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Nightmares in a Damaged Brain – The Story of a Video Nasty

On 30 June 1983 the Director of Public Prosecutions published a list of fifty-two feature films that were considered offensive and unsuitable for public viewing. These so-called video nasties, as obtained by the tabloid newspaper the Daily Mail, were a collection of gruesome, sexually explicit and occasionally sadistic pictures that moral campaigners in Britain had warned could prove harmful or corruptive to the nation’s youth.

The film industry only had itself to blame. As VHS won the home video war in the late 1970s major studios were reluctant to embrace the new medium and so independent entrepreneurs capitalised on the rising demand by purchasing as many low budget movies as possible. In an effort to compete with the mainstream many of the pictures were rebranded with suggestive and eye-catching monikers while boasting artwork that would exploit their violent and sexual content. Among the titles that would be included on the list of fifty-two were many that otherwise would have long since vanished into obscurity. One such title was Nightmares in a Damaged Brain.

Vile, disgusting, amateur, preposterous…Romano Scavolini’s notorious splatter flick Nightmare has been described as many things, often dismissed as misogynistic exploitation and usually in the same breath as William Lustig’s Maniac and Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper. The tale of a deranged killer’s supposed rehabilitation back into society, resulting in a gruesome killing spree from New York to his hometown in Florida, Nightmare was a surreal blend of art house and slasher, attempting to create an allegory on forced conformity in much the same way as Stanley Kubrick’s equally-reviled adaptation of A Clockwork Orange.

Scavolini had drawn inspiration from Project MKUltra, a controversial experimental programme created by the Central Intelligence Agency in the years following the Second World War that had gained worldwide notoriety in the mid-1970s when the government had launched an investigation into its legal and ethical ramifications. Its purpose, it was later revealed, was to explore the concept of mind manipulation and control through the use of hallucinogenic drugs and sleep deprivation, which was administered to an array of patients ranging from prisoners to willing students.

‘The project was a knee-jerk reaction to the thought that Soviets, Chinese and Koreans might be leading the charge as far as interrogation techniques were concerned during and after the Korean War,’ explained author Kate Marcello in the 2015 exploration Conspiracy Fact: MKUltra and Mind Control in the United States: Declassified. ‘The goal of MKUltra was to weaken the mind of the individual as a whole and induce compliance through confession and overall mind control. MKUltra consisted of a hundred-and-forty-nine sub-projects and spanned from 1951 to its so-called demise in 1973.’

Despite drawing inspiration from such a historical moment in American history, Nightmare would be viewed as little more than an excuse for elaborate special effects and softcore nudity. Yet Scavolini was both shocked and fascinated by the horror that surrounded the CIA scandal. ‘The main idea arose from an article I read in a weekly magazine which dealt with MKUltra,’ claimed the filmmaker. ‘The article was explaining the story about evidence that the CIA’s project had involved the use of various types of drugs in order to manipulate people’s mental state, behaviour and brain functions. And those experiments were done by giving drugs to mental patients and convicts without them knowing the risks involved.’

Released in the fall of 1981, at a time when the American film industry was exploiting the recent success of such low budget slasher pictures as Halloween and Friday the 13th, Nightmare would indulge in the latter’s penchant for substituting tension and character development with cheap prosthetics and gratuitous shots of breasts. The slasher cycle, which would effectively run its course the following year, had become critically reviled and yet its repeated success at the box office had convinced both independent filmmakers and major studios to recycle the formula in the hope of achieving similar returns.

Yet while Friday the 13th had been dismissed by many critics as both derivative and mean-spirited it had been conceived by its filmmakers as an enjoyable experience for the audience, but there were other pictures released during this time whose sole purpose was to provoke disgust, hatred and notoriety. For every clone that attempted to recreate the formula of the more successful movies of the sub-genre, there were those filmmakers such as Joe D’Amato that were considered too extreme and thus did not belong on the shelves of local video stores where any visitor, from young children to the elderly, could be subjected to their horror.

Nightmare, or Nightmares in a Damaged Brain as it would become known during the video nasty scandal, would court controversy even before the British public had a chance to view it. On 20 May 1983, as concerns began to grow in the mainstream media over the rise of gruesome and pornographic videos making their way into homes across the country, the film’s distributor World of Video 2000 would promote its release with a gimmick worthy of William Castle himself, in which random members of the public were offered a £50 prize if they could successfully guess the weight of a prosthetic brain in a jar. Believing the organ to be real, police were eventually called in and confiscated the offending object, causing a minor stir that only served to draw attention to the upcoming splatter film.

