Video nasties: what was all the fuss about?

Well I finally did it. Some three decades or so since the great British video nasty scare reached it zenith I have watched three of the very worst offenders. Any Brit over thirty will remember being dragged around video stores in the early eighties by irate parents. Do you remember how while your Mum argued for what seemed like an age over the now oh-so-clearly-dubious benefits of BETAMAX over the slightly-less-dubious benefits of VHS you were free to gaze over the shelves at a veritable sweet store of filth?

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Back in the day anyone asking if their local video store stocked The Driller Killer would have had to contend with stratospheric embarrassment levels and an assistant with a finger just itching to grass you to the BBFC’s thought police. In the same way that the internet has saved a generation of porn addicts from the shame of sticky back row fumbling, the net has removed any unease that one might have felt ordering horror. LoveFilm was my conduit to the gore of yore. I logged on and ordered the three most horrific olde-worlde splatter-fests I could think of, sat back and waited for the drop of depravity by my letterbox. Thirty years of hurt about to be resolved in four hours of on-screen pain right here in my own front room. Oh joy.

Is there anywhere else to start other than with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? I think not. This is the one film guaranteed to send what we used to call the Mary Whitehouse generation into paroxysms of spluttering, foam-flecked rage. I even remember a Smith & Jones TV sketch which had the pair of them vomiting into a rubbish bin after a viewing. If it could make Mel Smith barf, it HAD to be good. Back when I was at school nobody had seen it – well, one lad had: Andy Rogers described it to us one night at the leisure centre and was of course dismissed out of hand. How could anyone’s parents inflict such psychological trauma? What on earth else were they up to . . . ? Probably feeding him Dr. Pepper with added butter. I now know that the poor bugger was indeed telling the truth and I do occasionally wonder what he does these days inside Barlinnie. Anyway, almost nobody had seen it but no matter . . . there was one thing, one tantalising, alluring embellishment that all could recite without fail: it was a true story. Oh yes. We didn’t know much about America at Wallace High School, Stirling, but this we knew for sure: in Texas, teens were dismembered for fun.

Let’s deal with the bloodletting first of all. It’s minimal. Almost zero. Unless you count an early and disturbing scene featuring a weirdo cutting his own hand with a knife, “Chain Saw” is remarkably gore free by today’s standards, and there dear reader, is the rub. Just close your eyes and imagine if you will, that scene from 1987’s “Robocop” where Murphy – pre-cybernetics – is blasted by Clarence Bodicker and his shotgun-totin’ gang for nigh on 20 seconds. With hunks of red flying off him and his body jerking like a Chinese New Year banger as he slowly sinks to his knees, this scene is a tough watch even by today’s standards. I still recall Barry Norman’s barely concealed disgust as he tried to review it. Still, just 13 years after Chain Saw”, it got a release didn’t it? Which just shows you how far and fast British squeamishness travels. It’s worth quoting what the BBFC has to say about “Chain Saw” today:

For modern young adults, accustomed to the macabre shocks of horror films, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is unlikely to be particularly challenging . . . violence [is] implied rather than explicit. By today’s standards, its visual effects may seem relatively unconvincing.

The best example of this is the scene where Pam, played by Teri McMinn, is impaled on the meat hook — you never do see the bad stuff but imagine what that scene would look like today in the hands of say Eli Roth? Best not to. The real reason I suspect for the film’s enduring reputation is to do with something more ethereal. For those fleeting few weeks back in 1974, Chain Saw was first off the mark. Director Tobe Hooper took everyone’s favourite power-tool-they-love-to-hate and used it to dispatch a bunch of gormless teens. The innovative and completely invented line that this was all true only helped to disperse the myth and short of time travel we cannot ever experience the sheer blank-canvas shock to the system that it caused not least here in the UK. It’s not a film that deserves much analysis but whatever you think of Chain Saw it truly was a phenomenon.

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Have we seen anything in recent years so ground-breakingly offensive to generic social mores? Maybe the recent crop of torture porn films come close but I don’t know anyone who tried to outlaw Hostel II. Is today’s desensitised public really worried about these films or do we prefer to just ignore them? I suspect we’ll have a while to wait until any form of cinematic art gets the British Board of Film Classification rejected treatment again. Besides, would the censors dare make the ultimate sanction knowing full well it would catapult the makers to instant stardom?

