Video Nasty!

February 24th, 2009


Some things are better left in the imagination. Everyone knows that.

So picture the scene. I’m…12? 13? I’m stood in one of the two shops in the village I grew up in that stocks videos for rental.  I guess an American might call it a ‘mom and pop store’ (Well, Steven King certainly would). No Blockbusters this, rather a back room of a shop that housed a pretty random and shonky collection of videos. This was the 80’s, son. In my village, when Beetlejuice came out, there was a waiting list to rent that bad boy. And there was one copy of everything. Top titles could fit on two shelves if you were lucky. Whoopi Goldberg comedies were heavy hitters. (I can already hear children weeping…”but how did you cope?”).

But forget that. I wasn’t interested in those films. My eyeline was raised to the promised land. A lurid selection of forbidden gems that taunted me with their availability.

Mecca. Fucking Xanadu.

See that’s my abiding memory of the video age – fucking atrocious movies, packaged in the most gloriously enticing way. Horror, sci-fi, martial arts…these were the important genres of the day. Sequels, threequels – who the fuck is Fellini? I don’t think it ever occurred to me that most of these films had never been within spanking distance of a cinema. They were all equally amazing in my eyes.

I literally couldn’t wait until I was old enough to see these things. I could barely  even conceive precisely how adult a movie like Fright Night 2 or April Fools Day would be. Would I even be able to cope when I finally got around to seeing them. I knew that I could never convince my Mum to let me see these films (although I now realise that through my Dad, I had watched far better and genuinely disturbing movies like John Capenter’s nihilistic siege movie Assault on Precinct 13, or Leone’s amoral Good, the Bad and the Ugly). I had a friend at school, Dan Gold, whose parents didn’t seem to give a fuck about what he watched and he would spend long boring Chemistry lessons filling my head with the gory highlights of Predator or Nightmare on Elm Street. They sounded beyond amazing.

So with this already fertile preconception, I would gaze longingly at these movies with their lurid,  sensational covers and wait for the day when they unveiled their splendid horrors to me.

Let me take you on a small tour of my mis-spent life…


Nightmare on Elm Street. I think of all the uber-baddies to come out of the glut of 80’s slasher films, Freddy is easily the most unsettling. While there’s definitely something worrying about a lumbering backwoods maniac like Jason,  Freddy is something else. He’s like something from a Hoffmann fairytale, with his battered fedora, razor fingers and severe punishments for wayward children (something I’m sure ‘Professor’ Craven was well aware of – there’s even a shot in the first film during Tina’s dream sequence where he looks very like Shock Headed Peter)

I think the very idea of someone hunting you through your dreams is deeply terrifying and it certainly scared the fuck out of me when I was little. I was scared of Freddy way before I ever got around to seeing the actual films. Blame Dan Gold and his endless extrapolations of Kruger’s macabre acts. Seriously, I actually had terrifying dreams featuring Freddy that only added to my deeply held conviction that he was a real and viable threat (bearing in mind that I also felt that quicksand, dodgy rope bridges and piranhas were also very definite threats to my existence…). He became, in the truest sense, a boogeyman. A sadistic pizza-faced nightmare-bastard who leered at  me from the Video covers and haunted my dreams.

When I finally got around to seeing the original Nightmare on Elm Street it actually pretty much lived up to the promise of my imagination. The first two thirds are original, compelling  and pretty damn scary. Tina’s death is a particularly harrowing sequence, and Craven maintains a fine blurring of the lines between dream and reality throughout. It turns into a ludicrous knockabout farce at the end, and the final scene is one of the all time clunkers of cinema history, but the film can claim a rightful place in the pantheon of great horror films.

But I wasn’t just interested in that one as I stood in that video shop all those moons ago. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream  Master (1988) had just come out.

Now when I finally got around to seeing this particular  gem I realised it was pretty much a cinematic turd. And not very scary at all. By and large, the ‘Elm St’ sequels got progressively shitter, and while they retained a gloopy imaginative quality and were rarely dull, they certainly paled in comparison to the first. The Dream Master does have one decent sequence, wherein a bunch of teenage victims get stuck in a time-loop trying to escape Ol’ Freddy that accurately captures the panic of a nightmare, but it’s pretty mediocre in general. The cover though is a thing of beauty and hints at a film of unimaginable psychedelic horror. And that tagline ‘Terror beyond your wildest dreams’. I believed that shit when I was 12, and it promised some pretty awful things. But Dream Master, like so many horror sequels, is actually a humdrum retread of previous entries wherein the only pieces of interest are the increasingly elaborate death sequences. All topped off by Freddy’s cheesy quips. By this point he’d become a pop cultural icon, and very much the star of the show. The leering, gravel voiced child-killer had become a loveable rogue. Even his scarred face looked less frightening, and his whole schtick became pantomime in the extreme. By the time Craven tried to haul the franchise back out of it’s downward spiral, with  the well-intentioned  but horrendously pompous post-modern ‘New Nightmare’, it was too late. Freddy would never again occupy that twilight area of my psyche in the same potent way.

