Why we should all be outraged
21st June 2002
by Mark Kermode
Thirty years ago, Wes Craven's 'Last House on the Left' was banned in
the UK . This week, after much deliberation, the censors have decided it still can't be
seen uncut. Mark Kermode explains why we should all be outraged.
Almost exactly 30 years ago, a lurid publicity
poster for the low-budget horror film Last House on the Left asked, "Can a
movie go too far?". This week, in a decision that has shocked and surprised British
horror aficionados, the Video Appeals Committee (VAC) concluded that Last House on the
Left did, indeed, still "go too far", and could not be released in the UK
without cuts. Despite their alleged new-found resolve to "allow adults to decide for
themselves what they watch", the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has
delighted in the verdict that supports its decision to slice 16 seconds of "sexual
violence" from Wes Craven's acclaimed directorial debut, and leaves British horror
fans once again in the wilderness.
According to the VAC, whose previous decisions in
favour of sex films such as Makin' Whoopee, Horny Catbabe and
Nurse Nancy, effectively forced the BBFC to redraw its lines on acceptable
pornography, Last House on the Left is "an unpleasant work" that its
members unanimously found "very disturbing", and that they fear would lead
viewers to be "excited into amoral behaviour". Indeed, the panel of judges
(which included former Blue Peter honcho Biddy Baxter) concluded that the BBFC had
already been "inappropriately generous" to this rape-revenge classic in asking
for only 16 seconds of cuts from scenes of disembowelling, chest-carving, and "forced
For British horror fans, this is business as usual. At a time when notorious hard-core
porno flicks such as Deep Throat can now be sold uncut in sex shops, and sexually
violent "art films" such as Pasolini's Saló are freely available on the
shelves of your local Virgin or HMV, the demonisation of "sleazy" horror and
exploitation pictures remains a mainstay of film and video censorship. Thus, while it is
apparently acceptable for Pasolini to show naked young men and women being whipped,
buggered, and forced to eat human excrement under the guise of "political art",
and it's OK to watch Linda Lovelace performing "consensual" sexual acrobatics
(which she has since testified were forced upon her under threat of death), it remains
illegal to distribute an uncut video of a classic horror film that was inspired by Ingmar
Bergman's The Virgin Spring and is widely acclaimed as a milestone genre movie.
Welcome to the free West.
As a horror fan who testified to the VAC about the artistic merits of Last House on
the Left, I find this decision typically depressing. Not only does it demonstrate a
contempt for the work of Wes Craven (who went on to direct such mainstream hits as
Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream), it also marks a miserable conclusion to a
brave struggle by the distributors Blue Underground to resist even a few seconds of cuts
from a treasured title simply because they believed that the fans deserved more (and this
at a time when less scrupulous competitors were merrily accepting six or seven minutes of
deletions from former "video nasties" in their rush to get product on the
shelf). For its efforts, Blue Underground has been rewarded with the kind of verdict that
explains why so many genre fans now order their videos and DVDs from abroad as a matter of
"The film has always caused a furore," admits the director Wes Craven of his
most notorious work. "I remember that during the first year it ran in the US, people
actually rushed to the projection booths trying to get to the print and destroy it.
Theatre owners were bodily threatened, there was a fist-fight in one theatre, a
heart-attack in another, reports of grown men weeping."
Unsurprisingly, when such a provocative film came before the British censors in 1974,
it was refused a cinema classification outright, with the BBFC making clear that cuts
would make no difference. Like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was
similarly banned at around the same time, Last House on the Left was simply viewed
as too disturbing for exhibition in Britain in any form. However, whereas the ban on
was duly lifted a few years ago when the former chief censor (and TCM opponent) James
Ferman announced his retirement from office, the battle to suppress Last House on the
Left has continued unabated. Indeed, the film seems to have become as much of a
bugbear for new chief censor Robin Duval as The Exorcist was for his uptight
For Duval, this grudge-match dates back to May 1999, when he first informed the
distributors Feature Film that they could finally have an "18" cinema
certificate for Last House on the Left only if they conceded 90 seconds of cuts,
"to remove images of the horrific stripping, rape, and knife murder of the two
women". After Feature declined to co-operate (what self-respecting horror fan wants
to watch a film with 90 seconds cut out of it?), the BBFC officially rejected the title
again, declaring it to be "unacceptable both in terms of our published guidelines and
in terms of public expectations". Enter Exploited Films, a subsidiary of Blue
Underground, which now picked up the banned classic and proceeded to tour an uncut print
around Britain without a BBFC certificate, (as had been done with The Texas Chainsaw
Massacre), in the hope of proving that the Board was out of step with public opinion.
Ten screenings at London's ICA passed without incident, while local councils in Oxford,
Leicester and Southampton overruled the BBFC judgement and awarded their own uncut
"18" ratings. According to the Blue Underground spokesman Carl Daft, the fact
that Last House on the Left played without cuts, and without provoking public
outcry or police intervention, demonstrated that the film was now considered acceptable
for an adult audience. But still the BBFC insisted on cuts, although it seemed
increasingly unsure as to what should be cut... and why.
