In the early 1980’s video recorders rapidly became a standard household item. A new form of mass entertainment was readily available in the form of the (then) unregulated videocassette tape. The most popular films, apart from pornography, were low budget horror films, many of which were to become known as Video Nasties. There has been a great deal written about the Video Nasties issue from the point of view of censorship, but very little about the artwork used in the promotion of these videos. The lifespan of this style of artwork lasted only a few years before government regulation took effect; indeed part of the appeal of the Video Nasties phenomenon lies in the ephemeral nature of these videos and their covers.
The Video Nasty was not a particular genre of film identified by film critics. It was not a style of film making which suddenly emerged at a particular point in time. The thirty-nine films that made up the Director of Public Prosecutions’ banned list in the mid-eighties, consisted of films spanning the years 1963; H.G. Lewis’ BLOOD FEAST(USA), to 1982; Dario Argento’s TENEBRAE (Italy). Subject matter was varied; zombies, cannibals, psycho killers, mad doctors and aliens all featured in the films. None of these characters were strangers to the genres of horror and science fiction. What was different about this batch of films? There have been attempts to identify a common thread between these films. Martin Barker identifies the way of showing (unflinching camera shots of extreme violence), the absence of heroes and heroines, the denial of a centre from which to view things, a grim perception of the world and cynical anarchism. All descriptions of modern/modernist fiction in general. (1). This may be true for some of these films, but others such as Blood Feast were made purely in the spirit of exploitation.
The over-the-top, and obviously faked gore featured in exploitation films appealed to drive-in audiences. They provoked a visceral response rather than emotional or intellectual involvement. (2). They were a cheap thrill, they had no pretensions to high art. Exploitation films had always relied completely on their advertising campaigns; they were heavily hyped, then released simultaneously around the country. This prevented people who had seen the films from warning others against going, should the films fail to deliver promised thrills. When released onto video, the shortcomings of these films would be masked by sensationalist video cover designs. Films made by reputable directors, or featuring big stars, do not have to resort to the same methods of promotion; their success is usually ensured by the mere presence of a particular star or director. (However the inclusion of big name stars can often be seen as an attempt to compensate for a weak script). Horror films have always occupied a low position in the hierarchy of cinematic production, and exploitation/horror films are even less reputable. Producers had to put extra effort into the promotion of these products. They identified the potential audience and selected visual imagery that would be most effective in attracting their interest.
Of course there is another very simple common thread between the films classed as Video Nasties; the fact that various video companies selected them in the early 1980’s for release into the home video market, purely for financial gain. The films selected had been largely forgotten after their circuit of British cinemas, in double-bill format, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Horror films, like pornographic movies, were chosen because they are always popular, especially amongst teenagers who constitute the bulk of the home video audience. The cycle of exploitation continued, and like the original promoters of these films, the video companies adopted packaging and advertising that would cause as much offence as the movies themselves.
Imagine a scene where you enter a small, family-owned video shop and you are confronted by a section of shelving labelled 'Horror'. Working your way along these shelves you see hundreds of obscure titles and bizarre artwork. You can select titles such as THE DRILLER KILLER (USA, 1979, d. Abel Ferrara), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (Italy, 1979, d. Ruggero Deodato), and SS EXPERIMENT CAMP (Italy, 1976, d. Sergio Garrone). A poster on the wall, reads ‘FACES OF DEATH’, and shows a close-up of a man’s face, he has a metal clamp on his head and is blindfolded. He is being executed in the electric chair. This scenario seems impossible. A video shop is a large, multinational store, such as Blockbuster Video, and the "Horror" section comprises of five copies of SCREAM (USA, 1996, d. Wes Craven), five copies of SCREAM 2 (USA, 1997, d. Wes Craven), and ten copies of URBAN LEGEND (USA, 1998, d. Jamie Blanks). Posters on the wall depict good-looking teenagers from I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (USA, 1998, d. Danny Cannon). Everything is safe and standardised, but the first scenario was commonplace less than twenty years ago. It was the former three video titles mentioned above, that led to the public outrage and Video Nasty furore which resulted in the enforcement of state censorship in the form of the Video Recordings Act, and the Video Packaging Review Committee.
