Baiting the censor

Alex gets the Ludovico Treatment in A Clockwork Orange

Alex gets the Ludovico Treatment in A Clockwork Orange

Back in 1999 I was flown to Rome for a movie junket. On the way back to Blighty I grabbed the opportunity to scour the airport’s shops for a video copy of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, by then long banned in the UK.

I still remember the frisson of excitement as I ambled back through Customs with the contraband in my holdall. Actually getting home and watching it for the first time – on a real tape as opposed to a ropey pirate copy – was the best feeling ever. I’d beaten the system. I was a rebel – my own hero.

Flash back 15 years and the video explosion was in full force. Every corner shop and petrol station offered its patrons the chance to join a club and hire the latest releases.

In 1982 I was 16 and, with the gift of the gab, persuaded the owner of my local video club to rent me Zombies: Dawn of the Dead, a blackly comic horror flick with a deeply allegorical message about materialism and our consumer society.

Of course, I wasn’t interested in exploring the deeper subtexts of George Romero’s follow-up to Night of the Living Dead. I just wanted to wallow in two hours of gore, mind-boggling special effects and some pumped-up violence involving gung-ho SWAT troopers and hordes of shuffling corpses.

Having succeeded in getting it past my parents I resolved to work my way through the shop’s catalogue of dubious pleasures. So it was that, over the course of a few months, I navigated a route along the top shelf, soaking up the likes of The Brood, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left and The Exorcist.

Only the latter gave me pause for thought; the rest were merely something to giggle about with my mates.

VHS video cover

VHS video cover

Top of my list was SS Experiment Camp, the cover of which depicted a topless beauty cowering beneath a jackbooted Nazi wielding a whip. What’s more, it always seemed to be out, thus representing a challenge: if the film was so popular, it had to be good. And I just had to see it.

The truth was that it turned out to massively disappointing. A low-grade slice of exploitation trash involving a Nazi stud farm, it packed sex, sadomasochism and a lame attempt at romance and redemption into its 90-odd minutes. The hard sell of the video cover didn’t translate into anything remotely titillating and, when I told the rest of the gang in the sixth form canteen, nobody batted an eyelid. They’d all snored their way through it already. Instantaneously, my rebellion evaporated.

The store owner had got so used to me creeping around trying to avoid neighbours, relatives and my parents’ friends that he was surprised to find me openly selecting what he considered to be ‘quality’ movies.

Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) is flayed alive by vengeful Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) in The Black Cat.

Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) is flayed alive by vengeful Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi) in The Black Cat.

Slashers gave way to monochrome classics like The Black Cat, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. No-one seemed to care that the film concluded with Karloff’s character, a devil-worshipping Aleister Crowley derivative named Hjalmar Poelzig, being flayed alive by Lugosi’s vengeful widower. The film was made in 1934, for goodness sake. No-one cared about that old rubbish anymore.

Yet there was arguably more in The Black Cat to corrupt an eager teenage mind than there was in SS Experiment Camp. The Karloff film was stylish, disturbing and quietly subversive. The Nazi movie was junk – period.

Times change and people move on. When the Director of Public Prosecutions launched his blitzkrieg on video nasties the bubble had already burst; people were wise to the films doing the rounds and avoided them. Not because they were an insidious, corrupting influence, but because they were poor quality twaddle and a waste of money.

The furore that has erupted over the latest release of SS Experiment Camp is a retro reaction to a sleazy title. The content of the film – a character receives what must have been the world’s first testicle transplant – is clunky, laughable and plain bad. If there was an award for tastelessness the film would win it. But banning it only serves to pile hype on hype and grant the movie an undeserved reputation. This is no Clockwork Orange.

The decision by the British Board of Film Classification to release it uncut is the right one. Only then can modern audiences intrigued by the unwarranted legend that surrounds the film see it for themselves and accept what a complete and utter sack of garbage it really is.

(This article originally appeared in the Yorkshire Post in February 2008)




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