The following February the owner of World of Video 2000, David Hamilton Grant, was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for allowing his company to release a print of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain that was almost a minute longer than the cut approved by the British censors. With the company in liquidation and his business partner receiving a suspended sentence Grant, who had spent the majority of the 1970s producing such softcore erotic titles as Sinderella and Snow White and the Seven Perverts, would prove to be the first legal casualty of the video nasties.

‘He served eighteen months in jail, fled to Cyprus, opened a delicatessen called Mr Piggy and was expelled from the island in 1988 after assaulting his girlfriend’s husband with a spade,’ claimed an article published by the Independent many years later which summarised his life after being released from prison. ‘In the same year, The Sun identified him as a cocaine dealer and child pornographer. Neither charge was substantiated, nor will they ever be. He is thought to have been the victim of a contract killing in 1991.’

Prior to the controversy that would surround Nightmare following its release in the early 1980s, Ramono Scavolini had worked as an independent filmmaker in Europe before relocating to the United States, where he taught film studies at New York University. Despite having a dislike for the horror genre which had begun to infiltrate the mainstream, he realised that developing a low budget genre picture could him help break into the American film industry and upon discovering the recent revelation of Project MKUltra the seeds of what would ultimately become Nightmares in a Damaged Brain were born.

‘For David Jones, a young New York broker who had made a small fortune on the gold market, Nightmare (then titled Dark Games) was the perfect vehicle for his newly formed company Goldmine Productions,’ described Adam Rockoff in his acclaimed book Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. ‘If it made money it would be just another success story in his rapidly expanding portfolio; if not, the $400,000 it cost to make could be used as a tax write-off. Dark Games was conceived by Romano Scavolini, who had worked as a freelance photographer in Vietnam and had made numerous short films and documentaries in Italy.’

The basic concept of what would become Nightmare told of George Tatum, a young patient at a mental institution in New York City who is plagued by a recurring nightmare in which he witnesses scenes of graphic violence in which a woman is decapitated while indulging in sadomasochistic sex games with her lover. Constantly waking up screaming in his cell, memories of his past have haunted George his entire life but after spending many years subjected to countless psychological and emotional experiments his psychiatrist, Dr. Williamson, has come to the conclusion that he is now stable and ready to re-enter the world.

On the surface comparisons could easily be made between the story of Nightmare and that of Halloween. Both dealt with a child killing a family member before spending much of their adult life incarcerated in a mental institution, before finally escaping and returning to their childhood home to continue the murderous rampage. Another picture that would explore similar themes to both films was The Boogeyman, Ulli Lommel’s equally-controversial 1980 slasher that would eventually find its way onto the video nasties list alongside both Nightmare and its own sequel, 1983’s Revenge of the Bogey Man.

Perhaps it was inevitable that so many horror movies of the era would share similar plot points as Halloween, which at the time of its release would become the most successful independent picture of all time, had formed the basic template for what would become the slasher film. Those stalk-and-slash flicks that would not steal directly from John Carpenter’s seminal classic would instead try to emulate its most successful imitator, Friday the 13th. Thus, cinema in the early 1980s was awash with movies of horny teenagers at summer camps or away from civilisation being picked off one-by-one by a deranged, unstoppable killer.

Though many of the filmmakers who would become associated with the slasher genre would deny having any kind of affinity for those films that launched the cycle, it was undeniable that Carpenter had laid the groundwork for which every psycho horror that followed would conform to. ‘When you finish a movie, no matter what, you are in the hands of the distributors and they do what they think will be best for them to earn money,’ insisted Scavolini. ‘Nobody gave a shit about what is right or wrong. Slasher is a word used to increase box office income. It’s not a label, it’s a concept. Stupid and devoid of any sense.’

Much has been made on the treatment of female characters and the representation of sexuality within the horror genre and the slasher film in particular. Critics have constantly overanalysed a cycle whose primary function was to entertain, often stating that the slasher film represented man’s fear of feminism and that the gruesome acts of violence that these type of films focus on were the killer’s sexual frustrations being unleashed. While there may be truth with regards to specific films that have bordered on misogynistic, for the most part the slasher sub-genre was a shallow and simplistic formula which often used sexual imagery to titillate its teenage audience before providing them with the ‘money shot’ – elaborate murder set pieces.