There has been a great deal of discourse concerning the films themselves, but what was so appalling about the packaging of these three videos? The cover for Vipco’s THE DRILLER KILLER shows a close-up shot of a man’s forehead being penetrated by an electric drill. The accompanying lettering reads, ‘The blood runs in rivers…and the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone.’ Apart from the photograph of the victim, the entire cover is designed in red; the stills from the film on the rear of the cover are tinted in red. This is symbolic of the rivers of blood referred to on the front. The title of the film is constructed in the form of a logo; the word ‘driller’ is positioned above ‘killer’ enabling them to share a letter ‘i’ which appears in the form of a drill-bit. The same logo appears on the spine and rear of the cover coloured in black, to contrast with the red background. Logos are now an important aspect of film promotion, (Independence Day’s ID4 for example) but it is hard to imagine cups, tea towels and baseball-caps bearing this particular example.
Go Video’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST features cartoon-like painted artwork of a longhaired, naked South American native, kneeling in the jungle, savagely devouring what appears to be a length of human intestine. The title is written in white lettering and also appears on the spine and rear of the cover. The overall colour is again red. The rear cover features photographs of jungle scenes, and carries a warning to those of a nervous disposition. Warnings such as these were a challenge for the viewer to watch the film, rather than a deterrent, in a similar way to that in which fairground rides are advertised as terrifying. Potential viewers for THE DRILLER KILLER were informed that they would need a steel stomach in order to watch the final scenes of mayhem. This implies that something horrendous, and well worth watching, is going to occur at the end of the film. It could even be something worse than the man having his head drilled on the cover. The only way to find out is to rent and watch the film.
SS EXPERIMENT CAMP was another Go Video release. They had an eye for quality products and produced some of the most outrageous covers. This cover again features painted artwork. A naked girl is hanging upside down; ropes from a pole secure her feet. Her arms are outstretched and a ball and chain is attached to her left wrist. There is a swastika design on the ball. Behind her looms the face of a German officer, mostly in black with yellow highlights, he looks similar to the single nameless soldier who appeared on Expressionist style recruitment posters in Germany during the First World War. In the background is a watchtower and fence, representing the concentration camp. The overall background colour is blue, and the title is written in red, decorative Germanic type. Two photographs on the rear of the cover show naked women chained to walls, and women being executed by a German soldier. Italian exploitation directors had made many films based in concentration camps in the 1970’s, but in Britain the subject remains in the realms of extreme bad taste. The imagery is entirely misogynistic and complaints were received as soon as the advertising campaign reached the video trade papers. In their defence Go Video explained that in the original Italian artwork the woman was completely naked, so they had the woman adorned with a pair of badly drawn knickers. They had imposed their own moral censorship. (3).
There was a common set of signifiers used in the design of these covers. Many of them featured axes, meat cleavers or knives stained with blood. Often these weapons formed part of the film’s logo on the packaging. They represented the world of mad axe-men, bloodthirsty butchers and psychos that inhabited the genre. The swastika was used on the covers for GESTAPO'S LAST ORGY (Italy, 1976, d. Cesare Canevari) and THE BEAST IN HEAT (Italy, 1977, d. Luigi Batzella), amongst others. This symbol, coupled with the title, implied sex and sadism, elements that have always been prevalent in the horror genre, including horror literature. These themes can cross over into the field of respectable or high art; the German officers in Roberto Rossellini’s ROME, OPEN CITY (Italy, 1945) were represented as sexual deviants, and they were involved in a graphic torture scene. This film is available on one of the art-house video labels in very tasteful packaging, and will always find an audience due to the importance of the film’s director and Italian neorealism. In contrast, the video promotion for the nazi exploitation films concentrated on the themes of sexual deviation and explicit sadism, they were the unique selling points.
Video covers have a parallel in the artwork of the covers associated with pulp comics from the middle of the last century. Pulp comics had emerged from the boom in magazine production at the end of the 19th century. They were part of popular/mass culture and were easily accessible. They addressed subjects such as the Korean War and the Holocaust. Success lay in the realms of the lurid, the grotesque and the horrific. (4). Similar themes appear in the videos and artwork discussed here. The pulps were printed on inexpensive paper, hence their name, and featured exciting stories that the general public eagerly consumed. They sold mainly from newsstands and needed to compete with each other. They achieved this by adopting graphic and garish covers in order to attract the potential reader’s attention. (5). The old damsel in distress formula was popular, and the same themes of sex and sadism were present in these covers too.
A cover for Dime Mystery Magazine (August, 1937), shows a woman manacled to a table clad only in her underwear, about to be cut in half by a mad doctor and his skinhead assistant, who is operating what appears to be a cross between a guillotine and a meat cleaver. Spicy Adventure Stories (November, 1934), featured a girl tied to a tree, her clothing in tatters, being threatened by an African tribesman wearing a ring through his nose, wielding a bloody spear, and carrying the severed head of the girl’s partner. The story is called ‘The Barbarian’. In The Avenger (July, 1940), a woman is tied to a table; a man’s hands enter the frame above her holding a small hammer and a spike, which is about to be pounded into her skull. A group of men in raincoats and trilbies look on.
