The climactic scene of Prano Bailey-Bond’s new horror film Censor features an image that will be familiar even to filmgoers who watch horror movies with their hands clasped over their eye: a bloodied young woman running through the woods. But the way said character, Censor protagonist Enid (Niamh Algar), gets there is unlike any previous film—Enid is a film censor in mid-’80s England whose work is starting to merge with her reality in hallucinogenic proportions. Not only does Censor provide a unique take on meta-horror, it’s uncommonly thorough in its excavation of its protagonist’s psychology.
“There’s a language in horror that the audience understands,” Bailey-Bond told Jezebel this week from London via Zoom. “With the hardcore fans, you can have another conversation going on within the horror genre that you’re referencing. I really enjoy that. But also creating female characters that maybe feel a little bit more real to me...you want to kind of update these things and keep them fresh.”
For the record, Bailey-Bond, who co-wrote Censor with Anthony Fletcher, is a horror fan who’s loved the type of movies that her protagonist is on a mission to protect the public from. Censor takes place in Thatcher’s England during the era of the “video nasties,” a uniquely U.K. cultural moment in which violent and gory exploitation films of the ’70s and ’80s were being bandied about in the press as cause for specific crimes and, more generally, society’s ills. This led to the cutting and (in most cases, temporary) banning of several films, including well-known genre entries like The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave. The list of the 72 films that were prosecuted (or for which prosecution was attempted) became an infamous trove for horror fans. The closest United States counterpart is the “grindhouse flick,” but those were largely available on this side of the Atlantic uncut.
“Personally, I don’t think that film is going to make someone throw their moral compass out of the window and go and do something really horrible to someone else,” said Bailey-Bond. “If somebody does that it’s because they’re unbalanced. We need mental health support. I think it’s about looking at how we look after those people who need help. It’s an easy fix and easy blame to say that a movie or a type of music or video game is going to make somebody do something horrible to someone else. I just think it’s more complicated than that.”
And complicate is something Censor does prodigiously. For one thing, the movie does not suggest that entertainment has no bearing on one’s psyche—still reeling from the childhood loss of her sister, Enid starts to fill in the fuzzy details of the disappearance when she’s reminded of it in a movie she’s tasked with reviewing, Don’t Go in the Church. (That’s one of several convincing nasties-esque movies within the movie that Bailey-Bond dreamed up.) It’s not that the character isn’t influenced by what she’s seeing; it’s that her experience is so singular and so obviously also informed by her own mental health issues that by exploring said experience, Censor is able to lay bare the ridiculousness of scapegoating art as directly responsible for people’s behavior. The aforementioned wild third act development, in which Enid breaks the film-viewer continuum and enters an alternate cinematic reality, functions as an ad absurdum argument. This is what it would look like for films to dictate people’s behavior, says Censor, as its protagonist wields an axe in a cabin in the woods. A deceptively sunny resolution that, via video glitches, calls bullshit on itself, imagines what the world would look like if the censors got their way and were right all along about art bearing all social responsibility for human behavior. It is accordingly ludicrous.
“The video nasty era is so rich,” said Bailey-Bond. “It’s such an influential period for my generation of filmmakers. Also when you look back objectively at what happened, you can see things with a different set of goggles. You look back and go, wow, ‘Were we all overreacting? Was this something else that was going on politically and the video nasties were a very convenient scapegoat for something else?’”
Elsewhere, Bailey-Bond’s film suggests that not only was the moral panic illogical, it was also misplaced. Enid endures sexism and harassment at work from her fellow censors and a morally bankrupt film producer. While tabloid writers were wringing their hands about imagined movie-influenced violence, a very real exploitation was underway. To Jezebel, Bailey-Bond also pointed out that some of the video nasties, like Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 vomitorium Cannibal Holocaust, also depicted very real animal cruelty.
“I love horror but there has to be a line in terms of the way we treat each other when we’re making it,” the writer-director said. “Nobody needs to get hurt while we’re making it—animals, women. There’s no need for that. So that’s certainly where I draw a line. But that’s doesn’t have to stop the joy of watching horror and experiencing this fun, cathartic genre.”
The vast majority, if not all, of the video nasties were directed by men. In contrast, along with herself, Bailey-Bond’s crew featured several women in key roles (cinematographer Annika Summerson, production designer Paulina Rzeszowska, costume designer Saffron Cullane, composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch). This, however, was not an intentional answer to the historical male domination of the genre, according to Bailey-Bond, who says her hiring was “slightly circumstantial” and based on whom she thought was right for each role. Nevertheless, she says: “It’s nice to be able to claim something that I guess people don’t necessarily naturally fit with a woman director. I like the idea that we can create [beyond] what people expect from us.”
Enid works at a fictional agency that’s loosely based on the British Board of Film Classification, which was responsible for the censoring and banning of video nasties. While writing their script, Bailey-Bond and Fletcher visited the BBFC (“really helpful”) and spoke to people who worked as censors during the time Censor takes place. “One woman said the rooms were so dark and small and she didn’t like horror very much—other censors I spoke to did like horror—but she said sometimes it felt like really seedy and she was just sat in this poky dark room watching soft porn and like, you know, she’d leave work and it’s night time and you haven’t seen any daylight,” said Bailey-Bond. “And those kinds of things really inspired me in terms of thinking about the space and the atmosphere of the censors office and this idea that it felt like a kind of underground rabbit warren. You know, down the ends corridors, you’ve got like the screams of people dying in horror films.”
I wondered if any of the censors Bailey-Bond spoke with had regrets in line with her film’s reassessment goals. They didn’t, but Bailey-Bond found evidence of such reconsideration nonetheless.
“I remember reading the file for the Evil Dead,” she said. “[The BBFC] had cuts made whenever it first got reviewed and then about seven years later, they were looking at it again. There was this little note from one of the examiners who’d seen originally saying, ‘I can’t believe we reacted like this because there’s nothing harmful about this film but the atmosphere at the time made us all more cautious.’”