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Sick Filth!

Back in April 1995 when I started as Staff Writer on the nascent SFX magazine, literally my first job on my first day was to procure some screen grabs from episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. Issue 1 of SFX contained the first 'Couch Potato' feature - an approximate transcript of ribald comments directed at the subject of an evening's video viewing (which, 15 years on, is still a regular part of the magazine). I had never seen Voyager, which had yet to be broadcast in the UK, and the actual Couch Potato evening had been a few days earlier, as my soon-to-be colleagues watched an imported VHS off-air copy of the first few episodes.

      Younger readers who have grown up with DVD may not realise quite how difficult (frankly, impossible!) it was to get a clear freeze-frame from a VHS tape. The only way to grasp those moments that the text alluded to (and which I had to identify while fast-forwarding through three hours of Janeway and chums) was by linking a VHS machine up to a PC. You couldn't actually watch video on a computer in those dark days - Good Lord, no - but you could, by stabbing the space bar while the tape was playing on an adjacent TV 'grab' a single, slightly fuzzy frame. One that was good enough to run in a magazine at about the size of a large, colourful, foreign postage stamp.
      By tediously repeating the same process over and over again - space bar, check, rewind, space bar, check, rewind - you could eventually get an image of that precise moment when Tuvok waved his right leg in an amusing way that might prompt a slightly drunken journalist to observe, 'It's the Vulcan hokey-cokey!' This is why they gave the job to the new kid.
      Ah, happy days.

      But I don't want to talk about Star Trek: Voyager. I want to talk about Ghostwatch, the notorious fake ghost-hunting documentary which was broadcast on BBC 1 on Halloween night, 1992. The writer of that controversial show, Stephen Volk, was a guest at last month's 21st Festival of Fantastic Films and had some interesting comments to make and memories to share.
      Now, I didn't actually see Ghostwatch on October 31, 1992. That was because over on BBC 2 there was an all-night horror movie marathon (the last time that any terrestrial channel did anything of that sort) which kicked off with The Bride of Frankenstein directly opposite Ghostwatch and culminated just before breakfast on November 1 with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. I can't remember which films were sandwiched between these two Universal classics but those titles excited me. As a mature student at Staffordshire University, I had decided I wanted to write my dissertation on Frankenstein movies. This was pre-DVD and the only VHS release of Bride was long-out-of-print; as for Bud and Lou vs the monsters, forget it.
      So I stuck a fresh E180 into my machine and pressed play and record. I could of course have taped The Bride of Frankenstein while watching Ghostwatch but, to be brutally honest, it looked a bit crap. The programme's subsequent notoriety emerged because many people with no interest in horror drama sat down to watch it, believing it to be a genuine, lightweight actuality show about a supposedly haunted house, presented by respected interviewer Parky, the cheeky Scouser from Red Dwarf, a former Blue Peter presenter and her ex-DJ husband. Reality TV before the phrase existed. The sort of thing that subsequently coalesced into actual existence with Most Haunted - Live, even down to the faux-sincerity of a squeaky-clean ex-Blue Peter girl.

      The great irony here is that while people who didn't like this sort of thing watched Ghostwatch because they believed it to be real, I was one of many horror fans who chose not to watch it for precisely the same reason. So when the storm broke over the next few days, I was frustratingly unable to give my verdict on the show. The storm, I'm sure I don't need to remind you, stemmed from the fact that this was not just a deeply, deeply scary piece of drama but that it was masquerading as real and suckered people in far more successfully than Volk or his producer Ruth Baumgarten ever dreamed or expected.
      People had nightmares. It was blamed for suicides. Questions were asked in the House. The BBC, which had heavily promoted the show (even giving it the cover of Radio Times) apologised profusely and swore that the programme would never be repeated or released. So bang went my chances of ever actually seeing what all the fuss was about. (The editor of SFX, incidentally, always maintained that Ghostwatch was absolute shit and one of the least scary, most stupid things he had ever seen. Definitely a minority view.)
      By the 10th anniversary in 2002, the furore had died down a bit and Ghostwatch was actually released on DVD, albeit by the BFI rather than Auntie Beeb. I finally got to see it on Halloween of that year when Stephen Volk introduced a screening at Leicester Phoenix, and I must say that despite all I had read, all I had been told, all that I already knew about Ghostwatch, it still managed to really, really scare me.
      During those intervening ten years, much had been written about Ghostwatch but, like those episodes of Voyager, everything was dependent on VHS off-air copies. Jonathan Rigby wrote a good overview for Shivers magazine in 1996, illustrated, like my Couch Potato, with small, rather fuzzy screen grabs. It was all anyone had. By the nature of the programme, there were no official publicity stills. The only photos the BBC ever released were promotional headshots of the four presenters.
      And because freeze-framing VHS was so difficult, even after four years one of the screen grabs in Rigby's article was captioned 'The only view we get of the phantom'. Once the DVD was available and people were able to scour the programme frame by crystal-clear frame, a further seven appearances (according to Wikipedia) were spotted. In today's world of instant news, instant online uploads and instant, vacuous wittering on Twitter, it would be impossible for something like this to happen. But between 1992 and 2002, discussion of this most remarkable drama production was limited to people's memories, those few increasingly worn VHS recordings - made by horror fans astute enough to spot (a) that this was a Screen One drama and (b) that it was written by the man who wrote the slightly bonkers 1986 Mary Shelley movie Gothic for the completely bonkers Ken Russell - and the hysterical rantings of Britain's tabloid columnists, who stopped just short of calling for Michael Parkinson to be strung up from the nearest lamp-post.