Some damn fine posters though. Sort of Jean Michelle Jarre horror. I love that photo-realist airbrush quality, mixed with the blood red lettering. Parts 3, 4 and 5 have a nice thematic consistency, and sum up the quasi-fantasy/horror nature of the franchise. Part 2 is the anomaly – the film itself changed the basic concept of Freddy so that he became some form of possessing spirit, thus fully missing the allure and originality of the character. It was shit, and featured some prurient and distasteful homophobia. The poster likewise looks like it comes from a totally seperate franchise. Oh and the ripped kid in the poster looks nothing like the spud in the movie.  Number 6 is pretty cheap looking and kind of unimaginative, kind of like the film itself. Although Freddy did die “in 3-D!”, so it wasn’t a total bust…


I don’t think any video had such a powerful allure for me as Dolls (1987). That cover used to scare the living shizzle out of me. I have a vivid childhood memory of visiting the house of my parents’ friend, who had an entire room dedicated to Victorian porcelain dolls. Happily wandering about the house, and bored of the adult chat downstairs, I suddenly found myself  in this room with it’s awful collection of glassy skinned, impassive, staring monsters. Hackles duly raised, I bolted out of the room into the comforting babble of the grown-ups. Fucking dolls.

So when I saw this particular video cover, underwear was most definitely soiled.


I couldn’t imagine a more unpleasant film to sit through. I was repelled and intrigued in equal measure: this had the makings of a truly horrific film, and that simple but effective cover image summed up everything nasty about the concept. Nasty. Little. Living. Dolls. The back cover had the regulation three screen shots in place to tease prospective viewers. (The standard was – picture of a gore moment, picture of sexy ladeez, picture of notional ‘big name’ star. Usually Roddy McDowell or David Warner) One image was of a victim,  face soaked in blood staring in abject terror at a doll wielding a fucking hammer. I used to stare at that particular video endlessly, wondering if I would ever actually be brave enough to watch it. Dolls seemed to come from an area of film that was totally unfamiliar to me, one of limitless terror and infinite cruelty. Whilst I wasn’t sure exactly why people watched films like these, I knew I wanted to be one of them.

It remained a sort of poisoned grail for me for a long time. Years later, when I finally got around to seeing it (thanks to the ginger, alcoholic, misanthropic horror aficionado that used to run my then-local video shop) I was pleased to learn it was  a Stuart Gordon film. Gordon is the director of a number of hugely enjoyable splatter movies like the seminal Re-animator, From Beyond and Dagon, who also made an excellent adaptation  of Lovecraft’s Dreams in The Witch House and the intriguing Mamet-scripted Edmond.

Dolls however might be his most bizarre concoction, with an extremely broad, almost fairy tale tone. It’s actually a very enjoyable film in it’s own demented way, with imaginative set pieces and some great stop motion effects. You don’t see enough stop motion in films today, so it’s always a treat to see a good example of it. It is also pretty unpleasant (some punk kids buy the farm in a gruesome manner, after disrespecting the dolls and the twinkly old couple who make them – fucking punk kids! When will they learn?), although not anywhere as much as I expected.  The whole thing is essentially like a warped kids film, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it’s eccentric charm, I can’t deny feeling a little deflated that it wasn’t the terror magnum opus I envisaged.

Fucking dolls.


More than any other, the cover to Maniac Cop 2 (1990) sums up everything I wanted from a video. Firstly I love the cross-genre pollination of the film. Horror/crime/action? You got it. Guaranteed violence there. Secondly I love the image – a massive, hideously deformed monster cop, straddling the NY skyline. Most importantly it’s got that blue  electricity, which seemed to be a quintessential component of an enjoyable film at the time. Thirdly that fucking title. Who could fail to love a film called MANIAC COP…2. Not only is he a maniac cop, but he’s back again! It’s so ridiculously blunt and descriptive, yet so melodramatic. Fucking brilliant. That tagline deserves a mention too. “You have the right to remain silent…FOREVER!” Tagline writing is an unheralded artform. You get it right and that’s some haiku shit right there.