I followed Chainsaw with 1972’s The Last House on The Left, a film which 5 Live’s film critic Mark Kermode has described as being a Vietnam polemic and at least “about something”. Much as I admire the good Doctor’s opinion, I think that’s stretching it a bit. A bunch of hoodlums kidnap two women, rape and murder them in the woods before unwittingly stumbling across the house of one of the girl’s parents. Seeking refuge the gang are allowed to stay the night but thanks to a stolen necklace Ma and Pa realise the score and decide to pick ’em off one by one. Just because the film is made during the peak years of the anti-‘Nam movement doesn’t make it political. One guy is electrocuted while the final baddie has his penis chewed off by a ravenous Mum. “House” is more anti-meat than anti-war.

But while Chainsaw possesses a certain unintended naive sweetness, House is altogether more edgy and at least occasionally does what a horror film is supposed to do and presents some genuinely uncomfortable viewing (it’s an issue still raging today).Top banana in the depravity department is the rape scene. It comes mid-way and hits you hard because the performances of the two teens up until that point are so filled with genuine wide-eyed alarm that you get the impression that neither had a clue what they were letting themselves in for when rookie director Wes Craven called them up at high school. The actor playing the rapist, David Hess, comments during the DVD extras that the girl he lay on was so petrified during shooting that “it would’ve been easy to f*** her right there.” Not the most charming of comments, but a horror film that succeeds in scaring the cast witless is at least heading in the right direction.

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To finish we have 1979’s The Driller Killer and Abel Ferrara’s first mainstream release. Of the three films here Driller had the most unsubtle poster featuring a guy screaming as a drill bit pierces his forehead. When the most graphic scene in the film is also your video cover you pretty much know what the maker’s intention is an intravenous injection of in-your-face violence. Alas the odious Driller fails to achieve even this most lamentable of aims. To be sure it’s the most unpalatable of the three but not because of the attempted gore. What really leaves a bad taste is the overall vibe of lackadaisical shoddiness that seems to surround the film making. Ferrara hurries from scene to scene leaving great gashes in what would be considered today normal narrative drive.

Occasionally he pauses for breath but only to indulge in some arty nonsense such as the scene where he waves a toy light sabre in front of his face for what seems like eternity or the incessant close-ups of the painting of a bison our protagonist is working on (this hideous artwork is the true horror in this film). If Chain Saw popularised the teen/cannibal/chase flick and House gave us creepy killers and comedy member-munching, the plot here is wafer thin: an artist living in a grotty flat is driven to distraction by a rock band practising downstairs. The madman, played by Ferrara himself, gets tooled up and decides to go on a killing spree.

The images are grainy, poorly lit and as with House the sound is awful, an effect exacerbated by the rockers The Roosters — who bang out such an awful racket that you long for them all to get their come-comeuppance, although in a sign of this film’s unique ability to engender apathy, when lead singer and Strokes lookalike Johnny Coca-Cola finally gets it you’re left with barely the energy for a disinterested shrug as your finger hovers between “next chapter” and “eject” on the DVD control. It’s as if Ferrara sat around doing some wordplay one day and decided to shoehorn a story onto the lame alliteration in the film’s title.

There is one interesting afterthought to mull over though. Most horror films leave in their wake a vast detritus of trivia, obsessed fans, embarrassed directors and pissed-off minor cast members who never made it big. Fortunately we have the internet to coagulate this seeping miasma for us. If you want to find out who played the Keystone Cop-like policeman in House then Wikipedia is your friend (it was a very young Martin Kove of Cagney and Lacey fame). With Chain Saw I learn there are even restaurants in Texas claiming proudly to be the actual film location while deep down in one of the DVD’s sub-menus the Icelandic geezer who played Leatherface grumbles his way entertainingly and bad-naturedly through the commentary about how he’s still owed a wad of cash.

Needless to say the cast of both films are now minor celebrities on the horror convention circuit. But what about Driller? There’s zilch out there. You’d expect at least a few Fangoria subscribers with blog photos posing with Johnny Coca-Cola and a Black & Decker, but information on pretty much all the Driller cast is sketchy and conspicuous by its absence. Ferrara of course has gone on to greater things but what happened to the Roosters’ entourage? What about the lesbian girlfriends or all those hobos who ended up with a rawl-plug receptacle instead of a nostril? Nada. Not a peep. This is the ultimate in final words because let’s face it, when even the Internet doesn’t give a toss, you know you made a turkey.

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