The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the BBFC
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the BBFC
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses how the succession of events surrounding the British censorship of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is perhaps one of the longest in the annals of the British Board of Film Classification's (BBFC) history. Before the film was submitted for classification at the then titled British Board of Film Censors, Chain Saw Massacre had already garnered a growing global reputation as being one of the most frightening films ever made. While this would seem to imply that such a film would be statured in scenes of graphic violence and bloodshed, this imposed status for Chain Saw came about from the very fact that there was so little violence and gore within it. Instead, audiences and critics were affected by the film's sheer emotional intensity, experiencing the horrific events, almost in real time, alongside protagonist Sally Hardesty. With the majority of films across all genres, such a reputation serves only to stimulate an increased audience curiosity and anticipation, potentially indicating larger audience figures (and therefore larger financial return) on the film than initially expected. Indeed, Chain Saw was eagerly anticipated but its most effective quality would impede its UK cinema release for nearly twenty-five years.
The succession of events surrounding the British censorship of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is perhaps one of the longest in the annals of the British Board of Film Classification’s (BBFC) history: lasting for nearly thirty years, the film’s numerous submissions coincided not only with the tenure of two Secretaries, Stephen Murphy and James Ferman, but also the rise in the popularity of home video and the subsequent ‘Video Nasty’ campaign that emerged from it.
Before the film was submitted for classification at the then titled British Board of Film Censors, Chain Saw Massacre had already garnered a growing global reputation as being one of the most frightening films ever made. While this would seem to imply that such a film would be statured in scenes of graphic violence and bloodshed, this imposed status for Chain Saw came about from the very fact that there was so little violence and gore within it. Instead, audiences and critics were affected by the film’s sheer emotional intensity, experiencing the horrific events, almost in real time, alongside protagonist Sally Hardesty. With the majority of films across all genres, such a reputation serves only to stimulate an increased audience curiosity and anticipation, potentially indicating larger audience figures (and therefore larger financial return) on the film than initially expected. Indeed, Chain Saw was eagerly anticipated but its most effective quality would impede its UK cinema release for nearly twenty-five years. As Ken Penry, Ferman’s deputy at the BBFC at the time, has stated, Chain Saw ‘was rather unique because it did not have particularly outrageous visuals; but it was so well made it had this awful impact all the way through’ (Matthews, 1994: 252).
Initial Submission to the BBFC
As Stefan Jaworzyn states, on 28 February 1975 Stephen Murphy, then Secretary of the Board, sent an Internal Communication to his examiners:
I saw last night The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This appears to be a fictionalised documentary which bears every sign of being shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. It is a very good film, which we must take seriously. To my mind, although this is quite (p.20) frankly fictionalised, we are basically back to the kind of considerations we faced with Manson… The film differs from Manson, not only in technique, but also in the fact that, with the exception of one tiny incident where perversion is hinted at, it has no sexual content. I think there is relatively little blood around this film. Its documentary air makes it even more severe and even more distressing to watch than The Last House on the Left. (2003: 100)1
The Board’s official screening of the film for possible certification would take place twelve days later on 12 March 1975 and was immediately rejected by the Examiners (one of whom was Ken Penry) on the grounds that it was sick and offensive and to sanction a film which features a prolonged attempt at murder as entertainment was ‘to enter the Roman Circus stakes’ (ibid). With its certification refused, Murphy wrote to the film’s UK distributors Gordon Shadrick and John Daly of Hemdale International, stating:
I have to tell you that we do not feel we can offer certification to this film. I should make it plain we do not regard this is an exploitation piece: it is a film of considerable merit. The problem is, I think, our continuing worry whether studies in abnormal psychology are suitable for the public cinema. (ibid.)
Over the next two months, Murphy and Hemdale would exchange correspondence, each trying to define or reiterate its point of view on the film. Throughout these communications, Murphy indicates that the Board’s censors were most disturbed by the ‘appalling terrorisation of the girl and the violence, both physical and mental, to which she is subjected’ and that he saw ‘little hope’ that the Board would change its decision (ibid). While the majority of the exchanges were negative, Murphy offered some hope – before resigning in May 1975, he suggested that Hemdale submit the film to the Greater London Council in an effort to obtain a GLC X Certificate.