This last example is particularly disturbing, as there is no explanation as to why the woman should be subjected to this form of violence. The other covers were self-explanatory. Readers were well acquainted with mad doctors, they turned up several times in Universal horror films; they were expected to behave in this way, as were African tribesmen who often featured in the Tarzan movies of the same era. The representation of Africans or oriental villains in this manner, is no longer acceptable, but at the time they were extremely popular, racism was part of popular culture, people loved to read about exotic lands and their inhabitants. The promotion of the Cannibal and Mondo films, associated with the Video Nasty era, operated in a similar way promising amongst other things, the spectacle of bizarre initiation ceremonies and cannibalism. In the case of the Mondo films, everything you saw was meant to be real footage; they were often referred to as shockumentaries. Some of the warnings on the covers suggested that real human deaths were featured, they were usually scenes taken from news footage, the juxtaposition of which added realism to the staged footage.
Advertisers had used the theme of the woman in peril many times previously. The fearful, helpless female, in the past, had promoted medical companies, telephone companies and home protection products. (6). The cover for THE LAST HORROR FILM (USA, 1982, d. David Winters) consists of a still from the film showing Caroline Munro standing against a tiled bathroom wall, a look of terror on her face. A hand in the lower left corner of the photograph threatens her with a broken bottle. Munro is at her most vulnerable; she is naked, apart from a bath towel, and wet. The scene plays on the audience’s knowledge of the famous shower scene murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (USA, 1960). It seems that the girl in the picture is about to be savaged with the bottle. In a similar way to the comic cover mentioned above, the bottle is held in the hands of somebody outside of the shot. It gives a point of view aspect to the scene. The person holding the jagged bottle could be you. However, in the context of the film, this scene takes on a different meaning. The bottle is not held by the film’s killer, but by Joe Spinell who plays a deluded would-be film director, who is trying to persuade Munro to star in his imaginary project. An out of context image can be used to promote the film if it carries sufficient connotations to attract its key audience. In this case the artwork was directed at fans of stalk and slash movies in the vein of FRIDAY THE 13th (USA, 1980, d. Sean Cunningham), and HALLOWEEN (USA, 1978, d. John Carpenter).
The lettering, and film titles themselves, provided powerful signifiers. Lettering used on the covers was often designed in a shaky, distorted fashion, representing the frissons that lay in store for the viewer. Lettering often dripped blood, signifying violence and gore. Titles were often bizarre or bloodthirsty. There couldn’t have been anyone who was not moved to curiosity by the title, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (USA, 1973 d. Tobe Hooper). Based on true events, it carried the connotations of an urban legend. The film has proved to be a milestone in horror film history, and continues to horrify new audiences. But many other films failed to deliver the promised thrills, not that it mattered of course, pleasure was derived merely from finding a lurid, grotesquely packaged video on the shelf. It may have turned out to be a lost classic, but if not, you were only gambling with a pound or so. The title of a film could prove to be more interesting than the film itself. Distribution companies often changed titles to appeal to the British audience. Mario Bava’s BLOOD BATH (Italy, 1972) had originally been called TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE in Italy. The Italian title is wonderful, inspired by Italian giallos, (the popular yellow covered murder mystery books). But it was too outré for British or American audiences. Cinema goers and video consumers had to be able to recognise the signifiers used; the title Blood Bath implied there was gore and violence on offer. Anthony Balch (HORROR HOSPITAL, UK, 1973), film director, distributor and William Burroughs associate, was convinced that the title on the marquee mattered more than the actual content of the film. He famously released Alain Jessua's thriller TRAITEMENT DE CHOC (Italy/France, 1973) in the UK as DOCTOR IN THE NUDE. (7).
Films such as DON'T GO IN THE HOUSE (USA, 1980, d. Joseph Ellison) and DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE (USA, 1981, d. Robert Hammer) and several others used the word 'don't' as a signifier for horror. 'Don’t’ implies that something is forbidden, and what is forbidden becomes more attractive. A film with 'don't' in its title was really saying ‘do rent this film!’ The word ‘house’ was used many times, (LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF THE PARK) signifying that something evil was contained within. We had already seen evil represented by houses in PSYCHO, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (USA, 1979, d. Stuart Rosenberg) and THE EXORCIST (USA, 1973, d. William Friedkin). The titles of the videos also fooled the authorities on more than one occasion. Policemen removed Francis Ford Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW (USA, 1979) from the shelves of a video store, by mistake. They had confused the tape with CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (Italy, 1980, d. Antonio Margheriti), a film on the DPP’s banned list. (8). The word ‘apocalypse’ had become synonymous with screen violence.
