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A case of nostalgia: The Evil Dead, Video Nasties and the gorehound in me

The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-MareI’ve not seen the recent remake of The Evil Dead yet, but nevertheless it prompted me to remember that this was the first ‘modern’ horror film that I saw back in the day. Up until then, I was content to watch all those fabulous old Hammer, Universal, Amicus and Tyburn frightfests: after all, I had been an avid collector of the Aurora Monster model kits when a youngster and I’d been eager to see the films they’d been based on (although, for many years I had been searching fruitlessly for the films from which The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Mare and The Witch models had been taken – only to learn later that they were generic designs). Of course, my parents had a hand in deciding what it was I could watch, deeming such fare to be a little overwhelming for my impressionable mind (despite having had my favourite book, Elliott O’Donnell’s The Screaming Skull and Other Ghost Stories, confiscated by a teacher when I was seven. I loved horror and ghost stories at that age, yet I never suffered nightmares as a result). As a consequence, it was to be many years before I was able to watch the films, and only when they appeared on TV.

The 1980s changed all that with the advent of the video player. This meant that not only were blockbusters accessible at any time – rather than the viewer being held hostage to the TV stations and their schedules – but obscure films that had only been talked about in specialist books and magazines were potentially available. Indeed, my memory of going through the local video rental shop is that it was something of a revelation – here were films I had never known existed. Most of the cover artwork was fairly lurid and off-putting, yet strangely attractive at the same time. Most of the descriptions were equally lurid and off-putting. For the most part I stuck to what I knew, which was mostly sci-fi and fantasy films, with the occasional Universal horror to liven things up.

Some of you will remember the furore surrounding the so-called ‘video nasties’ in the mid-80s, which culminated in a list being drawn up of the most offensive of these films and thence banishment to the cultural void. However, if there is one thing that our self-styled ‘moral guardians’ never appear to learn, it’s that once you prohibit something you instantly glamorise it and the object becomes much sought after. Concomitant to that, people will always find ways to obtain whatever it is, and there will inevitably be those who are willing to supply it for a price. And so it turned out with the video nasties.

The Evil DeadAnyway, I am getting ahead of myself here. The Evil Dead was one such title that had been doing the rounds in the genre media and had gained some notoriety in the process. One afternoon I received a phone call from a friend, inviting me to a video evening where one of the films being shown was going to be this infamous film. Having read a little bit about it, I wasn’t entirely sure that it was for me, nevertheless there was that part of me which was curious to know why it had gained the reputation it had. So I went along to satisfy that curiosity, if nothing else.

I vaguely recall watching some (forgettable) film before the main feature, which must have lulled me into a false sense of security because The Evil Dead was like nothing I had ever seen. Just picture this: previously I had watched The Omen, King Kong, The Colussus of New York and The War of the Worlds, all of which were frightening in their own small ways, but what I was now watching was a whole order of magnitude beyond my film viewing experience. There was someone chewing their own hand off, pencils were shoved into ankles, bloody transformations, dismemberment and various other gruesome acts, all shown on the screen. This was explication, not implication. Moreover, it was all in glorious Technicolor. I was both horrified and mesmerised.

In parallel with the transformations onscreen, I, too, underwent a kind of transformation. It was almost as if watching the film had over-written everything I’d known and enjoyed about the horror films I’d been watching: suddenly all those Universals and Hammers had metamorphosed into something else, something juvenile or even childish. They were now tame and hopelessly mild in my mind: horror was meant to be savage, to be red in tooth and claw. Now here was something that I could really get to grips with, a type of film that was unstinting on the red stuff – nay threw it around quite liberally and with almost complete abandon. So, at that point my next mission was formed – to watch as many gruesome horrors as I could lay my hands on.

(Before I go any further, I wish to point out that I was in my early to mid-twenties when this happened. I hadn’t yet honed my critical faculties enough to discern that horror doesn’t necessarily have to be shown to make it horrific – being sickened by onscreen gore is a fairly shallow reaction, in all honesty. What’s more frightening – seeing a monster actually violently ripping someone to shreds in front of you OR seeing the results, then wondering what the hell caused that much damage to a human being? The former, although scary in itself, is still a known quantity: the latter is purely open to conjecture, and if you’re someone who possesses an active imagination…. well, you can probably guess the rest.)

Cannibal FeroxThe main thrust of my mission was sourcing uncut versions of as many films as possible – and also getting hold of as many of the video nasties as I could. It proved fairly frustrating at first, even though one of my local video stores had ‘under-the-counter’ videos, but they were always out (seems many people had the same idea as me). Everything changed, though, when I found a company called Video Vultures in north Wales. They claimed to be able to source any film out there, banned or otherwise. So, I took a chance on them and, I have to say, they came up trumps: I was able to get uncut versions of Hellraiser, Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, Anthropophagous, Suspiria¸ The Exorcist, The Beyond, Men Behind the Sun, Nekromantik  and the Guinea Pig films. For such a gorehound at the time, this was a treasure trove. I just couldn’t get enough.

Times are different now, both in terms of how I am and the cultural climate. Many of the video nasties are now available quite freely; in fact seeing some of them at the time they’d been banned I wondered how such lame films ever came to be put on the list. Yes, there were some truly nasty celluloid nightmares that, for one reason or another, probably deserved their place on the list, but they were few in number. As for me, my video collection of the eighties and nineties has now gone: they were all on videocassette and most, if not all, suffered from the climate and were rendered unplayable. In all honesty, even if I still had them and they were playable, I doubt whether I would be interested in watching them again. That was almost another era for me, one which belonged to another life and one which I have firmly left behind in the past, where it will stay.

On the other hand, perhaps I’ll indulge in some nostalgia and watch the original Evil Dead again sometime…

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

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1 comment

  1. Great column Simon and your viewing experience very much mirrors my own.

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