined to the dark, seedy rooms of grindhouse theatres and illicit cult film-watching spots. Now blood and guts were directly in the living room, haunting the family VCR.

But it’s never long before the personal realm is dragged kicking and screaming into the political realm. This was certainly the case for rapidly expanding home video of the 1980s, where Britain’s conservative forces found their new moral crusade. If children were to access these kitschy b-horrors, what would become of them? How can Britain survive when our children are being seduced by ketchup blood and pulverised prosthetic bodies?

These films were widely dubbed as ‘video nasties’, an incredibly British way to describe something apparently tearing the moral fabric of society apart. The video nasties coincided with the rise of the slasher flick, an easy target for the moral crusaders. Horror had evolved from the fantastical monsters of old – now the threat was in our world and much more visceral, where sick minds lurk in the shadows of your local neighbourhood.

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At the heart of this movement against hack ‘n’ slash VHS was one Mary Whitehouse, founder of advocacy group National Viewers' and Listeners' Association and spiritual and moral ally to Margaret Thatcher. Whitehouse was never quite able to get over the mutating cultural standards of the 1960s, fearing the liberal shift against her well-entrenched social conservative values. With Thatcher in government, the opportunity to turn back the clock was finally on the table.

Soon enough, the Thatcher government started to act on Whitehouse’s wishes. Regulation of the video market became paramount, with the lack of controls on what makes it to market being a priority fix. The Video Recordings Act 1984 eventually came into being as a result. But it wasn’t just regulatory legislation attempting to curb the proliferation of cheap slashers – video shop owners themselves were arrested for distributing “obscene” material.

The film that first caught the eye of Whitehouse et al was the Abel Ferrara-directed descent into insanity The Driller Killer. The film’s concept and title made it perfect fodder for provocative advertising, with full pages of video magazines adorning a still of one of the film’s head drilling murders. It’s a case of its bark being bigger than its bite, however. The film is not all that explicit, with the marquee sell of drill murders being few and far between. It’s a cheap bit of Taxi Driver worship, where a lone wolf loses grip on reality to the gritty backdrop of a sleazy New York City.

The Herald: One of the eponymous drill killings from The Driller Killer (1979)One of the eponymous drill killings from The Driller Killer (1979) (Image: Public domain)
Horror has long been the domain of create cheap and sell big (and probably disappoint). It’s clear that Whitehouse had never even considered these films beyond their external aesthetics. Asked if she had watched the films that she had ignited a huge public war over, she said she hadn’t. She didn’t need to. She had people who could describe to her what was in the films. Perhaps describing the act of drilling into someone’s head would be highly disturbing, yet anyone who’s actually watched the film knows it lacks verisimilitude in all its exaggerated ketchup blood glory.

It would only take a glance at certain video nasty titles to make the toes of Whitehouse’s ilk curl – I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust, SS Experiment Camp, and so on. As much as the argument was about their sexual and violent aspects, the conversation on these films has shifted significantly in the modern day. Some are now in the public domain and would struggle to hit an 18 age rating. A film like Cannibal Holocaust is more likely to see criticism for its animal cruelty and its ignorant depiction of Amazonian natives than for its macabre concept and harsh outer appearance. I Spit on Your Grave, a rape revenge fantasy once written off as pure gutter misogyny, has seen recent re-evaluation from feminist film scholars who perceive it as catharsis for the pain and trauma of sexual assault. Time has proven that Whitehouse’s concerns were wholly unfounded, hopelessly clinging on to a traditional view of Britain that died with her generation.

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Underneath these films is a kitschy reflection of a warped society, free-spirited and independent in their lack of care towards social norms. These films didn’t need a budget, good special effects, a competent script, or convincing acting. They took an idea with a sickly, dark allure and ran with it. It’s an attitude that’s missed in the sanitised cultural homogeneity of today.

The video nasties saga left a bitter taste, setting a precedent in Britain for surface level culture to be pinned for society’s ills and failings. Whitehouse’s perspective may have fallen into obscurity through time, but she ultimately got results. It’s a lesson for those in power that deflecting toward easy targets is a way to avoid accountability for real deep-rooted issues. Why tackle inequality, struggling health services, and underfunded education, when a maniac with a drill lies in wait in your home?