TCSM vs. the BBFC
Many films have clashed with British censors over the years but The Texas Chain Saw Massacre does have its own unique place in the weird and wonderful history of censorship in the UK, having been present at several significant points in that story over the last four decades. In 1974, the Secretary of the British Board of Film Classification James Ferman condemned TCSM as "...the pornography of terror," but his plans to keep it completely out of UK cinemas were foiled on its initial release.1 Then, despite the best efforts of the BBFC to keep the film off the small screen, it went on to be a black market video nasty hit in the '80s, before the powers-that-be threw in the towel in the '90s, and granted it a legitimate, uncut release. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a perfect example of a film that undermines their whole method of, and approach to, censorship as well as showing the extent to which the process is arbitrary, driven by political and media pressure, and riddled with class prejudice.
The saga starts in 1974 with the BBFC refusing a certificate for the film to be shown in cinemas. This is not the same as a total ban as the Board has no legally binding powers over movies on the big screen. Local councils license all cinemas in the UK, and therefore they have the final word on whether to ban films, change certificates, request further cuts or veto any refusals or cuts made by the BBFC.2 In practice, this rarely happens and they are generally content to go with censor's decisions. In this case however the Greater London Council overturned the ban, meaning any cinema in the area covered by this authority was free to show it if they wanted. It also meant that any adult who lived in London, or who didn't live in London but could get there, could go and see it, rendering the ban farcical and meaningless. With such a patchwork law as this, the implication, whether intended or not, seems to have been that people in one part of the UK (cosmopolitan, middle class, inner city London) could be trusted to watch this film and people in another part of the country (or even another part of London) could not. At least if the ban was consistently enforced across the country it could be argued that it was at least consistently unfair to everybody. As already mentioned, vetoing a BBFC decision is rare, but there are a couple of other notable incidents of a similar but opposite nature, both of which also prove the futility of either the BBFC or a local council trying to suppress a film if the other side are not in total support. Monty Python's Life of Brian was passed as suitable for teenagers by the censors, and despite being subsequently banned in nearly a dozen areas (some of which had no cinemas)3, still cleaned up at the box office. Meanwhile, when Westminster City Council barred cinemas in their area from showing David Cronenberg's Crash, Columbia-TriStar simply made sure that it played on a "ring of screens" in theaters surrounding the council's jurisdiction, guaranteeing the film the opening in London's West End that it was nearly denied.4
Sadly, the story of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre versus the BBFC is a shining example of a wider story of how issues of class have always affected film censorship in the UK. Following an uncensored screening of the film at the highbrow London Film festival, James Ferman reportedly told the audience "...it's all right for you middle-class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?" 5 Throughout the '70s, the BBFC were happy to work with respected directors and big studios to get controversial but critically acclaimed works such as A Clockwork Orange, Salo, and Straw Dogs passed for the cinema, albeit sometimes in cut or re-edited form. However, the combination of a luridly titled film, an unknown director, and an independent distributor did not do enough to meet the high cultural standards of the Board either in the 1970s or, as we will see, a decade later.
Fast forward then to the early 1980s, the height of the infamous "Video Nasties" scare, which came about largely through outrage from tabloid newspapers over what they saw as a torrent of sleazy sex and violent filth polluting the country via the new medium of home video.6 Hysteria reached a fever pitch when some highly film literate police officers took matters into their own hands, raiding video shops and seizing the likes of Sam Fuller's World War II movie The Big Red One7 &emdash; you can only imagine the look of disappointment on their faces when they sat down to watch it. To try to clarify the situation, Margaret Thatcher's government responded by drawing up a list of 72 films already available on video that they felt could be prosecuted under existing obscenity legislation. These ranged from the genuinely good (The Evil Dead, Tenebre, Zombie Flesh Eaters), to the hilariously bad (Don't Go Near the Park, Cannibal Terror), to the downright ugly (Faces of Death, Cannibal Holocaust). Mostly, however, the films were indifferent non-entities (Don't Go in the Woods, Toxic Zombies, Mardi Gras Massacre anyone?) which would have sunk back into obscurity had it not been for the notoriety thrust upon them. However, results in the courts using laws not designed for films were mixed, with only 39 resulting in successful prosecution, not helped by the Obscene Publications Act 1964 using vague legal phrases about something that may "...tend to deprave and corrupt persons", tricky to prove in a court of law. The Government responded by rushing the Video Recording Act through Parliament. Some of the legal language used in it was just as fuzzy and now the examiners had to take into account that they were judging a film in the context of a home viewing as they felt that freeze framing and replaying scenes out of context could be harmful.8 The biggest change was the fact that the BBFC now had statutory powers, and if they didn't like your film they wouldn't give you a certificate, and if they didn't give you a certificate you were breaking the law trying to sell your video in Britain.