Submission to the GLC
Murphy’s suggestion to approach the GLC was an indication that the BBFC’s refusal to certificate the film did not mean that it had received an outright ban – each local council within the UK licences the cinemas within its boundary. Consequently, this gives (p.21) them the authority to change certificates, request further cuts or to ban a film from playing within their area’s cinemas.2 Such actions are rarely taken, with local councils usually concurring with the decisions made by the BBFC. Despite this, the GLC granted Chain Saw a certificate in August 1976 after Hemdale, following Murphy’s advice, submitted the film to them. This meant that any cinema within the jurisdiction of the GLC could show the film if they so chose. This also meant that anybody in the UK could see the film if they could get to a cinema showing the film within the GLC area. Some commentators have indicated that this quality alone renders the BBFC’s refusal to certificate Chain Saw as ‘farcical and meaningless’ (Powell, 2010).3 With this small success, the film was submitted to other local councils, some of which allowed it certification.
By now the BBFC had a new Secretary, James Ferman. It is here that, as with many of the accounts surrounding the unique and plotted history of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the trials within its censorship history begins to have its contradictions.
Tom Dewe Mathews’ account indicates that despite its restricted release, Hemdale still desired a BBFC certification in order to ensure a national release across the UK and ‘so they retraced their steps to the BBFC’s door two years later , by which time James Ferman had become Secretary’ (1994: 253).4 Perhaps anticipating another rejection, Hemdale approached Ferman with a proposition: ‘They asked me to come and work with their editor to see if we could make it more palatable’ (Ferman, quoted in Mathews, 1994: 253).
Working together,5 the editing team of distributor and censor soon realised that the film was, to some extent, censor-proof because it was not individual scenes that needed exorcising but the overarching feel of the film. Despite this, some scenes were cut, including some of the shots from Pam’s meat-hook impalement and from Grandpa’s attempts to kill Sally with a lump hammer. This cut version was then shown to the Board’s censors and, as Ferman recounted, all said ‘‘it hasn’t made any difference at all; it’s exactly the same film. Taking out those moments of explicit violence has not helped’. The problem, they now realised, was psychological torture’ (ibid.). Three years later, in 1980, Ferman would try and censor Chain Saw again ‘but, once again, he was defeated by the fact that… Hooper always cuts away from the gaping evisceration and leaves the audience instead with the sound of an approaching chainsaw’ (ibid.).
(p.22) Mathews’ account presents Ferman’s approach to the film as one in which the censor is proactively and positively engaged6 with the censorship process, all working in an effort to ensure a diversity of films are granted certification and consequential national release. In contrast to this potentially positive image are more negative accounts of Ferman’s relationship to the film, in particular his alleged comments made after a particularly screening the film:
After the film had been shown, uncensored, to members of the British Film Institute at the London Film Festival, Ferman got up on stage and, thinking he was among friends, said, ‘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?’
(Anon., The Ferman Chainsaw Massacre)
Upon hearing Ferman’s comment, the audience became predictably hostile due to its implications – that one sector of the British populace (who are implied to be ‘educated’ enough to understand the film) were able to watch the film ‘unharmed’ while another (uneducated) sector were not due to their inability to ‘understand’ or ‘differentiate’ from the content of the film.7
Jaworyn’s account does not mention this incident at all and instead moves forward to October 1982. Chain Saw was by now being distributed by ITC Entertainment, who wrote to the BBFC asking if the film could be considered for a R18 Certification. This was an interesting approach as, if the certification were granted, the film could – technically – be released onto the burgeoning home video market as the R18 certificate means that such a certified video tape could be sold to the general public in legally licensed sex shops. No account indicates that the R18 was ever granted.
By May 1983 Chain Saw had changed distributor for a second time and was now being managed by Tigon, which again submitted it to the BBFC for certification. This time the film was viewed by three Examiners, one of whom was Ken Penry along with two female colleagues. At the end of the screening (according to Jaworzyn):
[Penry] elected for passing the film R18 uncut, commenting ‘…this is still to me the most effective of all the horror films. I can admire the expertise with which it is made, but I still find watching it rather degrading experience with its persistent terrorising of (p.23) the girl… Now we have the Restricted 18 category this is the right classification for the film… it would mean that the sale of the video cassette would be restricted to licensed outlets only’. (2003: 103)
Both of Penry’s colleagues felt that the film could be now released (with cuts, primarily to the scene in which Sally is humiliated and tortured) but their opinions of the film did differ: whereas one felt it to be sadistic and indulgent, the other, fearing she may ‘be branded the office ghoul’ admitted ‘to enjoying this by now notorious movie. It is a classic piece of grand guignol, definitely not for the squeamish’ (ibid.). Despite the Examiners’ decisions, however, the film was again denied certification.
