I swore off going to screenings of video nasties a few years ago. Living in London, it increasingly seemed like you couldn’t go to the cinema to watch any horror film made before 1990 without sitting through the accompanying guffaws and knowing snorts of much of the audience. I put it down to ‘London’, that one-word explanation that covers everything from the unrelenting rudeness to the endless chain coffee shops to the umpteenth old pub converted into a Sainsbury’s Local. The final straw was sitting in a screening and listening to the waves of laughter as there was a scene change.
So perhaps I should have thought twice before deciding to go to the premiere of 88 Films’ uncut release of Anthropophagous the Beast (1980) at Bristol’s Cube cinema. It had been a while since I’d seen any nasties on a big screen and Anthropophagous was, for pre-cert video collectors, a firm favourite. Introducing the film was a discussion panel made up of Ian Berriman (SFX), Mark Bould (University of the West of England), Pete Falconer (University of Bristol), and Jack Fennell (University of Limerick). This boded pretty well. There was an overview of the nasties uproar of the 80s for those unfamiliar with it, clearly situating the panic in relation to the broader political and cultural climate of the time; some discussion of the practical repercussions for video store owners and distributors (often negligible—such as letters calling for the return of incorrectly-issued uncut versions—but sometimes serious, in the form of prison sentences); and the consequent Video Recordings Act of 1984. The panel knew their stuff: they were clear that the nasties panic had serious aspects and that the films on the DPP’s notorious ‘lists’ were items that carried significant cultural weight, whether you looked upon them with disdain or with reverence.
Now, I’m perfectly willing to admit that I’m a grumpy sod, that people’s slim grasp of manners irks me possibly more than anything else, and that—having stopped anticipating the next rare video nasty screening—I’m possibly out of touch with ‘how things are these days’. The tendency of people to treat cinemas like their own living rooms extends to all demographics and genres of film, but I’m sure there’s a special circle in hell for some of the audiences who turn up to nasty and exploitation screenings. In part the constant talking, the uproarious laughter, and shouted interjections that dogged the whole of Anthropophagous might be excused as a lack of familiarity with nasties’ typical features. The confusion was instantaneous as the opening beach scene played out—as it should do and always has—in German: shuffling, whispering, and then … a blank screen as the film was stopped. A bloke comes out of the projection room at the back—“I pressed ‘English’ about four times!”—and there’s a desperate, exasperated chorus of “It’s supposed to be like that!” from the panellists now seated in the audience. This misguided interruption seems to increase the film’s appeal enormously, because the beach scene is now hilarious. They’re speaking in dubbed German: hilarious! He’s wearing big 1980s headphones: hilarious! Anything that looks slightly dated—some large-framed sunglasses, an old design of Coke can—elicits a wave of hysteria. Any stilted dialogue or dubbing causes conniptions. A bit of day-for-night footage provokes great comment. People revert to a strange schoolboy version of the conference delegate whose questions are always advertisements about their own knowledge, as every interjection is carefully moderated to be loud enough for the whole audience to hear. A sort of fabricated Tourette’s continually spills forth from one man in front of me: “Famous Five on Death Island!” What a wit you are, Sir.
Okay, many video nasties and pre-cert horrors can be funny, and to the uninitiated viewer they present a model of film-making that is pretty alien. I still cringe at the bloody awful dubbing on The House by the Cemetery, and the day-for-night footage of The Extra Terrestrial Nastie (a re-release of a 1967 film capitalising on the horror video boom) is something to behold. Kate Egan, in Trash or Treasure?, suggests that the ‘tongue-in-cheek, low-budget and dated nature of the films’ is part of their appeal, and yes, it is—but surely only to a certain point. If we’re simply laughing at ‘datedness’, then why aren’t we hooting our way through screenings of The Breakfast Club or The Lost Boys? I’m not suggesting we should be elitist about a certain bracket of horror films, reserving screenings only for the pre-cert collector or the avid fan. The issue here obviously isn’t just one of specialist knowledge (basic manners are fairly prominent), and the older horror film does increasingly seem to invite this oddly demonstrative behaviour that turns every screening into a less choreographed version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. From many people’s accounts of nasty screenings in the 1980s, they were much less amusing then. Possibly this shift is partly due to the popularity of the ‘quote along’ and valorising of films famous only for their poor production values—like the regular showings of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. If you only ever watch what the cinema offers you, then yeah, Anthropophagous and its companions probably look like ‘bad’ movies because they don’t conform to typical aesthetic conventions.
I don’t think the laughter is simply because what’s on screen is perceived to be a ‘bad’ film, though. Watching Anthropophagous, the laughter didn’t seem to be directed at the ‘badness’—the other-than-Hollywood production values, the fact that a film released in 1980 was set in, um, that time period—but rather at moments where there was no horror. If Anthropophagous is funny because it’s ‘bad’ or ‘old’, then presumably the hilarity would extend to scenes in which the horror effects are dated or transparent. Intriguingly, they weren’t – the only times when the laughing stopped was for the gore. Rita’s bloodied appearance from the barrel in the cellar got a few titters (and loud comparisons with Carrie from those keen to prove they’d once seen another horror film); the suicidal fall of Ruth a stunned silence; and the fetus-eating scene a few squeamish outbursts. The nasties seem to retain some power to shock, then, and I started to wonder how far the uproarious reception of Anthropophagous was to do with the film’s format, rather than its actual content. During the late 1970s and early 80s, getting your hands on a nasty was an event, a VCR often a significant marker of status (cue The Young Ones: “Oh! Have we got a video?!”). As the Anthropophagous panellists noted, the physical presentation of video cassettes added to films’ allure: rental cassettes were grubby, covered in stickers exhorting you to ‘Please rewind’, and popular scenes revealed themselves in the manic flickering and snow-storming of the tape (incidentally, this never tends to be the gory bits on the tapes I’ve acquired. Nudity, on the other hand…). The cover art could be great—the tantalising minimalism of The Last House on the Left, the comic-book glamour or Mardi Gras Massacre, or the coveted reversible cover of Blood Rites. Pre-certification tapes also had a broader cultural gravity. The fact that police could arrest you for dealing in video nasties wasn’t really that funny at all (especially as you often didn’t know you were doing so, as the DPP handily didn’t publicise their lists too widely). To watch I Spit On Your Grave (I’d be interested to know how many laughs that gets in a cinema) or Zombie Flesh-Eaters on a cassette that had taken you weeks of hunting or stealthy trading to get wasn’t just to watch the film, but to engage with everything else that went with it. There are some gorgeous DVD releases out there now that make these films readily available to anyone willing to spend a few quid online. I can’t fault Arrow Video’s recent outputs, for example, but at the same time the DVD release strips something away from the film for me. The grainy print is cleaned up; there’s no grubby cassette to be tentatively put in the VCR, wondering if the tape will hold out; it’s not a cultural or historical artefact. And possibly that changes what the film is too: without all that original baggage, it becomes somehow disposable, less worthwhile, less interesting, less of an investment—something you can laugh at in the cinema and treat not as a film, but as a pantomime. It becomes another bit of cheap retro nostalgia like cereal cafés or restaurants serving up ‘reimagined’ school dinners.
I freely admit my geekish emotional attachment to the nasties and to pre-cert video more generally. You may find Anthropophagous hilariously funny; I find it quite enjoyable as a horror film (it’s reasonably well-paced, some of the sets are fantastic, and parts of the soundtrack are wonderfully unsettling—the 88 Films print, by the way, looks good)—we can agree to disagree. But could you at least do me the favour of asking yourself: Why am I laughing? Because as well as showing that you have a modicum of consideration for your fellow viewers, it’s a really interesting question.