Don’t you know how to drink tea?: The Five British Video Nasties

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Don't You Know How To Drink Tea?

The Five British Video Nasties

words by Graham Williamson

Britain’s early 1980s moral panic over VHS horror movies – “video nasties” – was in part xenophobic in origin. Since its formation in 1912 the British Board of Film Censors (as it was then) had policed Britain’s cinema screens in a manner befitting our self-image as an island fortress.

When other countries liberalised their censorship standards in the 1960s and 70s, the BBFC held firm until a legal loophole allowed uncensored horror movies to be released as video cassettes. Suddenly all the world’s filth flooded in. Filth from Italy, from Mexico, from Spain, filth with tag-lines like Snuff’s unforgettable “The film that could only be made in South America – where life is CHEAP!

That shows, of course, that Britain’s unease around permissive foreign movies could be used to sell, rather than censor, a film. At the other end of the respectability scale, the big-budget horror hit of 1980 – Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – was marketed in the UK as “The tide of terror that swept America“. Both these lines only work if audiences believe foreign horror – from Argentina, from America, from anywhere – is more potent than British horror.

And by 1980, who could disagree? The great British horror studios of the 1950s and 60s – Hammer, Tigon, Amicus – had withered away, unable to compete with even censored versions of foreign films. Once VHS allowed the British public to actually see unexpurgated work by Lucio Fulci, Sam Raimi and Sergio Martino, the game was up. British horror would be a marginal concern until the rise of directors like Neil Marshall and Ben Wheatley in the 21st century.

Except that’s not quite true. The “video nasties list” is actually two separate lists: seventy-two films that had been prosecuted for obscenity (successfully or otherwise), and eighty-two which hadn’t but were still considered potentially obscene. The second list remained obscure until Jake West uncovered it for his Video Nasties documentaries, which is probably why many are unaware that it contains four British films.

The more famous list also contains a fifth UK work: James Kenelm Clarke’s Exposé. Despite being the only British video nasty judged to be legally obscene, it is one of the less well-known titles on that list. This is largely because most collectors of nasties are primarily interested in horror, and Exposé is not quite a horror film. Granted, it involves murder, rape, violent hallucinations and Udo Kier, but it’s also a sexploitation film starring celebrated 1970s adult model Fiona Richmond.

Trained as a composer, James Kenelm Clarke got into film-making after producing and directing three episodes of the BBC documentary series Man Alive. His last episode, 1975’s Xploitation, made him realise how much money there was to be made in sexually explicit films for overseas markets, and he swiftly changed career.

Most of his works in this genre are straightforward sex comedies with come-on titles like Hardcore or Let’s Get Laid, but Exposé‘s mix of gore and gang-rape with softcore sex remains uneasy viewing. There is a tendency these days to view every piece of culture from 1970s Britain as if it were a piece of evidence in a historic sex abuse trial; it’s a bit overzealous, but films like Exposé do make it easy. (It’s also worth mentioning that one of Kenelm Clarke’s Man Alive films, about the search for a child singing star, features Jonathan King…)

Exposé remains unavailable in its uncut form in Britain; one film from the second list is not only available uncut but was recently downgraded to a 15 certificate. This is a surprise, considering Norman J Warren’s Inseminoid also revolves around a rape. Presumably, the BBFC considered Exposé‘s human rapists to be more realistic, and therefore more offensive, than the alien assault Judy Geeson suffers in Warren’s film. Watching the alien’s transparent penis fill up with green extraterrestrial sperm, you’d have to say they’ve got a point.

An extraordinarily tasteless riff on Alien‘s birth metaphor, Inseminoid is a strange mix of parts that have dated pleasurably and parts that remain surprisingly fresh. For the latter list, consider Geeson’s violent rage as the alien baby exerts its influence on her. An unusual, uncomfortable genre take on pregnancy, it bears comparison to Alice Lowe’s Prevenge. As for the dated aspects… well, Inseminoid was a confirmed influence on Lowe’s previous series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, with the rape scene particularly reminiscent of the episode ‘Skipper the Eyechild‘.

