❉ An offbeat, entertaining companion to the infamous ‘video nasties’ label.
“The blood runs in rivers…and the drill keeps tearing through flesh and bone!”- sleeve art for the VIPCO release of Driller Killer
If there’s a concept from the relatively recent past that’s a hard sell to today’s hip, media-savvy, device-wielding youngsters (this article will not patronise them with the ‘millennial’ tag, which has somehow become a withering pejorative in the mouths of a certain balding/greying generation) it’s the video rental shop. In a world where one doesn’t even have to get out of bed or switch on a TV set in order to view a film (legally or illegally, masterpiece or schlock, subscription or ‘bootleg’) it must seem vaguely Dickensian and quaint to picture oneself having to get dressed, leave the house, stand in a shop and browse the shelves in order to procure that evening’s entertainment.
To someone who grew up in the Age of the Video Shop, however, recalling these places through a scrim of nostalgia, they were palaces of possibility and potential. Rack after rack of lurid images and titles offering you a trip to another world for a couple of hours. A more exciting world. A more adult world. A NASTIER world…for those JUST too young to (legally) get their hands on the blood-spattered likes of I Spit On Your Grave or Driller Killer, a visit to a video shop in the early ’80s was like a ride on the ghost train of your imagination. There was no dodgy make-up effects, lousy editing or wooden overacting in the version of Cannibal Ferox in THEIR heads as they stood holding the hysterically overblown VHS cover (BANNED IN 31 COUNTRIES!!!) in their hands: the gore-soaked images on the back of the Zombie Flesh-Eaters sleeve might as well have been crime scene photos from the Tate-Polanski house, so vivid were the reds, so unnerving was the disarray and disorder.
So pervasive is the aura of seedy glamour and the perceived threat of mental scarring that characterised the ‘video nasty’ furore that people who weren’t even born by the time it had all fizzled out are still taken with the iconography and atmosphere of the era, and the participants and perpetrators of its worst excesses and silliest scandals are looked on by these post-nasty video brats with the kind of hushed awe that usually attends the presence of reclusive pop stars or ageing sports heroes.
James Simpson is one such ‘brat’, with a pedigree in writing about horror films for the likes of Rue Morgue and Scream magazines, as well as his own now-dormant website Infernal Cinema, and Video Nasty Mayhem: The Inside Story of VIPCO is his offbeat, eyebrow-raising attempt to tell the story of one of that era’s most infamous video labels, and its shrewd, often shameless mastermind Mike Lee.
“We are feeding the demand, not creating it”- Mike Lee
Simpson’s impetus for writing a book on Lee and VIPCO coincided with fellow traveller Jason Impey’s efforts to launch a film documentary on the same subject, and the two have seemingly pooled resources to get the history of VIPCO out there: Impey writes the foreword to this book, Simpson is interviewed in Impey’s forthcoming film. Memoir and nostalgia can only take a book so far, and Simpson has not skimped on the research, interviewing former cohorts of Lee’s like Jay Slater, Barrie Gold and legendary film poster and video sleeve artist Graham Humphreys, as well as the reclusive Lee himself. Lee vanished and took his label with him at some point in the mid-2000s, and part of this book’s mission is to excavate the details of this surprising decision. It isn’t for any reason you’d expect, and was prompted by a tragedy which is only now coming to light. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
“My friends and I would probably never have got into video nasties if it hadn’t been for Mike Lee and the VIPCO company”- Narrator, Pre-Cert Legends: The VIPCO Story
Simpson’s approach is an unusual and occasionally frustrating one. He structures the book in an odd, disrupted, chequerboard fashion, alternating chapters about the history of VIPCO as a business and the related challenges Lee faced from the BBFC and the DPP, with chapters breaking down the label’s catalogue of titles: sorting them by type (‘Cannibals’, ‘Zombies’, ‘Nasties’, ‘All Sorts’) and delving further still into individual directors and film series’: the bold Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell Trilogy gets a detailed chapter to itself, as does Fulci’s collaboration on House of Doom, an anthology TV series with his countryman Umberto Lenzi.
