RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES concludes his series on film classification in a 1980s video store
The home video boom swept the UK as the 1980s got underway, but in its earliest years it did not come within the remit of the BBFC. As a result, films did not need to be classified for a video release, and many which had either been cut or rejected for cinema exhibition could now be viewed from the comfort of your living room.
“Ban The Sadist Videos!” screamed the headlines, as a moral panic broke out. The story of the whole video nasties episode has been well documented elsewhere, but in short the Video Recordings Act (VRA) of 1984 meant that home video was now subject to the same BBFC classification as theatrical screenings.
However, what concerns us here is the truly bizarre handling of some long-established Brit-horror flicks. By now regular staples of late-night TV, many had already received video releases in what is now referred to as the pre-cert era, before the VRA fully came into effect.
The fate of The Satanic Rites Of Dracula (1973) highlights just how ridiculous the situation could be. It was released as a pre-cert title by Warner Home Video around 1985. However, on re-submission to the BBFC in 1988, it was deemed necessary to cut the film by one second.
Yes. One whole second.
So, what to do? Recall all the tapes currently in circulation, then replace them with new tapes, with the offending second of footage excised? Of course not. Distributors were too busy dealing with new product to issue amended tapes of old titles. In any case, any shop fearful of prosecution would simply withdraw the tape from stock, having already presumably made their money back several times over on the original purchase price.
However… here’s what could also happen. A video store could play dumb, and simply plaster a BBFC certificate sticker on to the cassette box. In the case of this particular title, I can think of at least three stores which did exactly that, and were happily renting out the uncut pre-cert tape well into the 1990s. After all, the authorities were on the lookout for Cannibal Holocaust and the like, not some Hammer flick from the early 70s. The same method was applied to a lot of other early video titles, too, and that included a lot of vintage horror flicks. After all, having paid anything from £40 to £70 per tape, a store couldn’t afford to just bin hundreds of them.
Guild Home Video played it safe with Cry Of The Banshee (1970), issuing a milder US edit shorn of a whopping four minutes. So severe were the cuts, this then lowered its rating to a 15-certificate. Just to make matters even more ridiculous, the uncut version turned up on TV shortly afterwards! Needless to say, I had a blank VHS at the ready…
Tellingly, Guild didn’t bother submitting their uncut pre-cert release of Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) for re-classification, and the film would be frustratingly out of circulation until 2003. Meanwhile, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) had its “rape” sequence (hated by director and cast in the first place) reinstated for its 1989 video release. The inconsistency was astounding. In the meantime, BBFC bete-noire The Exorcist remained unavailable, and yet I had no problem seeing it at 8 p.m. one night, thanks to the new innovation of satellite TV (albeit dubbed into German).
As for those movies which were technically banned, I do recall one store’s trick which involved covering the label with a pretty convincing fake Disney sticker (usually for Dumbo, for some reason), and keeping the cryptically marked tapes under the counter. It was all a matter of knowing which shop to go to, and who to ask for…
The thing is, if you’re a kid then being told that you’re not allowed to see something is like a red rag to a bull. And, as my Grandfather’s reminiscences in part one of this piece amply demonstrated, for as long as the BBFC has existed, under-18s across Britain have been devising ever more devious ways of seeing “unsuitable” horror movies (not to mention other material, but that’s another matter).
Subsequent changes in regime at the BBFC have seen many film cuts revoked, and previously rejected works finally made available. Others remain censored, in whole or in part. Yet, the question now, in an age of internet streaming, file sharing and easily ordering movies from anywhere in the world, is: Can you really censor or classify any film effectively?
That’s possibly a question to ponder at a later date. After all, who knows what twists and turns the story of classification will take, in this ever changing, increasingly internet driven world?
One thing is certain, though. Regardless of how and where movies are watched in the future, the horror films of Britain’s golden age will remain an integral part of the experience.