Review: Video Nasties: Draconian Days (2014)

Posted on July 4, 2014 by Ben

Review by Ben Bussey

Jakes West’s Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape is my favourite documentary from recent years, not only because it’s entertaining and informative, but also because its subject matter is so very important. As I said in my review following the film’s premiere at FrightFest 2010, “this film isn’t just relevant to horror fans; this is a film that is relevant to every adult human being, particularly in Britain. It is a lesson and a warning about the nature of censorship, and the very real threats it presents to civil liberty. It is powerful, enlightening and profoundly important.” I stand by that. Seems Jake West and Marc Morris liked that quote too, as they used it extensively in the publicity for Video Nasties: the Definitive Guide, and four years on I’m still wearing a massive chufty badge about that.

Of course, whilst Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape gave us an in-depth history lesson of that era, that was by no means the end of the story. It’s not like the Video Recordings Act went through parliament, all videos had certificates on them, and suddenly everyone calmed down and had a cup of tea. Funny thing about history; it just keeps on going, very often failing to learn from what went before. And so, Video Nasties: Draconian Days picks up directly where the last film left off, following how things developed from the mid-1980s onwards after the passing of the VRA, and how in many respects the situation simply got worse. I approached this follow-up film with perhaps even greater interest than its predecessor, as this one centres on an era that I can vividly recall living through; I was too young to have any connection to the initial video nasty panic, but I clearly recall being aware of the heavy censorship of the mid-80s, and the media hysteria over certain key movies. Above all, I recall being acutely aware of the central figure in the narrative this time around, who takes over from Sir Graham Bright (I still giggle at how inappropriate that man’s name is), Peter Kruger and the notorious Mrs Whitehouse as our new nemesis: introducing Mr James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification from 1975 through to 1999.

One of the reasons I for most appreciated the original Video Nasties documentary – and indeed Video Nasties: the Definitive Guide, which explored each blacklisted film in detail – was that it listed exactly all the films that were banned under the VRA, along with those that came close but were ultimately let off. I found this particularly fascinating as there were a number of films which, prior to this, I had always assumed were video nasties as they too were banned right up until 1999, the most significant ones being The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist. The rather alarming truth of the matter is that these did not fall foul of the VRA, but were kept from public viewing based entirely on the say of Ferman himself.

The film paints a fascinating portrait of Ferman, who it seems was quite the hotbed of contradictions: a former filmmaker himself, he seemed keen to bring an artist’s eye to his work, oftentimes not content to simply excise ‘objectionable’ material but also going so far as to re-edit sequences to alter the meaning. It is noted that, despite all the talk of how imposing a classification system on video was all about protecting children, it was the films that were geared toward adults which were most heavily censored. Nor was horror the only genre under fire, as martial arts and action movies found themselves getting chunks hacked off purely for the appearance of certain forms of weaponry, notably nunchucks, knives and for some reason crossbows, on the grounds of that old bugbear ‘imitable behaviour’ – which, as we’ve seen recently with the ludicrous censorship of Soulmate, is still something the BBFC has a problem with.

Despite all this, Ferman isn’t necessarily a clear-cut moustache-twirling bad guy. Curiously enough, you may actually find yourself siding with him at certain points. One of my few complaints about Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape (and it was a very minor complaint) was its clear and obvious bias against the censors, and as such it’s very much to Morris and West’s credit that Draconian Days is a fair bit more balanced – or it may simply be that Ferman, for all his flaws, just wasn’t quite the outright shit that Bright, Kruger and Whitehouse were. There are times when he seems comparatively level-headed, particularly in refuting the tabloid press hysteria blaming the Hungerford massacre on Rambo, and – more notoriously – the murder of James Bulger on Child’s Play 3. (Overeager lefties who tend to blame all censorship on the Tories might also do well to note that one of Ferman’s strongest opponents, campaiging for absurdly strict film censorship following James Bulger, was a Liberal Democrat MP from Liverpool.) Even so, there’s no getting around Ferman’s blatant class snobbery and superiority complex, which more than once saw him go beyond the remit of his job.

As a direct follow-on from 2010’s Video Nasties, I suspect Draconian Days will be most appreciated by those who have already seen the first film. From the look of things a great deal of the film is put together from leftover interview footage shot for the original, but this is hardly a problem; it’s what they’re talking about that matters, and once again it’s all compelling and important stuff. Even so, I won’t deny a slight sense of anticlimax, as the story ends with Ferman’s ultimate resignation in 1999. With all that’s been going on at the BBFC in recent years – gradual relaxation in some areas, but alarming relapses into old-fashioned “ban this sick filth” mode in others – I couldn’t help but feel there’s still more story to tell here. Scope for a third film somewhere down the line, perhaps…?

Naturally, the trailer below is thoroughly NSFW.

Video Nasties: Draconian Days is available as part of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Vol. 2, which will be released to DVD on 14th July 2014, from Nucleus Films.