In a letter to Blue Underground, dated 5 November 2001, the BBFC outlined four cuts,
now totalling only 16 seconds, only five of which corresponded to the 90 seconds
previously demanded, but all of which were clearly marked as obligatory under the terms of
the Obscene Publications Act. (There have been previous OPA convictions involving tapes of
Last House, although the VAC concluded that "we have our doubts whether a
conviction would result" if a case was brought today.) Ten days later, when it became
clear that Blue Underground was going to appeal, and surely aware of the weakness of
their OPA argument, the Board wrote again, this time insisting that, in fact, the
issue at stake was one of "harm" as defined in the Video Recordings Act.
Although David Pannick, QC, acting for Blue Underground, was at pains to challenge the
Board's right to move the goalposts thus, the VAC concluded that "harm" (rather
then obscenity) was indeed the issue, and duly found against the distributor So much for
But what exactly is so harmful about Last House on the Left? According to the
BBFC, the film "invites the viewer to relish" the depiction of sexual violence,
and passing it uncut would have serious ramifications for their ability to deal
effectively with "violent pornography" as a whole. As Mr Duval stated in his
submission to the VAC: "As ever, the regulatory issue is one of precedent ... A
change to [the Board's] present policy applied consistently would mean a significant
increase in the level of permitted sexual violence in 18-classified videos, and indeed in
R18 videos also." In other words, if you allow Last House on the Left
passed uncut, you open the floodgates to a tide of violent pornography.
This is a point that has been vigorously disputed by Blue Underground, which insists
that there is no similarity between the intentionally disturbing violence of Craven's film
(which is demonstrably not pornographic), and the "eroticised" violence with
which the Board is concerned. "I am frankly astonished and appalled at the VAC's
decision," says Carl Daft. "Not only is it incorrect on the basis of the
evidence put before them, it makes a mockery of the rules of fairness on conduct
applicable to public bodies such as the BBFC. Contrary to what we might expect under
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, we are a very long way from having
our right to free expression in this country guaranteed. Such actions make us the laughing
stock of the rest of the Western world. The right to free speech in the United Kingdom
died today, and for that I have to say that I am ashamed to be British."
As for Wes Craven, he maintains that Last House on the Left is "a protest
against real violence in the world, and the downplaying of the reality of violence in
films. We showed violence in its true ugliness, rather than taking the usual Hollywood
path of making it glamorous and exciting and entertaining, which is in essence a lie. I've
had many people over the years tell me it's my strongest film and most truthful film. And
I think there is a sense that the film was "pure" in that it didn't pull any
punches or cater to any form of censorship."
Sadly, that is a "purity" that remains unappreciated on these pathologically
Appeal against the BBFC cuts for Last House on the Left
1st May 2002
By Peter Woods
Daft Appeal Against Craven Cuts
impatient reader: the verdict was not reached on the day and we were warned that it could
take until mid-late June. Last House On The Left , for those that aren't
familiar with it, was Wes Craven's first feature film. It is undeniably disturbing (nasty,
even) and contains some particularly horrible scenes of rape and murder. The BBFC rejected
the film for a theatrical release in 2000 so, in time-honoured fashion for
"difficult" titles, the distributors Blue Underground toured an uncertificated
print around the UK during 2000/1. This attracted some publicity but no interest from the
police. When Leicester council asked to view it before it was shown to the public, one
councillor remarked that they had seen worse on Channel 5.
The BBFC have banned Last House On The Left twice theatrically but, as
I'm sure you know, there is no appeals process for a ban in the cinema (since the BBFC
decisions carry no legal weight there).
When Carl Daft (real name, real person) of Blue Underground submitted
House On The Left for a video release, the BBFC told him that the video could be
released with an 18 certificate, provided 4 cuts (totallying 16 seconds) were made first.
Blue Underground refused to make the cuts, so the BBFC changed the classification to
"rejected". Blue Underground then started the formal appeal process against the
It is unfortunate that there have been so few appeals against the BBFC's decisions over
the years. The appeals process is the most effective tool with which the "harm"
aspect of the Video Recordings Act (VRA) can be challenged. Although the BBFC are
invariably blamed for removing huge chunks of our beloved videos, it should be remembered
that the distributors are usually complicit in the censorship. Fortunately for the
consumers, howere, some distributors are brave (or mad) enough to challenge the system.
The Video Appeals Committee hearing took place in The Royal Institute of Public Health
in Portland Place, London on Thursday 23 May. The VAC comprised Philip Graham, Biddy
Baxter, John Wood (chairman), Hayden Luke and Neville March Hunnings. The VAC didn't meet
at all in 2001; in 2000, the hearing lead to the R18 saga, in which the BBFC challenged
the decision of the VAC in the High Court (and famously lost, leading to the legalisation
of hardcore pornography in the UK).
I'm sure that when the BBFC were informed that Blue Underground intended to appeal
against the 16 seconds of cuts, they didn't expect that they'd be up against David Pannick
QC again (he represented one of the distributors in the R18 hearing). The BBFC was
represented by Andrew Caldecott QC.
