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The phenomenon of forbidden movies
The idea of forbidden movies for me started as a child. There were certain things that I wasn’t allowed to watch. It was a big deal when I was allowed to stay up late on a Saturday night and watch Starsky & Hutch.
But movies that appeared later, were never open to me. So that created an aura of mystery and intrigue around these forbidden movies.
A cinema trip was something that I did maybe a dozen times prior to me turning 16, so television was my sole access to film full stop. Video shops came along a bit later.
Television used to feature movie trailers as part of commercial advertising. Judicious editing of footage into the trailer made ropey films like Hangar 18 seem much more attractive than they actually were. As an adult I can say that Darren McGavin and Robert Vaughn were wasted in the film. But it was a tough time for Hollywood and they needed to take what work they could get.
Being in school
In primary school and the beginning of secondary school there was a lot of bravado about who had seen what films. Death Race 2000 was a popular film to name drop because of its transgressive nature.
In reality the film was a Roger Corman produced black comedy that sparked their imagination. But the reality was a mix of imagination and third hand accounts from older family relatives made up the schoolyard mythology of Death Race 2000 and other forbidden movies.
I had friends who went to art school and got tapes through them. For instance this interview by Geraldo Rivera with death row inmate Charles Manson together with a copy of Cannibal Ferox – an Italian exploitation film banned in the UK under the Obscene Publications act. Neither was ever screened on British TV.
The first time that I watched A Clockwork Orange was on a tape too. Stanley Kubrick asked for distributors Warner Brothers to remove A Clockwork Orange from UK circulation once it had run its corse at the cinema. The reason was media hysteria had built up around the film and alleged copycat crimes perpetrated. After Kubrick died, Warner Brothers put the film back into circulation and I got to see it in the cinema and own my own copy.
Although I had seen these films, I had watched them on noisy recordings, so it was like being at a drive through in the middle of a blizzard. But these under the counter copies only magnified the myth around these and other forbidden movies. The 051 art cinema in Liverpool and Moviedrome series on BBC did a lot to widen my film consumption and media literacy.
Forbidden movies generally fell into one form of exploitation film genres. These were films that rode a current trend, were niche genres or had transgressive content of one sort or another. Out of exploitation films came the modern porn industry, spaghetti westerns, horror films, sci-fi and fantasy genre, blaxploitation films, LGBTQ cinema and the popularity of martial arts films in the west. They were typically shown in what were known as grind house cinemas in the US. These were cinemas that charged low prices and continually screened films one after the other.
Some film production companies such as Roger Corman’s New World Cinema and Cannon Pictures specialised in exploitation films. By the time home video and the video rental business came along there was a good body of content to draw from globally. For some reason Italy was a major source of content due to extensive experience dubbing into multiple languages. Italian films were also very transgressive to draw audiences in.
Content that was created to fuel cinema viewers landed on the small screen thanks to consumer video recorders. There was a single video standard (after Video 2000 and Betamax were outlicenced by VHS). At first VHS viewing was treated as something personal to the household. But eventually the law intervened.
On the childhood street were I lived until secondary school, there was a family who ran video rental shops and made hardcore pornography in a studio above one of the stores. Their films apparently starred several of our neighbours. There were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. The media and government started to take a second look at exploitation genre films that had managed to get a release to video. A pressure group got the government to create a list of 72 films thought to be in contravention of the Obscene Publications Act and then brought in the The Video Recordings Act 1984 which required all films to get a classification as if it was going to be released for cinema display. Included on the list of 72 forbidden movies were works by Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Dario Argento – all of whom have made a major impact on the history of the cinema and the art of film-making.
Exploitation films live on through its influence on mainstream film makers such as Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Rodriguez. The modern equivalents of the exploitation production houses would be the likes of The Asylum who produce a lot of direct to Amazon Prime level films.
Mondo films to shockumentaries
Mondo films were pioneered in the 1960s by a duo of Italian directors: Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. Jet travel had opened up the world, but long haul travel was only available to a privileged elite. Far flung parts of the world were largely a mystery to each other. Secondly, the world in a process of decolonisation. Jacopetti and Prosperi’s films showed that a documentary could be profitable at the cinema and could entertain. They weren’t without controversy.
They also inspired other directors to put together clips of salacious content as documentaries. The most famous of which was Faces of Death and its subsequent four sequels. The most controversial footage in Faces of Death was faked.
Found footage has been used as a cinema trope recently with the likes of the Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. But it started as a device in cinema with the release of Italian film Cannibal Holocaust which features on the UK list of 72 forbidden movies.
Moral panic accelerated by the tabloid press fuelled a lot of what happened in the UK film industry right through to the 1990s and beyond. The backlash against video nasties in the 1980s matched the backlash against Child’s Play 3 in 1993 when allegations were made that Jamie Bulger‘s killers were inspired by the film. That moral panic also came out again when one of them reoffended. Nowadays the panic is more focused on the internet.
The documented life
While film cameras were available in the pre-war period, much less people had access to their own film development lab. So ‘stag reels’ were able to be shot, but these were either personal films of the very rich, an inside film industry endeavour or involved organised crime.
The rise of home video in the 1980s changed things dramatically. The family that I mentioned early on who set up the pornographic film studio started with a video camera and recorder combo unit that they originally bought for filming weddings.
By 1984 the JVC GRC-1 camcorder provided consumers with a TV studio in a easily portable unit using VHS-C cassettes allowing for recording and immediate playback. Consumers started bringing these camcorders everywhere.
It reduced the cost of film making sparking an explosion in film making for local audiences from Nigeria to the Philippines.
The camcorder allowed things to be filmed that wasn’t previously possible, including every conceivable form of pornography that you could think of including ‘point of view’ or gonzo content. Accidents could be captured fuelling more series like Faces of Death.
Internet of everything
The internet opened up new opportunities for sales and viewership that non-authoritarian governments haven’t really controlled. If you have forbidden movies in one country, it could be available to watch or on DVD or Blu-Ray in another which saw a boom and then massive disruption in the media industry and made a mockery of banned or forbidden movies.
If the JVC GRC-1 pioneered the home TV studio, the smartphone mainstreamed the concept and online video platforms provided the broadcast infrastructure. Judicious use of a search engine allows you quickly to find content that exceeds anything shown on the video nasty list of forbidden movies. And it’s real from the war zones of the Middle East to the latest combat footage from Ukraine.
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