In the latest Sky advert, Kate Winslet recalls wandering around a video shop. "Did I want to be thrilled or heartbroken?" she says (or something like it). Well, that wasn't my experience of video shops: mine was one of terror. Do you know what caused the terror?
Yes, the Driller Killer box. THE BLOOD RUNS IN RIVERS... AND THE DRILL KEEPS TEARING THROUGH FLESH AND BONE. Every time we went into that shop I was struck by two things. One was the wafts of cigarette smoke coming from the bearded dude at the counter in slightly tinted 80s glasses, who chained about 400 fags a day while hawking out low-budget B-movies in faded yellow generic boxes to his customers; the other was DRILLER KILLER.
Jesus fucking Christ! He's drilling into that man's FACE. He's drilling into his BRAIN. THE BLOOD RUNS IN RIVERS.
Looking at it now, it's pretty amazing that packaging like that was allowed to exist in a shop where an easily-scared young child (me) could see it. But this was the age of the Video Nasty.
In 1984, films like The Driller Killer and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were banned in one of those examples of a moral panic overtaking all sense of reason and intelligence with panicky lawmakers. These were the mephedrone of the 1980s - films so gory and violent that they could literally damage you if you watched them. They had to be BANNED to save children from themselves.
I remember pretty well going down to a video shop when I must have been about eight or nine and renting out a pretty grim horror film with my mate on behalf of his dad - no questions asked, we were allowed to take it out of the shop and take it home. I suppose that was the nightmare scenario - without the cinema to protect children, people could do what they wanted in their own homes. And think of the poor children!
Well, I never did get around to watching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (banned but not classified as a Video Nasty, says Wikipedia) or The Driller Killer, and since I spent a small part of my degree writing about censorship and films with these two and many others still unavailable to me through legal sources, I thought it might be fun to have a look at them now, all these years later.
The Driller Killer (1979)
In some ways it's odd to look at this before looking at TTCSM, since it came after and was pretty heavily influenced by it, but this was a standalone 'video nasty' whereas the other film was deemed to have some artistic merit (yet be virtually uncensorable, for reasons that we'll come to).
The first thing that gets you with this (and TTCSM) is the pace of it. Looking at it in a pretty unshockable post-Hostel/Saw/Final Destination way, it takes ages to get going. So much about the film is about setting up the character for what's about to happen, and winding up the tension. You know that people are going to get drilled, because that's what you've been promised by the gory packaging and the rather masturbatory 'rivers of blood' copy; so you're just hanging around and waiting for it, more or less.
That's a nice touch that sets you on edge straight away. THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD, shouts the first card. But if you were expecting shocks and gore from the off, you'd be sorely disappointed. What you get instead is the story of a rather self-absorbed, narcissistic artist who hates the world around him - the proto-yuppies, the bums on the street, everyone. Long, meandering, tedious dialogue sections try to get you to engage with the denim-clad protagonist, but he's such an unlikeable character that even in context with the people he hates around him, he's just rather loathsome.
And when he happens to see a TV advert for battery packs that mean you can use power tools without cables, you know where it's going (not that the marketing left you in any doubt). This is significant, I suppose, in that at the time, cable-free technology was very much a dream: the video recorders that people watched TDK on mainly didn't have remote controls, or if they did, they were the kind that came with a cable. The world of the drill that you could just carry around seemed a long way away; mobile phones were science fiction.
Anyway, to the killing. You get the sense that the terror of a portable weapon - the chainsaw - had already been done. It nags away at you. Sure, the drill has more potential as a penetrating weapon, but the protagonist's kills are agonisingly slow and laboured - possibly one reason why drunks and bums were chosen as his first victims. As the drilled-out vagrants slowly die - including the one in the cover shot, drilled through his face while making no attempt to fight back - you wonder whether this is really happening at all, or just represents the blood-soaked fantasy sequences that depict Reno's descent into psychosis. That question is resolved later on in the film, so I won't spoil it.