The format of the hearing was as follows: David Pannick presented the case for the
distributors in the morning. After lunch, Andrew Caldecott responded to specific points
made in the morning and presented the case for the BBFC. Finally, David Pannick responded
to some particular points and John Wood (committee chairman) closed the proceedings and
announced that we should not expect a verdict for at least 3 weeks (i.e. mid June).
The broad arguments of the two sides in the hearing were:
For the distributor:
- There's no way that the film would be considered obscene by a modern jury, so the
Obscene Publications Act doesn't apply
- The BBFC requested the cuts only because they operate an arbitrary rule in which they
make token cuts to a title which has been cited in any OPA case in the last 10 years.
- The BBFC were not consistent in their dealings with the distributor, omitting to mention
the full reasons for rejection and not being consistent in their cuts list.
- The BBFC guidelines would not be breached by an uncut release, because although the film
shows rape and murder, its portrayal is not pornographic or exploitative. In its uncut
form it would not cause harm to the viewer or to society (which is what the Video
Recordings Act is intended to guard against).
- There are titles which have been passed 18 uncut which feature similar or even worse
scenes of violence towards young women. Pasolini's Salo being one such.
- Dr. Mark Kermode (yes - he has a PhD in horror fiction !) has written a treatise on the
film (submitted to the committee but not presented during the hearing). He considers it to
be an important and serious work which deserves to be released in its uncut form.
For the BBFC:
- The Obscene Publications Act is relevant. The police did not intervene in any of the
2000/1 screenings because they were not notified. In a case in Cardiff in 1993, the title
was included in the evidence used in a conviction under the OPA. The BBFC consider that
the public have indeed become less tolerant of sexual violence, so the verdict of a jury
is not guaranteed.
- The BBFC have recently commissioned research by Guy Cumberbatch (a well-known and
respected researcher in the field). He considered six "difficult" titles (A
Clockwork Orange, Deathwish 2, Straw Dogs, Baise-Moi, I Spit On Your Grave
Last House On The Left). He conducted a survey in which people viewed the films
and were asked their opinions, including the question "should the film be released 18
uncut ?". 56% of respondents said that Last House On The Left should
not. 67% though that the viewer was invited to enjoy the spectacle of women being raped
and murdered. 85% of the women respondents thought that the film should be cut or banned.
- The Video Recordings Act (last amended in 1994) is particularly applicable to this
title. The Act requires that (the BBFC) have special regard to any harm to potential
viewers or, through their behaviour, to society by the manner in which the work deals with
violence, horror and sexual activity. This is why research into sexually violent material
(by Donnerstein, etc.) is significant because it suggests that the title may cause harm.
Research evidence may not prove conclusively that exposure to such material does cause
harm. It does not mean, however, that the evidence does not suggest it may cause harm. The
assumption of the VRA is that exposure to certain material may cause harm.
- The tone of the film is naturalistic and realistic, especially the rape/torture
sequence. The distress of young women was realistic and was dwelt on. There was a
particular emphasis on knives, which are a staple weapon of sexual assaults. The viewer is
invited to enjoy the spectacle. A lot of "robust" research has been conducted
which suggest that such material is harmful.
- Those who wish to see an uncut release of the film (e.g. academics such as Dr. Kermode)
should have little problem obtaining it.
- The BBFC's national survey and citizen's juries demonstrated that the treatment of
sexual violence on screen is of particular concern. The Cumberbatch research showed that
it is of very great concern amongst women.
We were expecting to see Mark Kermode, Carl Daft and Robin Duval being cross-examined
by the committee but the two QC's had agreed not to do this (since all three had already
given written submissions, which the VAC could read later).
Carl Daft had prepared a tape with selected "highlights" from some titles
which the BBFC have passed uncut. Unfortunately, the BBFC objected to it being used
because the clips would be shown out of context. David Pannick suggested that the VAC
could be shown the clips in context. I think the decision was that the VAC would not watch
There was a discussion over whether the BBFC examiner's reports should have been made
available. The BBFC contended that these are internal documents, used by senior management
to make decisions. Much like internal government documents, if they were made public the
authors would not feel free to express their personal views. This point was conceded by
Although the proceedings were formal in nature, they didn't get too bogged down in
legalistic details, unlike the R18 hearing (during which several people fell asleep).
There was general agreement that the arguments from both sides were comprehensive and well
Personally, based on the evidence, I think that Carl Daft deserves to win. The VAC are
not stupid and I expect they will have seen through any attempts to fudge the issues. In
this case, I think the BBFC didn't quite have the confidence to allow an uncut release,
mainly because of their stupid "10-year" rule. They tried to reduce the cuts to
a minimum, on the assumption that the distributors would comply. Unfortunately, they
didn't reckon on an appeal and I don't think their case really adds up. One question I'm
sure the VAC will consider is: "if the BBFC really have a problem with the title, why
didn't they simply ban it completely ?".
Finally, as a matter of interest, it does appear that some of the "nasties"
have suffered similar "token" cuts on video (e.g. most of Dario Argento's
films). Surely now is the time for the BBFC to put the sorry "video nasty" era
behind it ? Now that Andreas Whittam Smith has stated that it is "...my and the
Board's view that adults should be able to make their own viewing decisions", surely
now is the time for the BBFC to stop cutting material intended for adults ?