Chain Saw on Home Video
Until 1984 there was no formal requirement that a home video to be released onto the UK sales market had to be certificated by the BBFC. Consequently, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was released on home video at the end of 1981. While this seemed like an ideal way for the film to finally find its UK audience, a moral uprising was steadily taking place within the country, culminating in the ‘Video Nasty’ era.
The increasing popularity of the home video market, coupled with the lack of any regulatory constraints for these videos, meant that the UK video market was flooded with a range of international titles. These were often low-budget horror films, predominately from Italy and the US and included, among many other notorious titles, Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979) and Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980). With their lurid and often violent promotional materials, these films soon became a cause for concern for some, due to the possibility that these violent and gory films could be seen by anyone who had a video cassette recorder in their home. The furore generated by these anxieties led to a moral crusade headed by Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, and was amplified by the tabloid and broadsheet’s ‘moral campaign’ to ban these films. The Sunday People was possibly the first newspaper to print an article on the subject, which was followed by a similar article in The Daily Star and then The Sunday Times. The Times printed an article by journalist Peter Chippendale entitled ‘How high street horror is invading the home’, with Chippendale providing a (p.24) lengthy account of his experiences at a Manchester video fair, particularly in relation to the violent horror films that were available there. With such a succession of articles, a ‘moral panic’ was steadily rising. It took full form in The Daily Mail, which started its ‘Ban the Video Nasties’ campaign in June 1983 with an article entitled ‘The rape of our children’s minds’. Media interest in the Video Nasty was sustained in part by its own reporting and by the continued work of Whitehouse, who, at the 1983 Conservative Party Conference, presented a ‘highlights’ video of some of the more explicit content from the alleged Video Nasties. As a consequence, Conservative MP Graham Bright introduced a Private Member’s Bill to bring about the regulation of video content, which led to the 1984 Video Recordings Act.
In response to this Act, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) constructed a list of films he felt likely to be ‘obscene’ and therefore liable to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The Act itself meant that:
… subject to certain exemptions, video recordings offered for sale or hire commercially in the UK must be classified by an authority designated by the Secretary of State. The President and Vice Presidents of the BBFC were so designated, and charged with applying the new test of ‘suitability for viewing in the home’.
(Anon., About, BBFC).
In total, seventy-two films appeared on the DPP ‘Video Nasty’ list. Yet despite its content and the implicit fear of campaigners that violent horror films have the potential to corrupt, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, despite being repeatedly refused a theatrical certificate, never once appeared on the list. However, a direct consequence of the VRA meant that all films intended for video consumption at home now had to be submitted for reclassification (i.e. a film’s video certificate did not always correspond with its theatrical rating). Once again, The Texas Chain Saw was submitted and, once again, it was refused classification.
James Ferman stepped down from his post as Secretary of the BBFC on 10 January 1999. His retirement was reported in The Guardian (28 March 1998), with the article (p.25) indicating that Ferman resigned following the problems over certifying Lolita (Adrian Lyne, 1997) with an 18 certificate and that:
… his position has been in jeopardy [for some time] since he moved to relax censorship of pornographic videos at the end of last year without consulting the Home Office. The decision brought a public dressing down from the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, and a return to previous guidelines on pornographic content.
Three months later, on Tuesday 16 March 1999, BBC News reported that after twenty-five years, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was to be passed by the BBFC with no cuts and granted an 18 Certificate. This meant that, although the film had been actually screened at selected UK cinemas over those twenty-five years8 it could now have a nationwide general release. To accompany the decision, the BBFC’s President Andreas Whittam Smith and Director Robert Duval released a statement explaining why the film was finally being granted a certificate:
There is, so far as the Board is aware, no evidence that harm has ever arisen as a consequence of viewing the film… For modern young adults accustomed to the macabre shocks of horror films through the 1980s and 1990s, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is unlikely to be particularly challenging.
In relation to the film’s perceived violence, Smith and Duval define it within the statement as being implicit as opposed to explicit and that ’by today’s standards its visual effects may seem relatively unconvincing’. Despite this, Smith and Duval give specific attention to one of the film’s more notorious sequences, the sustained chase of Sally Hardesty. It is described in the statement as a half-hour pursuit of ‘a defenceless and screaming female’.