It's not a bad film. It's just not particularly entertaining, even in the most brutal of ways. While we're meant to have a degree of sympathy for some serial killers and sometimes even to root for the villains, you can't do it with Reno: he's so utterly mean, so lacking in any kind of humanity, that you're left wondering how this can all play out. This isn't the hammy quips of Tony Hopkins's Hannibal; this is a mean motherfucker who's going to drill people to death, because he wants to, and because his victims are so weak that they won't fight back. Will he be caught, or discovered? Not until he's killed almost everyone he knows, leaving a trail of clues in his wake, it would seem. And then there's the final, chilling scene, where not just murder but also rape is hinted at.
The Driller Killer isn't a true 'video nasty', and has probably suffered from having been labelled as an out-and-out gore fest (though the video-era marketing may have had something to do with that). But there isn't quite enough to make it a cut above any other run-of-the-mill grimy, grisly horror movie either. It's got something which is intriguing - the punk aesthetic, the Taxi Driver idea of the Rotten Big Apple, the weirdo with daddy issues who drills a proto-yuppie to his door long before Patrick Bateman turned up. There's almost a true-crime feel to it which is doubly chilling: the cold, miserable, unpleasant anti-hero is just as you might imagine a real serial killer to be.
Faces of Death (1978, 1981, 1985)
The influence of The Driller Killer and other slasher films can be seen in the shock mock documentary series Faces of Death. In FOD 3, by which time most people had generally got the joke about the presenter/narrator Dr Francis B Gross (or noticed his stick-on beard changing in almost every shot), there's a sequence about a serial killer who, like Driller Killer's Reno, goes around attacking vagrants and dismembering them. The 'camera crew' who've supposedly been invited to ride around with a couple of cops - serendipitously on exactly the same day where the killer's latest victim is discovered - manage to film a bloody foot and a dismembered hand in a dumpster before being shooed away. Then a few vagrants (are they actors pretending to be vagrants? Real vagrants trying to act for a couple of dollars?) talk about their fears of the serial killer who's chopping them up for no good reason.
By part 3, the flush had been well and truly busted, though Faces of Death's mythical status was something it thrived upon in the pre-internet age. You couldn't do a quick Google to see if the people named in the film were real or not; you just had to make a judgement based on what you were seeing. FOD was lumped in with other 'nasties' as a 'snuff film' that was corrupting young minds, and it's not hard to see why - there really are some stand-out moments of squick, and truly unpleasant things.
You know what you're getting from the off. Real footage of a thumping human heart in an operation, followed by (possibly real) corpses and an autopsy set the scene, before Dr Gross turns up and explains his Macguffin. He's fascinated by death, he tells us, and all its various 'faces', so he wants to take us on a tour of the things around the world that pique his macabre interest. We see pitbulls fighting to the death; we watch diners smashing a monkey's head open through a hole in the table and eating its brains (later referenced in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom); we see scenes of kosher slaughter in an abattoir which are pretty (ahem) strong meat; then we move on to the dead people.
There's an assassination at a press conference, a lame 'stunt gone bad' and then more realistic tableaux, of body preservations and executions. The cover of the video features a blood-soaked electric chair victim foaming at the mouth with eyes pouring with blood, and the scene in the film is truly unsettling - even if you know it's tomato sauce and toothpaste.
After that, it gets plain weird. There's a religious cult who smother their bodies in sexy, sexy human blood; there are random shots of roadkill; there's an unintentionally (?) hilarious sequence in which an anti-nuclear protester sets himself on fire.
The irony is that what restricted FOD is what was also its strength: technology. Because cameras simply weren't portable enough or affordable enough for the general public, the set-ups have to be done in such a way as to have a convincing explanation as to why a film crew happened to be there in the first place. On the other hand, though, there was no internet to debunk myths like the 'monkey's head through the table at dinner' scene, so they quickly became urban legends.
