In the early 1980s in the U.K., a burgeoning new technology kickstarted an outrage-driven witch hunt for certain horror films, collectively referred to as “video nasties.” The technology in question was the video player, which had the power to bring cinema into everyone’s home. The problem was there were no rules on what could or could not be released on video, and distributers keen to capitalize on the trend put out pretty much anything they could license.
Many cheap, lurid, gory, exploitative horror movies were among the titles flooding video stores, and it was these that caught the attention of the tabloid media, concerned parents, moral activists, and eventually, the government. After much hand-wringing and a lot of scaremongering headlines, the director of public prosecutions stepped in to save the general public from such obscenity, publishing a list of 72 movies that were “likely to deprave and corrupt” to help the police identify and prosecute those distributing them.
Doors were knocked down, videotapes were seized, people actually went to prison, and horror fans got a checklist of films they really had to see. The “video nasty” panic eventually ushered in rules on certifying and censoring home video releases in the U.K.. Fast-forward nearly four decades. though, and the majority of the films on the U.K. government’s banned list have been officially released, uncut and uncensored. That means you can now legally see what the U.K. government didn’t want an entire nation to see.
If you want to put an actual, previously banned horror film on your watchlist for Halloween, you’ll need a guide. The banned list certainly does contain some very unpleasant films, plus some with genuine artistic merit, and even genre-defining horror like The Evil Dead, but we’re not going to recommended those for Halloween. Instead, here are a few you may not have heard of that angered the censors and caused segments of the U.K. public to get very upset during the early ’80s — along with one that you probably shouldn’t watch at all. Ever.
A word of warning, though: Don’t watch them alone …
What Halloween would be complete without a slasher movie? Summer camp caretaker Cropsy gets horribly burned in a prank gone wrong, and five years later returns to take revenge on some stereotypical teens. Crispy Cropsy is pretty handy with a pair of garden shears, and he gleefully uses them to separate appendages from bodies throughout the movie.
The Burning came out in 1981, after big-name slashers like Friday the 13th, Halloween, and Black Christmas, meaning all the expected traits are here — a disfigured killer, a summer camp, horny teens, and shower scenes, plus a good selection of memorable deaths. Also look out for a young Jason Alexander, subsequently famous for playing Seinfeld’s George Costanza, and The Piano’s Holly Hunter, plus listen for prog rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s score.
A word of advice, though: This movie, along with a few other films on this list, is paced very differently than films made today. It takes quite a while for anything to happen after the initial cooking of Cropsy, but stick around, as the final act is everything you want a slasher film to be.
Evilspeak sees a 15th-century Spanish devil worshipper called Esteban return from the dead at a military school in the U.S. centuries later. He wreaks lots of satanic havoc through nerdy Stanley Coopersmith, who uses the power to take revenge on his bullies.
This is not a good film, but I like it for its total bizarreness. The military academy where Coopersmith is a student just happens to be built over a seemingly endless catacomb — where, for some reason, a drunken sergeant lives — all on land once gifted to Esteban when he escaped the Spanish Inquisition. Oh, and there are killer pigs. It’s all over the place.
Seeing as Digital Trends is a technology site, it’s fitting Evilspeak also prominently features a very retro green-screen computer. It’s surprisingly capable and translates ancient languages in moments, quickly gives instructions on how to hold a black mass, and even channels Esteban’s evil spirit. Who needs a new Mac? What you will need, though, is some patience for this one, as it’s long on feeble attempts at bullying and short on actual devilry for 75% of its runtime. Once it gets going, Evilspeak does deliver some gory goods, along with plenty of black magic nonsense, unintentional laughs, and a full-on crazy final 15 minutes. Perfect for Halloween.
Think of Contamination as Alien crossed with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, just more, well, explody. Bizarre egglike pods are found inside a mysterious, deserted cargo ship stopped as it sped into New York. But these eggs aren’t for cooking, and are quickly revealed to be from outer space, but who brought them to Earth, and why?