Where did this leave The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? It was not on sale at the time of all this and therefore not officially a Video Nasty, but it was obvious that it was not going to get an uncut release in this sort of climate. Therefore, the distributors tried to work with the censors to see if they were able to come up with a compromise, and herein lies one of the most fascinating parts of the story. The BBFC always found it easy to take the scissors to straightforward blood and guts, but here they were up against something far less tangible and obvious. Despite their best efforts, they were unable to pin down more than two scenes that could be cut and make any kind of difference (Pam being hung on a meat hook and Grandpa hitting Sally over the head with a hammer). All other efforts at censorship failed to remove the real thing they found so offensive - the oppressive sense of dread, disgust and unease running through the whole of the film. Therefore, they instead chose to block the video release entirely, along with that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.9 Hysteria about Chainsaws spread further afield, with Fred Olen Ray's Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers getting its UK release merely as Hollywood Hookers, although it's not clear whether this was an official censor's move or an over cautious distributor trying to prevent a run in with them over the dreaded C word.10
Fast forward again to 1999 and, this time, a happy ending for Chainsaw fans. Following the resignation of BBFC Secretary James Ferman, his replacement, Robin Duvall had a change of heart and granted uncut cinema and video/DVD certificates to the first three films, and later to the fourth, the remake, and that film's subsequent prequel, as part of an ongoing move by the BBFC to re-release large numbers of the video nasties. Currently, 39 (over half of the films on the original list) are available on DVD uncut, with another 23 released in slightly trimmed versions, as the likes of Cannibal Holocaust still fall foul of specific laws relating to the depiction of things like animal cruelty. While any move to towards liberalization of their policies is welcome for horror fans, the most galling part of all this is the admission by the censors that the reason the films can finally get a release is that times have changed. In other words, it's not the actual content of the film that is judged offensive in any quantifiable way, rather the context of the era you are trying to release it in. In a statement at the time of the eventual release of TCSM, the BBFC admitted that they knew of no evidence that the film was harmful, and that the violence was implicit not explicit, especially when compared to many films that have followed in its wake.11
The BBFC is still with us, as is the outrage in the tabloid press, with the latest stemming from a British MP noticing that SS Experiment Camp is now on sale uncut.12 However, much as the idea of censorship still riles me, and despite the fact that their decisions are driven by political and media pressure, is it worth getting steamed up over any more? The rise of the internet has enabled movie fans to bypass the censors completely and even if they had continued to ban TCSM, with a few minutes on Limewire or something similar I could easily download an uncut copy (which I do not condone of course, however this is a discussion of censorship not copyright).
The other thing to remember is what an amazing and subversive movie The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is. Plenty of films have outraged the censors, the government, and the tabloid press, but few, if any, have managed to frustrate so successfully the concerted efforts to turn it into something the authorities judge as palatable for the public. It hid underground like an outlaw for nearly two decades, finally having the last laugh as the censors surrendered, leaving it to rise again to critical and commercial success.
- Mathews, Tom D. Censored: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain. London: Chatto & Windus, 1994. Print. (back)
- "About Us." BBFC.co.uk. British Board of Film Classification. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)
- "Monty Python's Life of Brian can finally be shown in Torbay." Telegraph.co.uk. Telegraph Media Group Limited. 24 Sept 2010. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)
- Lister, David. "'Crash' finds way round censor." The Independent. Independent Print Limited. 3 June 1997. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)
- "The Ferman Chainsaw Massacre." Melon Farmers. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)
- Mathews. (back)
- Rose, Steve. "Who's nasty now?" Guardian.co.uk. Guardian News & Media Limited. 9 Sept 2005. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)
- Lipman, Ian. "The double standard bearer of the new regime." Guardian.co.uk. 29 July 1985. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)
- Mathews. (back)
- "The Ferman Chainsaw Massacre." (back)
- "Texas Chainsaw Massacre released uncut." BBC News. British Broadcasting Corporation. 16 March 1999. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)
- Kelly, Tom. "Shocking films on sale on the high street after 20-year ban is reversed." Mail Online. Associated Newspapers Limited. 27 Jan 2008. Web. Retrieved 26 Oct 2010. (back)