The board’s conclusion, after careful consideration, [of the pursuit] was that any possible harm that might arise in terms of the effect upon a modern audience would be more than sufficiently countered by the unrealistic, even absurd nature of the action itself… It is worth emphasising that there is no explicit sexual element in the film and relatively little visible violence. (ibid.)
(p.26) In August of the same year, the BBFC passed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, uncut, for home video/DVD distribution across the UK. Just over a year later, Chain Saw was shown, uncut, on UK terrestrial television when Channel 4 broadcast it as part of their FilmFear season in 2000.
Anonymous, 1999. ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre Released Uncut’, BBC News, [Online] March 1999 Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/298009.stm [Accessed 23 March 2012].
Anonymous, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (DVD Booklet), Universal Studios, 2002.
BBFC, n.d. About. [Online] (n.d.) Available at: http://www.bbfc.co.uk/about [Accessed 23 March 2012].
Barker, D., 2002. Obituary: ‘James Ferman’. The Guardian Online, [Online] 27 December. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2002/dec/27/guardianobituaries.filmcensorship [Accessed 23 March 2012].
Glaister, D., 1998. Culture: Film: ‘Controversial Ferman Quits as Chief Film Censor’, The Guardian Online, [Online] 28 March. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/1998/mar/28/filmcensorship.danglaister [Accessed 23 March 2012].
Jaworzyn, S., 2003. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Companion, London: Titan Books.
Mathews, T. D., 1994. Censored: What they didn’t Allow you to See and Why: The Story of Film Censorship in Britain, London: Chatto & Windus.
Melon Farmers, n.d. The Ferman Chainsaw Massacre. [Online] (n.d.) Available at: http://www.melonfarmers.co.uk/arbptcm.htm [Accessed 23 March 2012].
Powell, S., n.d. ‘TCSM vs. the BBFC at Classic Horror’, Classic Horror, [Online] (n.d.) Available at: http://classic-horror.com/newsreel/tcsm_vs_the_bbfc#sdendnote2anc [Accessed 23 March 2012].
(1.) The film Manson to which Stephen Murphy refers to is the 1973 documentary directed by Robert Hendrickson and Laurence Merrick. The Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972) suffered an equally long period as Chain Saw of repeated submission to the BBFC. The film was finally passed with an 18 (uncut) certificate in 2008 and is available on DVD retail.
(2.) ‘The British Board of Film Censors was set up in 1912 by the film industry as an independent body to bring a degree of uniformity to the classification of film nationally. Statutory powers on film remain with the local councils, which may overrule any of the BBFC’s decisions, passing films we reject, banning films we have passed, and even waiving cuts, instituting new ones, or altering categories for films exhibited under their own licensing jurisdiction.’ (Anon., About, BBFC).
(3.) In the booklet that accompanies the Universal’s 2002 Uncut Special Edition DVD release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it is stated that ‘individual councils were able to grant their own certificates allowing the film to be shown and as such, only Surrey, Sussex and Glasgow were deprived of the ultimate horror experience’ (Anon, 2002: 7) suggesting that a number of cinemas across the UK granted certification in order for the film to be screened.
(4.) Jaworzyn indicates in his text that ‘In January 1977 Gordon Shadrick wrote to James Ferman, informing him there had been an accidental cut of twenty-eight seconds to the print showing in London’. According to Jaworzyn, the missing footage was of Leatherface butchering Kirk. When bootleg videos of the film began to appear, a number of copies were struck from this ‘cut’ of the film, ‘leading to the incorrect assumption that the film had been censored’ (2003: 102).
(5.) This seems likely as The Guardian obituary for Ferman states that he ‘conducted the business of the Board in a hands-on way’ and states that he personally flew out to Hollywood to make twenty-four cuts to Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to ensure a general UK release (Barker, 2002).
(6.) It does need to be stated that although Mathews does clearly describe Ferman’s positive efforts to enable Chain Saw’s UK release, he does end his text by stating that ‘if a film is censor-proof, though, the censorious do not question themselves. They merely remove the evidence of their failure’ (Mathews, 1994: 253).
(p.27) (7.) Looking through the reams of research material concerning Ferman, very few make reference to the comments described in the text. A number of the UK broadsheets carried extensive obituaries upon Ferman’s death (22 December 2002), none of which mention this incident.