That is not to say that various filmmakers haven’t brought a certain degree of intelligence or subtext to their work, but more often than not these movies were designed purely to cater to fans of elaborate special effects and softcore nudity. They were, after all, the genre’s target audience. There is no denying that art imitates life and vice versa, for it can be no coincidence that the rise of the ‘final girl’ coincided with that of feminism in the early 1970s, with strong and resourceful heroines replacing the weak damsels-in-distress. In fact, the slasher film not only portrayed their female protagonists as resourceful and independent but would often succeed where their male counterparts failed, by defeating the villain.

Yet pictures such as Nightmare, which revelled in its grotesque imagery and and highlighted an association between violence and sex, would gain the most notoriety. The slasher killer’s weapon of choice, a blade, has been described by critics as a ‘phallic symbol,’ with the often naked victim being penetrated by the maniac, shortly after having engaged in sexual activity. ‘On the face of it the relation between the sexes in slasher films could hardly be clearer,’ stated noted film theorist Carol J. Glover in her analysis Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. ‘The killer is with few exceptions recognisably human and distinctly male; his fury is unmistakably sexual in both roots and expression; his victims are mostly women, often sexually free and always young and beautiful.’

The coalition of sex and violence played a considerable role in Nightmare. When George is finally released from the institution, after having been declared mentally stable by his psychiatrist, his murderous impulses return after witnessing a peepshow in a sleazy theatre. As he lustfully watches a young woman masturbating in a booth he suffers flashbacks to the night that he committed murder, collapsing on the floor in convulsions at the sight of a headless corpse literally ejaculating with a foundation of blood as his younger self stands over the body with an axe.

While his name may not have become as synonymous with shock horror as the likes of Lucio Fulci or Ruggero Deodato, Scavolini would receive his fair share of criticism for a motion picture that many critics considered reprehensible and without merit. ‘I was the first and only person ferociously attacked by all types of hypocrites, including the film critic Janet Maslin, who wrote an article in the New York Times that a demon or devil, me, was walking free on the streets of New York,’ insisted the director. ‘Nightmare was edited three times. I refused the first two cuts until the movie was given to an editor I liked. The bloody and disturbing scenes were intended that way and it was necessary for the good of the film.’

Arguably one of the more notorious aspects of Nightmare and one of the principal reasons that the film attracted the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions was the gruesome special effects and one that would cause a debate among fans and critics for decades to come. While the focus of who was responsible for the nightmarish images that the audience would be subjected to came down to one familiar name, the truth was the explicit gore was the culmination of four individuals. Arguably the most overlooked participant was Cleve Hall who, after stepping onto the set of Nightmare for the first time to oversee the special effects during the scenes filmed in Florida, would later work on such cult classics as Ghoulies and Re-Animator.

‘I was living in Florida at the time, I grew up there, I had a group and we were all interested in monster effects,’ he would later recall. ‘I got a call from some friends down in Cocoa Beach saying they were shooting a horror movie down there and they needed a make-up effects assistant.’ Despite having little experience and merely hired to assist it soon became clear that the production was without a special effects artist for the three weeks that they were shooting in and around Brevard County. The sequences filmed in Florida would see George returning to his childhood home and terrorising the new family that reside there before a young boy, somewhat reminiscent of his younger self, finally manages to bring his murderous rampage to end once and for all.

The second and most obscure of the artists was a Leslie Larraine, whose participation in the movie would later be followed by the teen sex comedy The First Turn-On!! for the legendary Troma and the more respected romantic flick Reckless. While there has been a constant debate as to who was most responsible for the blood and guts on display in Scavolini’s feature the consensus is that Larraine, listed as Les Larrain on the end credits, was the artist most hands-on and therefore responsible for the horrific violence and excessive bloodshed.