Director Luigi Cozzi wastes absolutely no time in getting into the meat of Contamination, and within 15 minutes, several bodies have already blown up, sending flesh all over the place — and it doesn’t let up after that, either. The action moves from the ship to a laboratory that looks only slightly more high-tech than the Bat Cave in the Batman ‘66 comics, then we’re off to Colombia (via Mars), and eventually back to New York. It’s all wrapped in a cracking score from Italian horror mainstay Goblin.
Watch for the weird, oddly musical sound the eggs make, and settle down for the longest, most drawn-out lead-character-in-peril sequence since the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, and a really rubbish alien at the end.
Let Sleeping Corpses Lie
I love this film. It’s a little-seen, wonderfully atmospheric zombie horror movie with some striking cinematography, lighting, and sound design, plus an ecological message that probably resonates more today than it did in 1974, when the film was released. It’s known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie in the U.S., The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue in the U.K., and a wide variety of other names, too.
Antique dealer George is getting away from the city for the weekend, but after an accident with his motorbike, he gets caught up in a zombie outbreak caused by experimental farming equipment that uses ultrasonic radiation as a pesticide, with the unfortunate side effect of waking the dead. Director Jorge Grau keeps the pace up, for a 1970s film at least, and although it’s packed full of familiar tropes — grizzled cop gets tough with criminals, no one believes the hero, and everyone is far to slow to outwit the zombies — it has a compelling story and an unexpected ending.
Fair warning, while there are some unpleasant gore scenes, particularly during the hospital sequence near the end, people may find the casual misogyny and use of words that wouldn’t be acceptable today far more problematic. The film is coming up to 50 years old, remember. Get past this, and you’ll find a zombie film that should really be as well respected as Night of the Living Dead.
If the rest of the films on the list are forgettable, blood-soaked fluff, Tenebrae is here to provide some actual substance. Beautifully shot and achingly stylish throughout, this is one of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento’s most accessible movies, and one of the finest yellow slashers you’ll see. Novelist Peter Neal finds his most recent work is linked to a series of murders in Rome, and while the police struggle to find the killer, Neal gets ever more entwined in the crimes.
Horror stalwart John Saxon (Scanners, A Nightmare on Elm Street) stars, along with Argento regular Daria Nicolodi, but it’s the murder-as-art sequences, inspired direction and cinematography, and fantastic score — again, by Goblin — that make the film so memorable. The sequence at around 28 minutes in, where the camera exits a window and climbs up and over the building, all set to that soundtrack and in one take, is glorious. If you’re not an Argento fan already, this is the set piece that will turn you into one.
I’m going to stop gushing, and say that if you only watch one film on this list, make it Tenebrae.
Don’t watch: Cannibal Holocaust
Maybe you have browsed the original list of 72 movies banned in the U.K., and saw the intriguingly named Cannibal Holocaust among them. Perhaps it seemed strangely familiar, either because of Eli Roth’s 2013 homage to it, The Green Inferno, or references in articles examining the history of found-footage horror like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project. It’s possible this made you look around for the uncut 96-minute version to see what the fuss was all about.
At the risk of sounding like the director of public prosecutions from the 1980s, don’t do it. It may be 40 years old, but Cannibal Holocaust is not a film for the faint of heart, and still has the power to shock and sicken today. Exceptionally grim, there are multiple scenes of shockingly realistic fake violence, along with actual real violence toward animals, making it one of the few films on the banned list that really won’t make for a fun Halloween party. It’s far more likely to make you want a shower after watching it — and stop your friends from letting you look after their pets.
There’s no doubt it helped create an entire genre, and sections of Riz Ortolani’s score are far more beautiful than what happens on screen, plus the effects are impressive for the time it was made and the budget it had, but Cannibal Holocaust is one best left to the history books. Save yourself from this, and go play a Halloween video game instead.