The following piece is taken from a work in progress, my pending book "The Gory Id: Killers in Film", and features as a foreward to a chapter discussing "Henry: portrait of a serial killer". I was lucky enough to find a journal entry written around 1992, when I worked in a video store, in which I documented a minor arugument I had had with a customer over the film and whether it was violent or not.
During the 1990s, I was fortunate to work in what used to be called a “video store”, a phenomenon to be fondly remembered that came and burnt out over about a twenty-year period, more-or-less. Or rather, I worked in a newsagent where one corner opposite the greeting cards and chocolates was devoted to a wall of VHS covers. When VHS came, the impact on film watching was incredible: it is simply impossible to convey to any youngster what it meant when video tapes were invented and, after a while, became widely available affordable to any old household. Or the fact that you could rent videos overnight from your local store: amazing! Before the VHS revolution, if you had loved a film seen at the cinema, you would wait a year or more before it turned up on television; and if you wanted to see it a third time, you would have to wait another year for the repeat, of you were lucky, not forgetting that you would have to make sure you were actually home to catch it. I myself had many nights when I was meant to be asleep for school illicitly watching films and television with my face pressed against the black-and-white screen in my bedroom with the volume as low as possible so that I wouldn’t get caught. Film-watching required a patience and dedication that would seem intolerable in the digital age. And then there was the Video Nasty period, which made VHS dangerous too (David Cronenberg knew!). And then people were recording favourite films and television shows, and so sometimes you had to make sophisticated arrangements and networks of friends of friends to acquire that one that you missed on TV last week. And I have very fond memories – during the nineteen-nineties – of heading across town to the local film fair in order to buy the films banned by the BBFC: oh yes, I was very excited to have ‘A Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974), even in its second or third-generation quality. ‘Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975)? ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980)? ‘Evil Dead’ (1980)? Yep, those too and all the joys of acquiring forbidden fruit.
I recall that the very first VHS tapes in my collection were ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981), ‘The Amityville Horror’ (1979) and ‘Eraserhead’ (1976). I was still in my mid-teens when I got these and since they were all 18 certificates, I have no proper recollection of how I got them, although I do recall waving ‘Eraserhead’ at my mother to buy for me. That was a film that had stunned me upon stumbling upon a late night broadcast when I was thirteen, and to think I was to actually own it was mind-blowing. Video renting was also a delightful ritual: my local newsagent was also a video store and even though I did not know that I was to eventually end up working there in my twenties, in my late teens it was a treasure trove. Any horror fan of the era will tell you about the joys of browsing those big boxes with the outrageous and nasty covers. You were going to end up with the cut versions, probably, but those covers triggered the lurid and fevered imaginations of millions of young horror fans, creating imaginary horror films that were hardly ever to be matched by the actual film on the chunky cassette.
And then, with the advent of video cameras being made affordable and available to the general public, we started to make our own films too. But more on that later.
So I came to work at this video palace, and I grew to know its particular selection of hundreds of films intimately. There was the excitement of the days when my boss would bring back new titles from the supplier, or those that were delivered. What new films would I get to see? And then there was the disappointment of those he hadn’t ordered that I wanted to see. It was amazing, for example, when he brought back ‘Henry: portrait of a serial killer’ (1986), which I had seen in one of its rare, rare cinematic screenings at the Everyman Cinema, when it had quite traumatised me. And then I rented it out. There were times I would take home a film every night, from junk horror to Hollywood Top Titles. Then other people rented it out, much to my amusement, for I was certain that for the most part that it was not what they expected.
One day, a man slapped the cassette of ‘Henry’ on the counter, returning it, and he said, “It’s supposed to be violent, but I’ve seen more violent ‘15’s.” So I asked him, with quite some tactlessness: didn’t he find seeing a kid’s head being whacked against the floor and having its neck twisted violent? He sniffed the answer away. I wondered if he would feel different if someone broke into his house and murdered his kids (he had three). He still wasn’t convinced. He had obviously watched ‘Henry’ for the violence and had been disappointed. Perhaps the BBFC’s cut had been successful in taking out all the extremities after all? Perhaps his view of screen violence was different to mine? Oh, I am sure.
But more than that: that very day, two ten year-old boys from Merseyside had been in court for murdering a two-year old boy the week before. Their names were Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. This was the famous Jamie Bulger Case and the media and the entirety of British society was consumed with it. When the police tried to smuggle the two boys out of court, the crowd of adults outside attacked the vans, throwing bricks, threats and expletives after the van and the kids (and the police?). Soon, the prosecution in the case and the media would claim that a typical little b-movie horror called ‘Child’s Play 3’ (1991) was inspiration for the boys to kill, bringing about a second wave of “Video Nasty” hysteria. The after-effects of the first “Video Nasty” wave still had not passed, and wouldn’t until the invention and whirlwind effect of DVD. Indeed, ‘Henry’ itself had been in certificate and censorship limbo for around eight years before I got to see it, uncut, at the Everyman Cinema. But with the Bulger Case consuming all, violence and children and parenting and screen violence was very much enflaming the majority of media and national conversation. Quentin Tarantino’s debut ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992), for example, was a cause célèbre for the pro-censorship and anti-screen violence voices and kept the topic at the forefront of media outrages (although all Tarantino had actually done was leave in all the blood that film noir had previously had to keep out).
And within this climate where sensitivity to screen violence was high, this man that I was debating with, having rented and dismissed ‘Henry’, asked me if I had been to the Gallarea yet: The Gallarea being one of the brand new shiny multiplex cinemas that were suddenly popping up and sweeping the country, killing off all the local and small cinemas in their wake. I said that I hadn’t been to The Gallarea – yet – because it wasn’t really showing the films I liked, and I tended to go to The Everyman in Hampstead instead. To which the customer pushed up the tip of his nose and he said, “Snob!” Evidently we were never going to agree on representations of violence on screen.
Myself, I was becoming increasingly interested in the subject of screen violence and its relationship to society around that time. I was convinced that verisimilitude in screen violence was crucial to a moral representation: the more realistic and graphic, the more honest and truthful. I had foolishly been turned off by the hysterical super-violence of ‘Total Recall’ (1990), for example (later I would come back to it, wiser, less pious, and relish its absurdity and outrageousness), even though it was a film I should have otherwise lapped up for its outrageousness (which I did later). I, you see, was busy watching shockers such as ‘Henry’ and ‘Man Bites Dog’ and the ridiculous and stupid violence of contemporary action films did not convince me. I felt that they were trivialising a very serious subject. This, after all, was the glory days of super-violent actioners in the style of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and ‘Rambo’ hits. Their lack of realism and awareness was an insult, I felt as I missed the greater complexities and representations of screen violence.
And so it was indeed the verisimilitude of John McNaughton’s ‘Henry’ that met my criteria of the time. And this, indeed, was to me real horror and real violence on video. And that was before the character of Henry himself video-taped his killing.
(To be continued in "The Gory Id: Killers in Film")