Yet the name most associated with the film was Tom Savini. Having seen violence firsthand as a combat photographer in Vietnam, Savini would form a creative relationship with acclaimed filmmaker George A. Romero on the cult classics Martin and Dawn of the Dead before finally becoming a genre star in his own right through his work on Friday the 13th. As his portfolio and status began to grow following its overnight success, Savini soon became one of the most in demand make-up artists in the industry and within the first year following the release of Friday the 13th he had performed similar duties on such drive-in favourites as The Prowler, Maniac and The Burning.

While the testimonies of those involved in the production would indicate that Savini had been hired merely as a consultant and had provided some assistance for Larraine, Scavolini has insisted that his role on-set was far more significant. ‘Tom Savini was greatly involved in the making of Nightmare’s special effects. The only thing he didn’t do were the prosthetics, which were done by another group of young people,’ he claimed. ‘All the main effects of the film were supervised and done personally by him. Actually, he pushed the blood pump when the boy chopped his mother’s head off.’

For his part, not only has Savini continued to deny that he had any kind of authority or creative influence over the special effects but he has repeatedly expressed contempt for both the film and its director. ‘I was not involved with that film in any way I want to talk about,’ he declared. ‘They keep using my name and I did not do the effects on that piece of shit. The guy who did do the effects, Les Larraine, killed himself. He was a friend and they gave him no credit but tried to steal my name to promote this trash…I was just a consultant, nothing more. They put my name in a big box on the posters as having done the special make-up effects.’

Once principal photography had concluded in Florida, one week of filming would take place in New York, primarily consisting of the scenes in which George prowls the streets through various sex shows. For this portion of the film a young upcoming artist called Ed French would handle the special effects. ‘I’m surprised that anyone remembers, let alone cares, about this vapid piece of exploitation,’ he admitted. ‘I recall a review in the New York Times or the Post saying something to the effect that if the police wanted to round up all the perverts and psychos running around the Big Apple they could find them at the midnight screening of Nightmare on 42nd Street.’

Much like Hall, French would make his feature debut on Nightmare and his responsibilities, under the supervision of Larraine, would primarily be to up the ante of blood and guts in order to truly disgust the audience. With just four days on-set, French would join the production in New York to film an on-screen decapition that would terrorise George during the peepshow. Aside from Savini, French would enjoy the most success of all those associated with Nightmare as his work on low budget horror pictures would eventually lead to mainstream blockbusters such as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Nightmare opens today at a number of theatres, which is perhaps the nicest thing that can be said for it.’ And so began Maslin’s review of the movie, published on 23 October 1981 in the New York Times. ‘Though everything else about Nightmare is amateurish and though its surprises are dependably unsurprising, the bloodshed has been rendered with a loving attention to detail,’ it continued. Released through 21st Century Film Corporation on the same day as the review, Nightmare would cause a considerable stir in the late night circuit and soon gained a cult following on home video, yet it would be in Britain where its legacy would truly be cemented.

The argument levelled against the video nasties was that while the recently-rebranded British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) imposed restrictions on cinema presentations, the rise of home video meant that even if an adult rented a title then any child in that household could be exposed to sexual or violent imagery. This was the moral high ground that the likes of Mary Whitehouse, the most notorious of all the activists fighting against corruptive influence in the media, would often exploit as they attempted to force censorship not only on the filmmakers but also the retailers and consumers.

And while the fear had first been harmlessly perpetuated by the shameless marketing of the independent distributors as an attempt to draw attention to their products, it had resulted in legal proceedings, scaremongering from the mainstream tabloids and even a prison conviction. With David Hamilton Grant having been issued an eighteen month sentence for his role in the illegal distribution of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, on 1 September 1985 the entire home video industry in the United Kingdom underwent a significant change with the introduction of the Video Recordings Act 1984. With this the BBFC had full authorisation to censor or even refuse a classification and thus a release of any title they seemed unsuitable for home viewing.

Ever since its release Nightmare has courted controversy, contempt, disgust and fascination in equal measures, all of which have delighted its filmmaker, who set out four decades ago to make a motion picture that would challenge its audiences and offer them something that other slasher films of the era had failed to deliver. ‘We got three XXXs like a porno. We had the police at the entrance of every theatre and we had ambulances. We had things Friday the 13th never had. I wanted to create shock!’ declared Scavolini with a maniacal glee. ‘The producer David Jones called me up to say that some theatre owners wanted to cut down the slasher scenes but he said, ‘Tell me what you want to do.’ I said, ‘Let them scream!”

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