The effect of the Video Packaging Review Committee has been to stamp out the sensationalist covers that embellished the videocassettes of the past. No customer will ever be offended again when they enter a video shop, apart from those of us who are repulsed by the dull, formulaic packaging adorning most contemporary horror releases. The Video Recordings Act made it illegal to trade in uncertified videocassettes, and genre fans adopted the DPP’s banned list as a shopping list. The government intervention on this issue gave cult value to some films that could otherwise have been forgotten about. In many cases the films have survived and been re-released, usually in a cut form. The Driller Killer is available on DVD; it has retained its drill bit logo, but not the graphic violence of the original cover. If a film does not carry the logo of the VPRC, then the dealer can refuse to stock it, subsequently the artwork of the early British horror video has been suppressed to the point of extinction.
The promotion mechanisms employed by the early vidoes to attract the target audience, can also be seen as working in the opposite way; repelling those who would be offended by the film. Would a responsible parent browsing for a screwball comedy video accidentally select NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (Mexico, 1968, d. Rene Cardona), the cover for which features a close-up of a surgeon’s gloved, bloody hands holding a scalpel? The horror video of the late 1990’s is packaged in a way that appeals to the FRIENDS generation, (Courtney Cox also appears in the SCREAM movies). They do not have the allure associated with the original covers. It is very hard to tell the SCREAM series of films, and their ilk, apart from one another by their video sleeves alone. Surely this type of promotion is misleading, as the violence depicted in the film is disguised by the packaging. It is presented in a way that makes it more acceptable; we recognise the faces on the covers from American TV series, so it must be all right. The early covers showed you exactly what horrors were in store for the viewer. The faces on the covers were anonymous, and in the case of the Mondo movies, may never be seen again. Independence and originality have been suppressed in favour of the promotion of mass-produced, non-original items. The videos available in that brief period of time, the combination of film and packaging, had their own aura; they provided a unique visual experience that is now lost forever.
1. Petley, J., Two or three things I know about video nasties, Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol 51, No. 610, November 1984, p351.
2. Kovacs, S., Exploitation, Sight and Sound, Vol 51, No. 2, Spring 1982, p90.
3. Wingrove, N. and Morris, M., The Art of the Nasty, p4.
4. Varnedoe, K., and Gopnik, A., High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. p186.
5. Robinson, F., M., and Davidson, L., Pulp Culture, The Art of Fiction Magazines. p12.
6. Sobieszek, R., The Art of Persuasion, p65.
7. Rayns, T., Grindhouse Nights, Sight and Sound, Vol 17, No. 6, June, 2007, p22-23.
8. Bryce, A. Video Nasties. p12.
Barker, M., (ed), The Video Nasties, Freedom and Censorship in the Media. Pluto Press Ltd. 1984.
Bethmann, A., 20 Jahre Phantastische Videocover, MPW Filmbibliothek, Germany, 1998.
Bloom, C., Cult Fiction, Popular Reading and Pulp Theory, Macmillan Press Ltd. 1996.
Brewster, F. Fenton, H. & Morris, M. Shock! Horror! Astounding artwork from the Video Nasty era. FAB Press, 2005
Bryce, A. Video Nasties. From Absurd to Zombie Flesh-Eaters – A collector’s guide to the most horrifying films ever banned. Stray Cat Publishing. 1998.
Gaiman, N., and Newman, K., Ghastly Beyond Belief, Arrow Books Ltd., 1985.
Goodstone, T., (ed), The Pulps, Fifty Years of American Pop Culture. Bonanza Books. USA. 1970.
Martin, J., The Seduction of the Gullible. The curious history of the British ‘Video Nasty’ phenomenon. Procrustes Press. 1993.
Robinson, F., M., and Davidson, L., Pulp Culture, The Art of Fiction Magazines. Collector Press Inc. USA. 1998.
Sobieszek, R., The Art of Persuasion: a history of advertising photography. H.N. Abrams. USA. 1988.
Varnedoe, K., and Gopnik, A., High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture. Museum of Modern Art. New York. 1990.
Wingrove, N. and Morris, M., The Art of the Nasty. Salvation Films Ltd. 1998.
Paul Flanagan Summer 1999, revised Summer 2007.Back to Articles and Contamination Horror Index