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 Nympho 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 urination".
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 A 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 course.
"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 Texas 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 predecessor.
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 fair play.
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 to be 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
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 censorious shores.
Appeal against the BBFC cuts for Last House on the Left
By Peter Woods
Daft Appeal Against Craven Cuts
For the 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 Last 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 rejection.
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 and 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
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 the tape.
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 David Pannick.
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 presented.
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 ?