      One of the fallout effects of all this was not just a dearth of home-produced horror on British television for many years afterwards but also a terrified determination by the BBC to never, ever again do any drama which could be mistaken for reality. So in 1996, when my mate Dirk Maggs wrote and produced a really nifty spin-off from Independence Day for Radio 1 which paid homage to Orson Welles's 1938 'War of the Worlds' broadcast by staging its first act as a fake actuality programme hosted by Nicky Campbell and Patrick Moore, the working title of 'UFO-watch' was quashed by the Beeb who insisted it must be billed as Independence Day UK. You know? - Just in case anyone listening to it was really, really dense.
      But I don't even want to talk about Ghostwatch. I want to talk about video nasties.

      Some video nasties were, like Ghostwatch, mistaken for reality, even for that most ephemeral of cinematic urban myths, actual 'snuff movies'. One of the films was actually called Snuff for goodness' sake, although it was usually Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust, and its fake documentary approach, that was held up by the hard-of-thinking as a film which featured real deaths. Video nasties were another instance of information being largely limited to hearsay, gossip, barely watchable nth-generation VHS tapes and, of course, the ranting, fearful editorials of the UK's Fourth Estate, God bless 'em and Ban this Sick Filth Now! A decade before Stephen Volk terrified inattentive suburbanites with a possessed Michael Parkinson, the tide of unrestricted horror films swamping the UK in the early 1980s caused a moral panic that made the Ghostwatch brouhaha look like a local newspaper letters page in a quiet week. That infamous list, drawn up by the Director of Public Prosecutions, marked out several dozen films as being so vile, so depraved, so appalling that they should never, ever be allowed to be released in the United Kingdom.

      Nowadays, of course, it has all died down, most of these films are available uncut and absolutely no-one gives a monkey's. That famous list includes Axe, aka California Axe Massacre, which I spotted last year as a two-disc uncut special edition going for £4.99 in a basket next to the checkout at my local branch of Morrison's, and Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer, which I noticed last Saturday in my local Poundland. Of the few video nasties still unavailable, most are films which, frankly, are so rubbish that no-one in their right mind would actually want to watch them unless they were some sort of DPP-list completist (which some people are; it takes all sorts).
      I've seen three or four video nasties in my time but there is now a nice, easily digestible, informative and entertaining way to watch these films of highly variable quality. Jake West, the man who brought us Evil Aliens and Doghouse, has produced a feature-length documentary on the subject entitled Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape. It's seventy minutes of film clips, archive news reports and talking heads featuring not only the usual suspects (Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Neil Marshall) but also some of the people directly involved on both sides of the controversy, including representatives of the BBFC and the Obscene Publications Squad.
      Jake, who honed his documentary skills on featurettes for such essential box sets as the Hellraiser cube and the Phantasm sphere, has released this documentary through his own Nucleus Films DVD label as a three-disc set which also includes the trailers to all 72 movies on the DPP list, each introduced by Kim, Alan or one of the other talking head experts. It's a fascinating, informative and in places hugely entertaining look at the sort of thing that simply could never happen again.
      But I don't want to talk about video nasties either.
      I want to talk about Child's Play 3.
      Because among a bundle of ancient fanzines that I picked up in the auction at the Festival of Fantastic Films was an old issue of Shocking Images with a half-page article assuring readers that: 'On April 12, 1994, the horror video genre in the UK had its throat cut. New legislation was announced.. which will eventually lead to all video films being censored down to near PG level.' This was a somewhat hysterical look at the media witch-hunt into horror movies that followed on from the (awful but essentially unrelated) murder of Jamie Bulger, another example of the sort of controversy that just doesn't happen nowadays. And sixteen years on, this is laughable. The Driller KIller in Poundland: hello?

      You know, I actually miss the sort of outrage that used to be stirred up by Ghostwatch, Cannibal Holocaust or a High Court judge's ill-informed speculation. It made horror movies seem dangerous, exciting, outside the norm. Now they advertise sick Saw sequels on the sides of buses. Good grief! Maybe no-one can be bothered. Maybe they're more concerned about Grand Theft Auto - but even video game controversies seem thin on the ground.
      Have we won? Or have we just become yesterday's news, replaced by moral panics about illegal immigrant paedophiles and their effect on house prices?
      Isn't it time for someone to call for a ban on this sick filth and make us feel unloved and beyond the pale again?
      Anyone? - Hello?

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.