Prano Bailey-Bond’s latest offering is a striking horror about the social hysteria surrounding video nasties
After its theatrical release was delayed, the new Bond film is finally coming out – Prano Bailey-Bond, that is. Marking the directorial debut from Bailey-Bond, Censor is creeping into cinemas following months of hype as the Next Must-See Horror. It certainly is must-see, and if Jason Voorhees were to point a power drill against my head, I would categorise it as a horror. However, given the giallo tinge of its marketing, Censor might not be the eye-gouging, chainsaw massacre you’re expecting.
Take the first image of Censor, released in December 2020, shortly before its Sundance world premiere. In the publicised still, Niamh Algar, the Irish actor from The Virtues, is soaked in blood, staring forlorn in front of a supernaturally red background. She appears to be in a volcano, or recreating the lift scene from The Shining, or drowning in the fiery moat outside Bowser’s castle. Whatever it is, it’s striking and upsetting. So too are the promotional posters for Censor, many of which place Algar front and centre, with a stained, sharpened axe, as if she’s the new Freddie Krueger.
Really, Censor is a poignant, introspective, 1985-set period-drama that explores the all-encompassing relationship between grief and memory, albeit with scenes that do descend into all-out bloodshed. Algar’s character, Enid, is a film censor in Soho whose 9-to-5 involves watching schlocky B-movies in a window-less basement and making compromises like: “I’ve only trimmed the tiniest bit of the end of the genitals.” The dominant plot thread, though, involves the abduction of Enid’s sister, Nina – a childhood incident that still haunts Enid to this day. So much so, Enid becomes convinced that an actor in a low-budget slasher is actually her long-lost sibling whom needs rescuing. With the viewer continuously questioning whether or not Enid can see dead people, the film could easily be called The Sixth Censor.
To explain the context of Censor’s first publicised image would reveal a spoiler, although its Argento redness is part of the film’s elusive qualities – by blurring dream and reality, it drops us into Enid’s headspace, along with all her fears and repressed memories. “I see that image, and for me, that’s one of the most emotionally intense scenes,” Bailey-Bond says over Zoom, in July, while wearing a Gummo t-shirt. “When writing, shooting and watching, it’s the scene that gets me the most. I was looking for something emotional that has the ‘video nasty’ blue-red light. (When using it for marketing), we did think about leaning more into the horror of the film, rather than it being her in the office, which maybe isn’t quite as much of a draw.”
Bailey-Bond, a Welsh writer-director whose first name, Prano, is pronounced like The Sopranos, started out in music videos and short films, during which she deconstructed onscreen violence – also like The Sopranos. In her 2015 short Nasty, a 12-year-old boy discovers a VHS copy of The Evil Dad (a homage to one of her favourite horrors) and connects it with his father’s disappearance. Censor, to an extent, is a gender-swapped development of Nasty but with a bigger budget, BFI funding, and a deeper exploration of the social hysteria around video nasties.
“The thing about video nasties is that there are so many films, and they’re all so different,” Bailey-Bond says. “You have The Witch Who Came to the Sea next to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, next to Frozen Scream, next to things that are more silly. I grew up watching The Evil Dead, Suspiria, and the well-known ones, and I didn’t turn out to be morally bankrupt.”
The phrase “video nasty” was coined in 1982 (coincidentally the year Bailey-Bond, 39, was born) in a Sunday Times article titled “How High Street Horror Is Invading the Home”. Mary Whitehouse led a campaign to ban so-called video nasties, and, in 1983, the DPP named a list of 72 films that it believed breached the Obscene Publications Act – The Evil Dead, Possession, and The Last House on the Left were three examples. The DPP then named a further 115 films that would require smaller punishments, including The Thing, Dawn of the Dead, and all the greatest horrors of that era. With Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984, meaning that all film releases had to comply with the British Board of Film Censors.
“It’s like we’re scared of ourselves, and of each other, and we think technology’s going to corrupt us – and I wanted to encapsulate that within a character” – Prano Bailey-Bond
“In the 80s, the UK was reacting to the birth of VHS, and this new way of being able to watch films in the home, rewind, and rewatch things over and over again,” Bailey-Bond explains. “Actually, we were so frightened of what this was going to do to us. I’m interested in: what does that say about us as a society? Do we think there’s a shadow self sitting inside us all, waiting to be awoken by a Lucio Fulci film? And once that’s awoken, are we going to throw our moral compass out the window, and start garrotting each other with our shoelaces? It’s like we’re scared of ourselves, and of each other, and we think technology’s going to corrupt us – and I wanted to encapsulate that within a character.”
“Enid thinks that deep down she’s a bad person. She thinks, inside, that she’s rotten. I wanted to explore that relationship that evolves with her on the screen, based on what she thinks of herself.”
While a Paranormal Activity instalment offers the regular catharsis of a jump scare every time someone opens a door or sneezes, Censor opts for sustained dread that builds and builds as Enid investigates her sister’s whereabouts. On the day Nina vanished, Enid was with her in the woods, both just children running around; two decades later, Enid’s parents have declared Nina to be officially dead. Of course, such closure is impossible. When Enid’s latest assignment is Don’t Go in the Church, a slasher about two girls chased around in the woods, it triggers her memory – or perhaps imagination. The scenario seems so similar to Enid’s traumatic past, she wonders if it’s a confession from the filmmaker.