Even here, though, there is something quite forward-thinking. Warren began his career making X-rated but comparatively gentle-spirited films about the new permissive society. He moved from there onto supernatural horror – one of his films in this register, 1978’s enjoyably freeform Suspiria homage Terror, also made the second nasties list.

The impregnation scene in Inseminoid is essentially a sci-fi spin on the black masses of his earlier Gothic films: a woman strapped to an altar, a shadowy figure bearing down on her. It’s impossible to watch it today without wondering if Warren invented the visual language of alien abductions. Later films like Mysterious Skin noted the similarities between abduction stories and repressed sexual abuse memories – night-time intruders, invasive body searches, feelings of paralysis, confusion and shame. For Warren to have put his finger on this in 1981, twelve years before The X-Files made alien abduction into a pop-cultural standby, is remarkable indeed.

Indeed, one of the oddities of the British nasties is how heavily tilted they are towards science fiction, a genre which barely registers elsewhere on the lists. Perhaps it’s the lingering influence of Nigel Kneale that left British film-makers with the impression that aliens are the stuff of horror, despite mass audiences at the time being more impressed with ET than The Thing. For most of the 1980s, the only truly monstrous non-terrestrials would be seen in movies like Predator or Aliens, which were positioned as action rather than SF or horror.

One of the other British alien horrors on the nasties list gamely tried to piggy-back on Spielberg’s success. Harry Bromley Davenport’s Xtro had the tagline “Some extra-terrestrials aren’t friendly“, a lesson a 1950s audience would hardly need. Xtro is by far the most famous British nasty, spawning two sequels and a cult following. It’s easy to see why. Despite a messy third act and some stiff performances, it is genuinely original, with impressive production values courtesy of noted historian and co-director of Winstanley, Andrew Mollo.

If we were to look for heart in the British nasties, some core of soul beneath the gore and camp, this might be it: Bromley Davenport made a tight, visually impressive, experimental shocker on a low budget that still holds up today, and it was banned in his home country. James Kenelm Clarke, working in the more underground field of sexploitation, at least knew he was working for an export market. There is no reason, though, why the producers of a fun piece of ghoulish entertainment like Terror should end up producing samizdat texts, smuggled out of Blighty in the hope of finding more enlightened audiences abroad.

Having said that, the knowledge that nobody back home would be seeing this might be what gives the British nasties their reckless charm. There are large stretches of Xtro which respond less to an auteurist analysis than a Freudian one, such as the infamous scene of a woman giving birth to an adult man. The link between abduction stories and abuse is explored here as well, as a boy is reintroduced to his abductee father as an alien clone. In a particularly unnerving scene, the clone begins sucking on the boy’s shoulder, creating a strange, phallic protuberance. He later implores the child not to tell anyone about this.

The fifth and final British film on the nasties lists also culminates in an eruption from the id, as its characters thrash around in a fecal swamp of mud. However, Prey – the third Norman J Warren film on the list – is also the most British. The story of two women whose relationship is disrupted by the carnivorous alien Anders, it features the expected scenes of human flesh-eating and lesbian sex but also has a certain minimal, Pinteresque vibe that remains tense, witty and appealing. It also has a moment when Anders nearly exposes himself as non-human because he doesn’t know how to drink tea – can you imagine that moment in any other country’s cinema?

Taken as a whole, these five movies show UK genre cinema finally starting to engage with the zeitgeist again. They feature surprisingly early predictions of later cultural phenomena like The X-Files or Gregg Araki, but they also pay homage to the history of British horror. Even the anomalous Exposé betrays a certain Gothic influence, built as it is around a young female assistant coming into the employ of a tormented older man.

The tragedy is that this scene was snuffed out just as it was starting to gain confidence. It could only have happened in Britain – where freedom of expression is cheap.

Graham Williamson

Graham Williamson

Graham is a critic and film-maker from Teesside. He's worked for The Geek Show, Byline Times and Second Run DVD, but has never, to his dismay, seen a UFO.

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