As a tabloid campaign intensified, it wasn’t just films such as The Evil Dead that found themselves swept up in the 1980s Video Nasties moral crusade.
Every now and then, usually when a few more newspapers need to be sold, a movie becomes part of a campaign where the aim is to get it banned, taken off screens or in some way have its exposure limited. Look at the Daily Mail’s crusade against David Cronenberg’s Crash in the 1990s for a particular example, the result of which being a moral outrage amplified primarily by those who hadn’t seen the film.
But the call for censorship where movies were concerned hit arguably its high profile peak in the 1980s: the so-called ‘video nasties’ era. That the rise of VHS had in turn brought with it the video rental store, and now films that previously you could only see in cinemas were available in your own home.
The late activist Mary Whitehouse was one of those who lit the particular touchpaper for the subsequent furore.
Whitehouse, a champion of morality and campaigner against a more liberal society (and the book published of her letters, incidentally, is genuinely fascinating reading), had already turned her powerful pen towards television in the 1970s. But come the 1980s, she was outraged at the films becoming available via video in people’s homes. It perhaps didn’t help that one of the earliest best-sellers was Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead.
Thus, she got a meeting with MPs at the Conservative party conference in the autumn if 1983. At said meeting, she screened an edited collection of scenes from films she considered dangerous. The Evil Dead (pictured below) – the film she at the time considered the nastiest video nasty – was on the tape of highlights that she screened.
One of the reasons she had their ear, though, was that she’d been raising the issue beforehand, and it was General Election year in the UK. The Conservatives duly won this in the summer of that year, with Margaret Thatcher winning a landslide majority. And her government wanted to be seen as tough on law order, and enforcing change to protect is all from such so-called nasty films.
It’d be easy to part-blame the Daily Mail for this, and thus I shall. Acting as the moral pulse of the nation – back when the human-hating Mail Online was but a glimpse in its eye – the Mail duly launched, in the weeks after the General Election, one of its crusades. It was not subtle. “How much longer will the Government dither and Parliament blather while our children continue to buy sadism from the video-pusher as easily – and almost as cheaply – as they can buy Fruit Gums from the sweetie shop?”.
The answer: not much longer. The Director of Public Protections was directed to act on this by the Government, and – following the direction the Mail had been going – an edict was passed down to target the video traders themselves. Thus, the police were asked – as Tom Dewe Mathews’ book Censored describes – to go and impound some of these troubling films.
What the police weren’t given, though, was the correct information to do so. As a result, they were left taking the titles of films on face value.
Which is why, in the midst of this huge tabloid moral outrage, and in an era where film censorship was loudly being called for, police seized copies of the 1982 Dolly Parton-Burt Reynolds musical The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. And perhaps even more bizarrely, some of the police enforcing the orders they were given took one look at the title of Sam Fuller’s 1980 war film, and duly impounded copies of The Big Red One. Here’s a picture of Lee Marvin in that very movie…
These bizarre moments aside, the Government eventually got its scalp. After a prosecution against Palace Pictures for distributing The Evil Dead failed, a then-upcoming junior government minister by the name of David Mellor announced plans to update existing laws, with the introduction of the infamous Video Records Act. It was a piece of legislation that bluntly swept up many classic films, leaving them unavailable on British shelves for decades (and in one or two cases, the films still aren’t in tact for their UK releases).
That’s a story for another time. But on the plus side, both The Big Red One and The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas were unaffected.
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