Simpson certainly comes across at all times as an enthusiast and scholar of the label and its myriad lurid titles: one gets the feeling that he’s been sitting on his thoughts and opinions of genre quickies and brutalist classics like The Violent Professionals, The Deadly Spawn, Bronx Warriors and House on the Edge of the Park for years, just waiting like an eager puppy for the right vehicle to share them with the reader, and his assessments of these films range from the slightly bemused and snippy (he REALLY doesn’t seem to care for Paul Morrissey’s splatter-camp Warhol-Factory-On-A-Euro-Break Frankenstein, for example) to the breathlessly upbeat and adoring: Simpson has a rather sweet devotion to the confusingly disjointed, alternately amateurish and imaginative Spookies (one of only two films that Mike Lee worked on as producer) despite, or perhaps because of the presence in the film of an attacking army of audibly farting ‘Mud Men’ (a quite mad little detail apparently insisted upon by Lee himself: ‘You can smell them coming’ indeed).
Simpson’s reviews and dissections of these forgotten little fragments of slipshod narrative insanity is admirable and thorough, and certainly entertaining, especially when he raises an eyebrow at a particularly gruesome eye-gouging or cannibal feast, or scratches his head at some choice plot inconsistencies. His affection for these films and these genres is never in question, and it’s infectious, really making the reader want to revisit some of the films under assessment: he even finds something admirable in Lucio Fulci’s notoriously grotesque and almost childishly offensive New York Ripper (denied a home video release in the early ’80s, VIPCO acquired the rights for it later when the moral panic had abated somewhat), seeing beyond the shockingly misogynistic violence to perceive a convincingly squalid portrait of a city at breaking point, sliding headlong towards Hell on Earth.
However, the problem with Simpson’s approach is that the book’s actual status as an account of VIPCO’s history and as a portrait of the elusive Mike Lee tend to be significantly sidelined. If there is a weakness to the book it’s this: the film reviews might have been better served as appendices, or just inhabiting another separate section. As it is the ‘History of VIPCO’ chapters feel perfunctory and incomplete at times. What’s there is solid, anecdotal stuff detailing, among many other things, Lee’s run-ins with the BBFC, his acquisition and extensive re-titling of foreign films to further their chances of being picked off the shelf by sensation-seekers (yes folks, it’s none other than Mike Lee himself who coined the unforgettable phrase ‘Zombie Flesh-Eaters’ as well as ‘Zombie Nosh’ and, uuuh, the somewhat redundant ‘Zombie Dead’…) and his, shall we say ‘relaxed’ attitude to remastering his VHS catalogue for DVD and Blu-Ray (ie: he didn’t bother and just hoped no-one would notice).
But one can’t help but feel a LITTLE short-changed at the passing near-dismissal of what may be the most intriguing thing Lee ever did. Inspired by one of VIPCO’s then-current titles, a low-(LOW!)-budget Star Wars spoof named Gremloids (another of Lee’s winningly naff titles there) he went full Screaming Lord Such/Standing At The Back Dressed Stupidly And Looking Stupid Party, donned a makeshift recreation of the costume of Gremloids’ Poundshop Darth-Vader villain and became none other than LORD BUCKETHEAD, aspiring MP. The Dark Lord of B&Q ran on an anti-establishment, anti-censorship platform twice (1987 and 1992) directly against both Margaret Thatcher and John Major in their respective costituancies.
Of course Lord Buckethead is still going strong, and although it definitely isn’t Lee in the costume now (or IS it?…. No. It isn’t) one feels that there is perhaps an entire, separate book to be written about the political activism of the man who came up with film titles like The Nostril Picker and fended off legal prosecutions for pushing unwholesomely deranged dismemberment ballets like Shogun Assassin on a willing British public.
But this quibbling aside, Video Nasty Mayhem is certainly never dull, and on the odd occasion drily hilarious: interviewees like Jay Slater and Marc Morris in particular trade in a fine line of incredulous understatement, and Simpson himself often struggles to keep the laugh out of his voice (metaphorically) when confronted by some of the history he’s recording and some of the nasties he’s struggling to watch. If nothing else it’s a great book to have easily to hand as a reference as you scan Netflix, Youtube or Cyberspace on a Friday night in search of something vintage that’ll REALLY put you off your takeaway chow mein…
❉ ‘Video Nasty Mayhem: The Inside Story of VIPCO’: Print and eBook formats available from https://www.bennionkearny.com/vipco. ISBN-13: 978-1911121701.
❉ Daniel Marner is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.