In 1992, Reservoir Dogs became a small sensation – but a decision to delay the video release of Quentin Tarantino’s debut made it so much more.
Quentin Tarantino’s debut feature as director, Reservoir Dogs, took a long time to get to the UK.
It debuted in January 1992 – famously – at the Sundance Film Festival, announcing to attendees that Tarantino was a talent to sit up and take notice of. But the film’s rollout around the planet – as was pretty much the norm in the early 90s – really took its time. It didn’t get a fuller release in America for another nine months for a start, although it made it to some European countries ahead of that.
But for us in Britain, Reservoir Dogs didn’t arrive until 15th January 1993. Even then, most of us hadn’t really heard of it when Polygram Filmed Entertainment released the movie in UK cinemas. However, off the back of rave reviews and the wonderful backing of Empire magazine, the movie built its audience and became a word-of-mouth must-see. The terrific Empire article of the time trying to work out who shot who was one that Tarantino even threatened to make into a T-shirt.
The film did solid business for an independent movie, and ordinarily, that may well have been that. Reservoir Dogs would have had its video release and lived on as a cult movie forever more.
But what really turned the film into a must-see sensation was a decision made by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) when it came to the VHS release. Although this wasn’t entirely in the organisation’s hands.
The movie had been passed uncut by the BBFC when it came to its cinema release, and whilst there was some earache over its violence, it was given an 18 certificate with little fuss.
But separate to the release of the film, a debate had been stewing over violence in films, and their availability on home video. That was sharply brought into focus by the horrific, tragic murder of young James Bulger in 1993. This senseless killing remains as shocking today as it was then.
The murder was for a while linked via a tabloid campaign to the movie Child’s Play 3, a connection that seemed loose even at the time and was ultimately never proven. That didn’t stop a fresh drive for the tightening of video laws in the UK, in response to the perceived easy availability of age-restricted material for younger views.
The government of the time felt compelled to act.
Several films were caught up in the midst of this. The movie Man Bites Dog – a genuinely difficult Belgian movie following a serial killer in documentary form – was threatened. But the BBFC took particular interest in Reservoir Dogs, taking note of the fact that it’s in the English language, and its reputation had been growing.
Polygram wasn’t necessarily to know the problem that lay ahead. It submitted the video for certification as usual, but was advised that a decision would be delayed. The movie wasn’t outright banned, just wasn’t granted a certificate. Semantics, you could argue.
In the background to this, the controversial 1984’s Video Recordings Act was going to be revised to address video certification. The effects of media violence were high on the consideration list, and a new Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1993. This would make amendments to the 1984 act.
In the midst of all of this was BBFC director James Ferman. A high profile chief for the organisation, Ferman – contrary to his reputation – actually oversaw a loosening of classifications across his tenure. Yet when it came to home video, he was happy to show his teeth.
Ferman was one of the driving forces behind the changes that came into the Video Recordings Act, that would pass in 1994. In particular, this brought with it the introduction of a ‘harm’ test, that’s described in more detail at the BBFC’s case study on the matter.
Whilst all this Parliamentary work was ongoing, Reservoir Dogs was theoretically in limbo. However, there’s an old theory that there are few better publicity tools than telling people they can’t watch something, and the film’s profile shot up further. Polygram made sure the film was readily available to cinemas who wanted to show it, and – growing up in Birmingham – it was a regular on the late night screenings circuit. Its box office continued to grow, Tarantino himself said to be delighted the film had effectively been banned on UK video. A full theatrical re-release followed in the UK in 1994.
Furthermore, the release of Pulp Fiction in cinemas in October 1994 intensified interest in Reservoir Dogs, and now people were heading into video shops asking after both films. Meanwhile, the Tarantino-scripted True Romance – directed by Tony Scott – would actually jump the queue when it came to a video retail release, with Warner seizing the initiative and printing up stickers declaring it ‘the first Tarantino available to buy’.
The irony of the delay was how all this worked to the advantage of Reservoir Dogs’ ultimate VHS release in the UK. Demand was rocketing for it.
What’s more, when it came to new classification guidelines, the film now had to be looked at with a view as to whether younger viewers in a home setting could face ‘harmful effects’. But the BBFC – when applying the new criteria – ‘concluded that these issues could be robustly defended at 18’.
And so it came to pass that in May 1995, around two years after its original planned video debut, Reservoir Dogs was finally available on tape in Britain. Legally, at least – the prolonged absence from the format had led to a significant bootleg circulation for the film. Ironically after all the fuss, the version of the movie that was finally put onto the market in May 1995 didn’t have a single cut in it. The ‘ban’ had worked out perfectly for Tarantino and Polygram.
As the old saying goes, you can’t buy the kind of publicity the movie ultimately received…
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