Directors, Cut: Jake West on Draconian Days

The horror genre has long been plagued by issues of censorship. Director Jake West exhumes its history in his latest film

Feature by | 28 Feb 2014

“It encourages us to understand history, and to see the kind of things that happen with moral panics,” says director Jake West of his new documentary, Video Nasties: Draconian Days, which covers the passing of the notorious Video Recordings Act of 1984 and the heavy-handed tenure of James Ferman as director of the BBFC. It was a period that must be almost unfathomable for a generation of genre fans now able to access any and all uncut material at the click of a mouse, where films were arbitrarily subjected to the scissor treatment by overzealous bastions of perceived good taste. “You had a huge amount of censorship going on, and often there was nothing clear from the BBFC as to what their policies were or why they were doing this; they were kind of making it up as they went along.”

The film serves as a sort-of sequel to West and producer Marc Morris’s earlier doc, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, which looked at the birth of video in the UK and the initial outcry caused by the availability for home viewing of titles such as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. The aftermath of this, the Video Recordings Act, gave new power to the BBFC, a body previously concerned only with the broad certification of titles. “They now had statutory responsibility for cutting video. That really affected the way that video was seen in the UK and is probably the time that censorship was at its most draconian, certainly in terms of horror films in that period.”

West, a horror filmmaker himself with titles such as Doghouse and Evil Aliens, interviews contemporaries such as Neil Marshall and Chris Smith, but also takes testimony from those involved in the governance of film; the unelected moral arbiters. “We had some very interesting interviews with people at the BBFC, particularly Carol Topolsky, who was there during that period then eventually sacked by James Ferman.” Though reluctant to go into further detail as to what those processes actually were, or the intrigue surrounding Topolsky’s dismissal (“I think you need to watch the documentary! That would be like giving away a plot spoiler!”), West speaks enthusiastically about the contribution of those working under Ferman at the time. “Carol was very open,” he says. “She was actually a psychoanalytic psychologist, so she’s got a very interesting take on stuff and was involved with rape crisis centres. She reflects very strongly on a lot of the problem areas for censorship, like sexual violence, and offers fascinating insight.”

"The BBFC... were kind of making it up as they went along" - Jake West

As well as the minutiae of the system, the effect this censorship had on horror fans and the culture surrounding the material is also a key facet of the documentary. There is definite nostalgia to West’s recounting of that era. “I was a teenager in the 80s, I grew-up with the Video Nasties – trying to get hold of them and watch them,” he recalls. “It could take us years and years to find a film that we were interested in, and certainly that created the whole horror scene as it was, and what’s missing now, I think; the sense of camaraderie.” Being a child of that period certainly shaped West’s own career, too. “I was very influenced by them in terms of wanting to make gory, fun horror movies, because we felt like there was some kind of danger or subversive feel to that material when we were growing-up.”

This subversion and the historical symbiosis of politics and horror cinema is something I am interested to get West’s take on. Whereas mainstream US and UK horror from the late 60s to the early 80s was steeped in political allegory, that seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent times. The French are now seen by many as the flag-bearers of socially conscious shockers; the work of, for example,  Pascal Laugier and Xavier Gens – the latter a segment director on horror compendium The ABCs of Death, along with West – push back at the boundaries while also addressing important issues. “I really like their films,” says West. “Stuff like Martyrs, particularly, is dealing with some strong, transgressive imagery, but also doing that within the framework of good storytelling. Using extreme imagery you can create a metaphor or make a point that maybe you couldn't make successfully in another genre, so it’s always exciting, horror, because of that side to it.”

In light of this new leaning towards the extreme, does West see any possibility of a return to those dark days of censorship? Ferman’s resignation in 1999, where Draconian Days takes us up to, signalled a change in policy. “After that point the BBFC became a lot more open and a lot more transparent, so censorship and all of the things that had been blocked started to be released; the landscape certainly changed.” Though there have been isolated cases in recent years – work such as A Serbian Film, The Bunny Game and The Human Centipede 2 all caused varying degrees of uproar – there is little evidence to suggest that more blanket policy on transgressive content is imminent. “The Video Recordings Act still exists,” explains West, “and there’s a lot of power within it that could be imposed if they wanted to, which, fortunately, [they don't] at the moment.”  Is this a comfort or a warning? There’s reassurance in an outmoded permission slip being ignored by the classification board, but there is a hint of dread in its continuing existence, ready to be taken-up should another cultural panic grip. If that ever happens, who knows how those mouse-clickers may cope?


1 Mar, GFT, 11am