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24th March 2014

Video Nasties

Tom talks blood, bureaucracy, flesh and classifications: how the BBFC has affected movies from Psycho to Philomena, Cannibal Holocaust to A Clockwork Orange

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was mired in a didactic debate that postponed its planned release. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) couldn’t decide what the public should and should not be allowed to see. In fact, they couldn’t even be sure of what they had seen themselves; half the censors claimed there was nudity while the other half disagreed, and no one could come to a consensus on what to do about the stabbings. Psycho was eventually discharged, but the heavily abridged shower scene left Sir Hitchcock in dismay.

Classification controversy has been around as long as cinema itself, and reached it’s crux in the mid- 1980s when The Daily Mail alerted the government to a wave of foreign films that were “raping our children’s minds”. These so called ‘Video Nasties’ varied in their degree of violence – some were mistakenly thought to be ‘snuff’ films, in which humans are actually killed – but basically anything with blood and/or nudity ended up banned by the BBFC through the hastily whipped together Video Recordings Act 1984. To give an idea of the extent of this celluloid clampdown, my cousin actually had to buy the fetchingly named Cannibal Holocaust from a ‘video dealer’ in an alleyway. Bans on ‘video nasties’ have since been lifted, and the enduring popularity of today’s ‘torture-porn’ genre (Hostel, Saw and *shudder* A Serbian Film), as well as recent video nastie remakes (I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House On the Left, and The Green Inferno) suggests that the nation is over the ‘schlock’.

A more recent BBFC befuddlement was the 12/12A debacle. In 2002, myself and a friend were denied admittance to Sam Raimi’s Spiderman. Later that year, it was bestowed with the brand new 12A rating (the second film ever) and – having ensnared an adult guardian – we got in. While eight-year-olds everywhere web-t for joy, older audiences criticised 12A as an arbitrary classification. For the major studios, it was quite the opposite; they foresaw propitious times ahead, and they couldn’t have millions of kids refused entry and thus placed out of reach from the all-powerful merch-machine (Hulk Hands, anyone?) 12A was a compromise that let the likes of Marvel and DC milk the concessions cow for all it was worth, and the BBFC lets them know exactly what they can get away with. F-bombs are a no-no, but gratuitous levels of ‘impressionistic’ violence are just fine. The worst case recently was The Dark Knight (2008), which received a 12A rating that meant parents could (and did) bring their toddler along to the multiplex to slurp at a long-empty Fruit Shoot while Heath Ledger carved Chelsea smiles into people. BBFC… what a bunch of Jokers.

Classification controversy isn’t just limited to the UK, though. Thanks to an effusive st-st-st-ring of ‘f’ words, The King’s Speech was branded R in the US, putting off the tenderly elderly and barring under 17s. Things are worse in India. Last year’s Blue Jasmine was almost tainted by mid-scene anti-smoking ads from their Ministry of Health until an ashen faced Woody Allen pulled it from cinemas nationwide. Whether you think that BBFC’s gradual softening to cinema’s hard-core elements is progressive or damaging, we at least don’t have to put up with public health intrusions mid-film.

The BBFC censors like to say that they reflect the moral standpoint of the public – what this says about our society today is open to interpretation, but we’ve at least come to the conclusion that watching Child’s Play won’t make you a murderer. In this age of Tor, 4Chan and sugary breakfast cereals, you can’t prevent young people from seeing anything anyway. As Stanley Kubrick said before begrudgingly withdrawing A Clockwork Orange due to death threats, ‘people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their nature’.

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