In an apt line, a co-worker remarks to Enid, “You’d be surprised what the human brain can edit out when it can’t handle the truth.” In that sense, Censor draws immediate parallels with The Virtues, another Algar project about repressed memories. Enid’s ongoing loneliness and fantastical detours may also remind viewers of Saint Maud (both are 84 minutes; they share an editor and production designer; Rose Glass is thanked in the credits), another horror that’s more focused on establishing a woman’s warped, secretive POV than delivering regular scares. “There’s more of an emotional, character-driven story going through Censor and Saint Maud,” Bailed-Bond says. “I was thinking about Enid, and her headspace, and the psychological journey of the character, more so than ‘I want to make this a gore fest because it’s about video nasties’. The violence had to be earned through the story.”
When a murderer claims he was inspired by a movie, it’s leaked to the press that Enid was the censor responsible for that film’s cuts – or, rather, lack of cuts. It raises a pertinent question: who censors the censor? Bailey-Bond tells me of James Ferman, the secretary of the BBFC from 1975 to 1999. When The Texas Chain Saw Massacre screened at the London Film Festival in 1974, Ferman told the crowd, “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?” A year later, Ferman refused to give Tobe Hooper’s horror a BBFC certificate, explaining that it was a “pornography of terror”.
Given the social snobbery involved, is censorship an inherently Tory impulse? “God, that’s a very leading question!” Bailey-Bond says. “I don’t know if I’d necessarily put it in those words, but I don’t disagree… There’s a hypocrisy and imbalance. It’s like, ‘I’m clever enough to know not to kill somebody after I’ve watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but you’re not’ – and that’s quite a nannying position. I think that’s problematic. It’s not so much what happens in the UK now, because it’s more about classification than censoring. But there’s definitely something nannying about that era.”
So if someone were to recreate an axe murder from Censor in real life, would Bailey-Bond be devoid of responsibility? “I don’t think films make people go out and do horrible things,” she says, turning serious. “If somebody’s going to go out and do something horrible to another human being, that’s probably to do with mental health issues, and other issues from their life, and the way they’ve been treated, or not looked after, or not heard. It’s like what (the fictional filmmaker in Censor) Frederick North says: horror is out there in the world already. Films are a reflection of that horror.”
“There are a lot of winks and nods for people who are more cine-literate. If you know the reference, you’ll get another layer out of the film. But I always set out to make something that wasn’t exclusive” – Prano Bailey-Bond
I suggest to Bailey-Bond that 4chan is the modern equivalent of video nasties. Like VHS copies of banned B-movies, 4chan and other alt-right corners of the internet are accessible to children at home. While Bailey-Bond doesn’t know what 4chan is, or is maybe confused when I say it out loud, she notes, “In the 50s, it was comic-books. Then you had videogames and Marilyn Manson music. I think that social media is the new technology that, maybe in 30 years’ time, someone will make their Censor about.”
While the scandal around video nasties is mocked now – plenty of them regularly play on 35mm around repertory theatres – there’s still a certain hysteria in modern culture over new releases that are, rightly or wrongly, deemed “torture porn”. Bailey-Bond cites The House That Jack Built by Lars von Trier as an example. Though part of the backlash was due to allegations that von Trier harassed Björk during Dancer in the Dark, the 2018 comedy-horror made headlines when it sparked walkouts at Cannes.
“Probably a lot of people didn’t see (The House That Jack Built) because of things that were being said about it, and obviously Lars von Trier likes to provoke in the press. But I actually was shouting, ‘This is really feminist!’ when I watched it. It was during the Riley Keough scene where she’s screaming out the window, and (Matt Dillon) says to her, ‘Keep screaming – no one’s going to come.’ I thought: there’s something very feminist in what is being said by the filmmaker. It looks like it’s the opposite of feminism, but actually he’s pointing something out, which is that there’s a woman screaming, and no one’s coming to rescue her – and that’s the reality.”
Bailey-Bond is already working on numerous scripts, including a genre feature set in the 17th century. Her next movie, though, will be Things We Lost in the Fire, a horror that she’s directing for RT Features, the production company behind Call Me By Your Name and Bergman Island. Other admirers of Censor include Sean Baker, the director of The Florida Project. On Letterboxd, Baker wrote, “Any cinephile who has studied the history of genre films will adore this film. Great feature directorial debut.”
In response, Bailey Bond says, “There are a lot of winks and nods for people who are more cine-literate. If you know the reference, you’ll get another layer out of the film. But I always set out to make something that wasn’t exclusive. It can hopefully be enjoyed by people who don’t know anything about the video nasty era, or aren’t super into horror films. There’s a way in for everybody.”
It sounds like Bailey-Bond wants to please everyone, rather than be the new Lars von Trier? “I’m definitely not going out like a Lars von Trier and trying to make people angry,” Bailey-Bond says. “I can’t control how everybody’s going to react to the film. You hope everybody’s going to love it, but there are some people who won’t find it horror enough, especially when someone’s said, ‘This is the scariest horror in years!’ Well, that’s a great headline, but it’s actually a thriller-y horror – it’s a mystery about horror that becomes a horror. I hope everyone loves it, but I can’t control it if people don’t.”
Censor opens in UK cinemas on August 20.