Cheap 'gorefest' videos have mellowed with age: Low-budget horror films that never enter a cinema appear less explicit than in the past, writes John Lyttle

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The Independent Online
THOUGH often debated in terms of censure and moral panic, the horror video is seldom discussed as an object of economic market forces. Odd, especially when you consider how immensely profitable the videos are.

For every mainstream Hollywood feature - say, Basic Instinct - released to video three to six months after its cinema run, there is a non-stop stream of cheaply made, hastily produced, straight-to-video titles hogging shelf space at the local tape emporium, testimony to the form's enormous popularity: The Mutilator. The Church. Dr Giggles. Demons. Demons 2. Demons 3. These low-budget 'gorefests' (as the trade dubs them), along with equally penny-pinching sex comedies, 'chop-sockey' martial arts and Z-grade 'erotic' thrillers and sci-fi, are the lifeblood of an industry that cannot rely on the major studios to supply product in the volume required to satisfy consumers' appetites.

Hollywood's low-rent operations understand this, as do their European counterparts (the Demons series comes from Italy). Made for a pittance, masterpieces like Blood Thirst take the straight-to-video route to turn an almost instant profit. Indeed, conveyor-belt independents such as Troma have built a cult reputation and a healthy bank balance through such offerings as the Toxic Avenger.

The genre may never be critically respectable, but the UK video industry, wary of promoting horror fare since the initial 'video nasty' outcry and the Video Recordings Act 1984, has recently taken to putting prime-time TV advertising behind such titles as Leprechaun and Carnosaur, (comparatively) safe in the knowledge that the climate had changed.

One reason for their apparent boldness is the rigorous intervention of the British Film Board of Certification. What was permissible in the 'splatter'-obsessed Eighties - a decade ushered in by the exploding head in David Cronenberg's Scanners - is no longer tolerated. Contrary to sensational report, horror video has lost a lot of its guts. An obvious example is that viewers of the great underground grandfather of gore cinema, Night of the Living Dead (1968), were permitted to watch a zombie daughter eat her mother. The 1992 remake, produced by the original's director, George A Romero, deliberately dilutes the despatchments (by gun, hammer, knife, car, fire) and cannibal acts.

Romero knows the camera may no longer loiter with intent. It now cuts away at the critical moment, just as television invariably does. The worse Carnosaur can provide is a glimpse of human innards devoured by a patently plastic dinosaur, and a hand severed by laser; we do not see the slicing, only the hand falling to the floor.

Even the controversial Child's Play 3, a major studio outing that was a box-office failure in the US, is safe in its mild transgressions, inflicting its punishments on a foul-mouthed, walking talking doll, the one inventive touch of a stale formula picture.

Today, horror is mainly hype - hype being the petard it is regularly hoisted on. For numbingly realistic violence nowadays, one must look beyond the video Gothic to Cliffhanger, a dollars 60m (pounds 41m) hit that vindictively exults in its bludgeonings and kickings. Its budget protects it from attack.

Michael Reid, 24, of York, was fined pounds 19,250 by Birmingham magistrates yesterday after he admitted selling violent unclassified films including Cannibal Holocaust and Driller Killer. Trading standards officers seized 95 titles from a stall run by Reid at a comics fair in the city.

(Photograph omitted)