I mean, obviously it’s a piece of shit. But it’s a very enjoyable piece of shit. It has the decency to amp everything up after the lacklustre first film, and there’s enough eye-gouging and explosions to satisfy the average geek’s moronic blood lust. the presence of B-movie auteur Larry Cohen on script duties raises it from the gutter, and his lightness of touch ensures the movie remains watchable despite William Lustig’s leaden direction. It’s  silly, violent and trashy in all the right ways. And it’s brief enough to never outstay it’s welcome.

But it’s definitely a piece of shit. And it definitely isn’t scary.



Ahhh. Jason.
Freddy was imaginative, Michael was original, and Leatherface fucked his sister. But Jason…was an icon. That hockey mask is instantly recognisable, and sums up 80’s horror in a second. Friday 13th was a cheap rip-off, a cash in and a cynically calculated exploitation movie only a couple of notches above a porn movie in it’s execution. It was also a Zeitgeist shagging landmark that managed to set the tone for successful horror movies for the next ten years. Jason was familiar to every pre-pubescent kid in my peer group, and his endless, brutal, but strangely creative grudge match against the fuck-happy counsellors of Camp Crystal Lake was firmly embedded in the pop cultural landscape of my early teens.

The first couple aren’t so bad really, in a dirgey, trashy way. The first is a classic of sorts, or at least an archetype. Number two has a grungy nastiness to it, and three has the debut of the hockey mask. Friday 13th 4, The Final Chapter (1984) – fucking ha ha – is…oh I can’t bloody remember. It’s a totally merit free spam-in-a-cabin flick, with Corey Feldman in a bald wig. It’s violent, cruel and unimaginative, and scare free. The best that can be said for it is that it’s better than number 5, which I can’t remember at all. Number 6 has a dose of ill-judged slapstick humour, a bizarre lightning-based resurrection a la Frankenstein, and is dumber than an inbred’s counting competition. Number 8 has a fantastic subtitle – ‘Jason Takes Manhattan’ – and is notable only for being fellow Mindless One, Bobsy’s, favourite entry in the sequence.

(True fact – Bobsy and me once spent a day smoking weed and watching two Friday 13th movies (Number 5 and Jason Goes to Hell) back to back. By the end of it we wanted to beat ourselves up with boredom. Proof, as if any was needed, that stoners shouldn’t be allowed to control their own lives).

But fuck that. Here’s the 12 year old gazing in wonder at this beauty:


By fuck that cover grabbed me. Something in the Argento-esque hue of the blood really turns my stomach still. That simple, lurid image says absolutely everything you need to know about the movie within. The colour scheme is nice too – it’s all black, white and red, the triangle of simple morality and carnal violence already implanted in your brain before you’ve got anywhere near the play button. It’s exactly the kind of film your Mum and Dad wouldn’t want you to watch, so naturally it was top of my list. The old testament brutalism and prurient nature of slasher films literally seeps off the cover. It’s not a painting, like the Elm Street covers, but a photo which really adds to the snuff-movie vibe of theses movies. It’s cheap, nasty and reprehensible. Bring it on.

My brain fizzed at the  violent, terrifying promise of films like this. Part of me wanted to ignore them, to pretend they didn’t exist. Yet once I knew they were out there I couldn’t rest until I’d seen them, for better or worse. Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t gonna cut the mustard anymore.

But you know – faced that dragon, turned out it was a fucking newt. These weren’t nightmare-a-thons. They were camp, silly, often boring, and rarely ever as gore-soaked as my fertile imagination had convinced me they would be. There are some gems in the turds, or at least some peanuts. Some of the above are worth a watch (Dolls in particular merits further investigation), but essentially the best of them is wrapped around the outside. Life really is too short to have an intimate knowledge of Jason’s death techniques or the relative merits of Phantasm IV compared to III (answer – number 3, if only for Don Coscarelli’s hopelessly misguided attempts to ‘Evil dead’ up his weird fucking movies). I can still glean a certain amount of aesthetic enjoyment from 80’s trash horror movies, and they’re often breeding grounds for ace prosthetic work and twisted special effects (you don’t get to see much Screaming Mad George in a Kate Winslet movie, more’s the pity). But trust me. Look don’t touch. It’s safer that way…

*Incidentally – the poster at the top of this post is for Return to Horror High (1987), a pretty enjoyable spoof of Slasher movie conventions waaaay ahead of Scream and all that bollocks. It might just be my favourite video cover of all time too…

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