Looking back at it now, knowing what we know about how the films were put together (part stock footage, part staged deaths) and how all sorts of grim, grisly and guttural images of torture, death and dying are available on the worldwide web, Faces of Death comes across as a bit of a bad joke. Some of the staged deaths are funny, perhaps deliberately so; but what do you make of mixing that with scenes in which a real dead bodies are scooped up into plastic bags? The intention was always to shock and disgust, with a thinnest of thin veneers of justification in that the films were challenging society's taboos about death, so they did what they set out to do. I'm still left a little uncomfortable at the thought that there are people out there whose mothers or fathers or sisters or brothers are dead on screen for other people's entertainment, but maybe that's just me.
Let's save the best to last, though, with a 'nasty' film that I found a really nice surprise.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
This is the film that sets the standard by which all subsequent 'slasher' films should be judged, though by no means is it a gorefest. And as I've said it wasn't included on the official list of 'video nasties', though it was banned, for various reasons. I remember reading about its censorship a while ago, so forgive me for recalling these details from memory; but one of the British censors who attempted to classify TTCSM found that it was virtually impossible, such were the sustained scenes of psychological terror and mental torture. Watching it for the first time, as I did the other day, I have to say I can see that completely: if you don't know where the film's going, you really have no idea what's going to happen next. It's excruciating to watch at times, almost horrifically tense - but superbly done.
As with The Driller Killer, viewers expecting a Hostel/Saw style bloodbath might be surprised by the slow pace at which the film gets going. It's a long, long time before Leatherface appears, and even longer before he picks up his chainsaw. What you get instead is a Scooby-Doo set-up, a gang of harmless kids going in search of adventure after hearing reports of grave robberies. Where's it all going? You know where it's going, but you're not quite sure how it's going to get there.
I don't want to reveal too much of the plot as half the power of this film comes from not having seen it before - it really is quite something on first viewing. The shocks are unexpected, the agony is intense and there are a couple of prolonged, tortuous sequences - one of being chased, one of being captured - where it's really hard to keep watching. The screams are marvellously edited to go on like the drawn-out note at the end of A Day in the Life, and you can believe in the banality of horror that you're watching, even though it's been subsequently copied and pasted a hundred times in bigger budget films (and even a remake, which I won't be seeing) since.
What you get, though, is a deeply unsettling experience which must have been even more terrifying in the cinema on first viewing, particularly as with Faces of Death as there would have been no way of verifying the pre-Star Wars yellow-on-black title cards informing you that it's all based on true events. (As we know now, that was only a bit of misdirection: the events that inspired the film weren't a case of the slaughtered teens but the case of Ed Gein, the flesh-loving serial killer who also played a part in creating Hitchcock's Psycho).
Even though the subject matter is (as you'd expect) distasteful and grim, it's a sparkling horror movie made more realistic by the ordinariness of the cast, the simplicity of the effects, the imagination of the design and the dark, dark humour running through it. There's one incredible scene that is simultaneously appalling and hilarious, played dead straight and to perfection, which makes you question yourself when you want the would-be killer to just get on with it.
And, unlike the other 'nasties', there seems to be something at the core other than a desire to shock - even though the movie shocks you much more than the others. You're taken along with the unfortunate victims into a world that is entirely grotesque but completely believable, a world that you're more than happy to leave by the end of the film. It's quite a ride.
Having had all these films denied me when I was younger, it was quite interesting to be able to have a look at them again and stand them up against the slicker, more overproduced and realistic shockers of today. I really enjoyed TTCSM, though I found Faces of Death rather contrived and cynical, and The Driller Killer a little vacuous for my tastes. They're gruesome, but they shouldn't ever have been the subjects of banning in the moral panic 'video nasty' days. A whole world of gore and grimness is out there, but it's the Faces of Death spirit that haunts the internet, the exploitation of our ghoulish desire to break taboos. I'm not as comfortable with that as with a good old horror romp like Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I just wish they still made them this good.