The ‘Video Nasty’ furore in Great Britain in the 80s was perhaps the ultimate argument that any publicity really isn’t necessarily good publicity. When an attempt by Go Video to build interest in the UK release of Cannibal Holocaust included a faked letter of outrage to moral crusader Mary Whitehouse, things massively backfired and a tabloid furore was whipped up that resulted in the wholesale banning of a whole range of titles including, most famously, Evil Dead – which at the time was top of the national video sales chart.
Since the BBFC at the time had no classification process for home video, a rush of lurid titles had hit the market. Seizing on this, the British tabloid press – never a group collectively likely to shirk the possibility of a good scandal – sprang a succession of provocative headlines and public pressure led to the banning of 39 films. These titles would remain banned in Britain until the mid-1990s, with most being passed by the BBFC upon their various DVD releases in the early 2000s.
And so to Umbrella Entertainment’s three-film collection entitled simply, Video Nasties. As it turns out, the title is something of a misnomer as in fact only one of the three movies on board (Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left) was ever actually on the Video Nasty list. Somehow, such a transparent marketing pitch seems oddly in keeping with the history of misunderstandings of the whole saga that led to things like Tobe Hooper’s tame The Funhouse getting the ban when the real target was rumoured to be Last House on Dead End Street, which had bootlegs under the title The Funhouse.
So what we actually get on this DVD set are Last House on the Left, Maniac and Basket Case.
Basket Case (1982) is the brainchild of writer/director Frank Henenlotter and tells the tale of Duane Bradley, who carries his deformed twin brother Belial around in, well, a basket. The pair were Siamese twins and now seek vengeance on the trio of doctors who separated them.
A schlocky premise, to be sure, but Henenlotter shows personality and originality to transcend the film’s tiny budget. Kevin Van Hentenryck is charming as the naive Duane (despite his frightening 80s perm-mullet), securing audience sympathy right off the bat and when his loyalties begin being torn between his murderous brother and his burgeoning romance with local girl Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), Henenlotter keeps the character orientation centremost. This gives the film a weight and strength often missing from films of its ilk. Basket Case is definitely an underappreciated gem.
Last House on the Left is well-known in genre circles for both its gritty realism and the fact it is the debut of Wes (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) Craven. It is based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring as two girls out on the town fall into the clutches of a marauding gang of thugs, who take them to the woods and murder them before ending up staying at the house of one of the girls. There, the well-to-do parents discover who is under their roof and decide to take bloody vengeance.
There are many problems with Last House on the Left as a film. It is poorly constructed – the flick never matches the emotional gut-punch of the murders that occur halfway through the piece – it contains ill-advised attempts at comedic relief that come off as tasteless in the face of the grim violence and it also has a poorly-fitting soundtrack (written and performed by David Hess, who plays main villain Krug) that awkwardly juxtaposes jaunty music over dark visuals, the exception to which is the surprisingly haunting balled “The Road Leads To Nowhere”. The latter song also crops up in a tip-of-the-hat in 2003’s Cabin Fever.
Despite these flaws, the documentary-style filming and some surprisingly strong acting means the film still packs a hell of a punch. Whilst it is certainly not a good movie, the anger and power of it remains undimmed even after more than three decades.
The extras are interesting, with the cast and crew viewing the film mostly with embarrassment (such as an almost apologetic Craven on the commentary track) and some with pride (most notably Hess, and rightly so) while critically neither of the lead girls appear anywhere in the interviews or commentaries while Fred Lincoln (who plays flick-knife wielding thug ‘Weasel’) decries the film as “a piece of shit” and “the only thing in my career I’m embarrassed about.” The latter is especially pointed given that Lincoln is a prolific porn actor and director with over 250 credits to his name.
Maniac shares with Last House on the Left some lofty goals. It is an intense character portrait of a mother-obsessed sociopath and we witness him struggling with his own demons as he kills (and scalps) women across the city. Perhaps intended as an evil twin of Taxi Driver, the anti-hero of Frank Zito (played with single-minded dedication by Joe Spinell) is simply harrowing to be with. He is a twisted loser, and perhaps engenders some pity but mostly only disgust. In turn, Maniac is a seedy, difficult viewing.
There is a lot of skill involved in the making, however. As well as Spinell’s anchoring performance there is some quality gore work by Tom Savini (most notably a graphic shotgun-to-the-head blast where the recipient is played by Savini himself) and excellent direction from William Lustig, who would go on to helm the underrated Maniac Cop series. One expert sequence of a woman being stalked through a public toilet would later be homaged in Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2005).
Again, the extras are absorbing, with Spinell clearly passionate about the material. He saw this as a potential award-winning effort, the kind of performance to break him into the big time. Instead, the nasty tone of the piece saw it buried in controversy (a lot centred around its iconic poster showing a man holding a severed female head while wearing jeans tight enough to reveal his erection from the act) and consigned Spinell to playing a succession of minor Italian gangster roles for the remainder of his career.
The Video Nasties package, then, may sport only one genuinely good film in the shape of the modest Basket Case, but it is always interesting, with all three films having significant artistic credibility. Disappointingly, the transfers on all three are sub-par, although this is partially down to the low budget of the original prints. Fortunately, solid extras on all three films more than make up for this.
The mixed bag of quality and nasty tone of two of the movies means this is not one for the casual viewer but for horror fans, all three are essential viewing.
- Audio commentaries
- Interview featurettes
- Scoring Last House featurette
- Image Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
- More gore
- The Joe Spinell story
- TV spots/poster gallery
- In Search of the Hotel Broslin
- Outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage
Available on R4 DVD from Umbrella Entertainment.