In this series I’m taking a look back at some of the films that, in the early 1980’s, were caught up in the Video Nasties moral panic in the UK. When video first arrived in the UK it was not covered by our censorship laws, and that, combined with the reluctance of the studios to embrace the technology, meant that many of the early releases were lurid, uncensored, horror films.
The tabloid press mounted a campaign against the films, and with a new right wing government in power and the growing influence of pro-censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse, the Director of Public Prosecutions was instructed to draw up a list of films liable to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act. I’ll be attempting to look at every one of the 74 films that made this list, giving you a snapshot of the controversy around each film before watching and reviewing it.
It’s not hard to see why the BBFC, back in 1981 when it came up for cinema release, rejected Fight For Your Life, nor why, despite the steady drip drip of re-released nasties, nobody has yet attempted to get this film past them for a first certificated UK release. If anything the film’s dialogue, which, uniquely among the nasties, is one of the most problematic things here, would be even more controversial in today’s much more racially sensitive society.
The problem is that you can’t cut around leading villain Jesse Lee Cain’s (William Sanderson) despicable and constantly expressed extreme racism, because it is the main source of both the film’s horror and its message. If the film ever came up against the BBFC again I suspect they might reject it for fear that certain people (BNP voting scum, for example) might be cheering for the wrong team.
Fight For Your Life is one of the most uncomfortable films ever made, and a very different sort of video nasty because, aside from one murder, most of the worst brutality takes place off screen. That said, it’s one that the tag of nasty definitely applies to. It’s a deeply difficult film, skin crawling to watch, or, more accurately, to listen to.
The story is your basic Last House on the Left knock off; one more home invasion horror in which a family are terrorised by a group of escaped convicts. The difference here is that the convict in charge (the aforementioned William Sanderson; here rail thin and full of nervous energy five years before he really came to attention in Blade Runner) is a virulent racist and the family he and his gang invade and terrorise are middle class and black. You could easily accuse Fight For Your Life of being a racist film (and it would be easy for a racist to embrace it as that) but you’d be wrong, Jesse Lee Cain is surely punished for all his crimes (which also include rape and murder), but it is the racism for which this film seeks to damn him. For that to work we have to see how extreme his prejudice is, and the script is thick with racial slurs. Cain has a gun, but make no mistake, his abusive words are the main, and the most effective, weapon he wields. This is also what makes the film so hard to watch, and so impossible to cut; the racist slurs occur in every line (sometimes more than once) and they at as a constant assault on this (largely) dignified and sympathetic family.
This is not to say that the film consists entirely of bludgeoning abuse during the sequences in which Cain holds court. In one hideous moment he makes the father of the family; Ted Turner (Robert Judd) first dance, then stand on a stool and sing. Turner, a pastor, sings Glory Glory Hallelujah, and turns Cains humiliation of him into a moment in which the whole family becomes defiant. In many ways, though the fight back doesn’t come for another 40 minutes or so, this is the turning point. This is when Cain loses, because this is when it becomes clear that he can’t make complete victims of the Turner family. Though this is very much an exploitation film it doesn’t deal entirely in black and white. The Turner family are not perfect (in fact the film’s first racist statement is made by Ted’s wife, in reference to white girl their older son had been seeing) and there is even an attempt – though it doesn’t quite come off – to give some reason for the way Cain behaves. Okay, it’s not the deepest psychological portrait, but the filmmakers are making an effort to have ideas and provoke discussion.
The other reason the film doesn’t simply drown in its own offensiveness is that it’s hard to dismiss the performances. William Sanderson is a fine actor, and so he proves here, with a perfectly despicable performance as Cain. He completely sells the viciousness of the character, and the seriousness of the threat he poses, but also makes it clear that Cain is a wimp; a coward whose gun gives him licence to be vile. Robert Judd is equally good, giving Ted Turner compelling resolve and strength and making the cliché of the good man pushed beyond breaking point play. There is also largely decent backup from the actors playing the rest of the Turner family, especially from Lela Small as the militant grandmother. Some of the bit parters aren’t so good, but this is exploitation cinema, if you expect great performances all round you’re just setting yourself up for disppointment.
Most of the violence works through implication, but in one hideous scene director Robert A Endelson makes us stare down the film’s most brutal act in slow motion. Even in movies of a truly nasty exploitation pedigree usually spare the children, but not this one. The brutal murder of a child about an hour in, his head bashed in with a rock, is deeply nasty and disturbing, and yet another reason we in the UK may well never see Fight For Your Life given a re-release.
Difficult as this film is, and flawed as the production values – especially the editing – can be, it is worth seeing. It’s smarter and more impactful than many of the video nasties, and while it deals, like many others on the list, in disgust, it does so in a significantly different way to most. It gets a 7/10, and is recommended for those with strong stomachs.