I recently came across an interesting book about the time of the “video nasties”, a horror phenomenon from the time when VHS ruled the movie market. Some of you might even remember those days when sneaking a “forbidden” video cassette to your room and watching it with a group of friends gave you a huge adrenaline rush, a sense of doing something dark and edgy. Those were the days!
The book in question, Video Nasty Mayhem (2019), is an interesting look behind the “nasties” and the company that made them famous, Vipco. So interesting, in fact, that I decided to interview the author, James Simpson.
Below is our chit-chat.
Thank you, James, for taking the time to talk to ForenSeek!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself and your background!
I am a film critic turned author based in the barren north east of England. I have been a lifelong fan of horror movies as my parents were quite cool with me watching them from a young age which, looking back, is quite worrying now I am a parent myself! What were they thinking? But it allowed me to fall in love with some movies that have stayed with me from being a young boy: Hellraiser, Critters and Child’s Play among others. It wasn’t until 2012 I began actually writing about them for websites and magazines. I have previously written for Scream Magazine, Rue Morgue and my own defunct site Infernal Cinema plus several other outlets.
What are “video nasties”, for those unaware of the phenomenon?
Video Nasties were several films grouped together and demonized by the British establishment and press as movies that could ‘morally corrupt’ the British people. As mad as it sounds now, these people were convinced that flicks like Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Driller Killer would not only leave people mentally disturbed but dogs too!
Some of the Nasties were gory and realistic, unlike anything most of the British public had seen at the time, after decades of being raised on Hammer horrors or Amicus releases. They, the Nasties, flooded the shelves of newly established video rental stores and as there was no way of regulating VHS at the time anyone of any age would rent or buy these films. Politian’s and the tabloid press claimed the nations youth were at risk of growing up to be blood crazed killers because they could easily watch the Nasties. VIPCO sold several of the titles in question and were made a scapegoat by the vengeance seeking moral crusaders.
The man behind the phenomenon was a guy named Michael Lee. Who is he?
He could indeed be described as being behind the phenomenon – more often than not it was the Nasties which he sold that were labelled as the worst offenders!
Michael, Mike as he liked to be called, was born and raised in London and a very proud family man. He got into selling VHS in the late seventies when VCR’s and Betamax began being sold in the UK. He was working for an electronics firm and spotted that sales of VCR’s were increasing for his employer. He decided he wanted a bigger piece of the action, as it were, and began selling VHS tapes. Admittedly, he did it illegally at first but when he went about it in the legal way he formed VIPCO. During the firms history VIPCO was pretty much Mike, with several staff sometimes employed, who was a one man work force with a passion to make money.
What are the most notorious titles under the “video nasties” heading? Why are these particular titles the most notorious?
One of the most notorious, although not the goriest, would have to be The Driller Killer. Mike decided that, for his VIPCO release, he would have the tapes and posters feature nothing but an image of the infamous scene where a tramp is being drilled in the forehead. Those already mentioned politicians and tabloid papers thought this was outrageous and hounded VIPCO because of it. Other’s were Zombie Flesh Eaters (too much gore), Fight For Your Life (inciting racial hatred) and The Beast in Heat (sex and violence, a big no-no).
Is there a value to the films beyond the “shock element”? Would you describe any of the films as genuinely high-quality in terms of their artistic contribution?
Some of the Nasties are only remembered now for being just that: a Nasty. They have no real value. Yet there are some that are genuinely good movies. Shogun Assassin is stunning. Cannibal Holocaust is a very cerebral film. The Slayer is a movie that has gotten better with age
What’s your personal favorite film in the catalogue?
My favourite VIPCO title has to be the film that Mike actually had a hand in making: Spookies. It is a truly strange, yet never dull, movie that has such an interesting backstory to it too. Video Nasty Mayhem details all the madness involved with Spookies in much more detail.
Other titles worth mentioning are: The Bogey Man, Zombie Flesh Eaters, The Beyond [I second that; good horror film -admin], The Slayer and Cannibal Holocaust.
How would you describe your book Video Nasty Mayhem to someone who might be interested in reading it?
It takes a look at how one man, Mike Lee, took his desire to be a successful businessman and used it to stoke the flames of the Video Nasties and released a whole host of classic and woeful horror movies on VHS and DVD to the UK! People involved with the firm, and involved with its rivals, offer their insights into the firms history, too.
What was the process of writing it like?
I had the idea in late 2017 and didn’t take it seriously until a couple of months later. I would try to spend a few weeks at a time writing about the certain genres of cult cinema VIPCO released (Cannibal, Nasties, Zombie) and speak to people that worked for VIPCO in order to flesh out the chapter that concerned the firm’s history. Come December 2018 the book was finished, the same day I found out I was to become a first-time father no less! Now the book is on sale and my son Noah is four months old!
How many interviews did you conduct for the book? Was it generally easy or difficult to get people to talk about the subject of the “nasties”?
The interviews were surprisingly easy to set up. People I thought would baulk at the idea were more than happy to talk via email or phone. Marc Morris (of Nucleus Films) even helped me out with some old VIPCO press materials he had in his archive! Jay Slater, who worked for Mike Lee for many years, and Graham Humphreys, designer of many VHS sleeves, were delights to talk too.
Only two people declined to be interviewed, although one of those actually spoke to me at length about horror and its history on home video only to decline at the last moment! I will not name them, to save their blushes.
Where can people read your book?
Video Nasty Mayhem is readily available in print and on Kindle via Amazon in multiple countries. Other outlets like Waterstones, Bol.com and several others sell the book, too. My publisher, Bennion Kearny, sell it on their website too.
Where can people keep up with you and your work?
I primarily use Twitter and can be found at @VIPCObook
Is there anything you’d like to add that I forgot to ask about?
Those wondering why a certain title wasn’t included: there were so many films I reviewed that didn’t make the final cut for the book that I hope to revisit and publish in print or online eventually! Also, I do a VIPCO podcast with director Jason Impey named Strong Uncut Podcast (on Twitter: @StrongUncutPod)