Eye-Gouging Must Go

Censor co-writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond talks to Isaac Feldberg about video nasties, mass hysteria and being inspired by The Beyond.

All these violent paintings in galleries are elevated and celebrated, but somehow cinema that’s violent has in the past been frowned upon.” —⁠Prano Bailey-Bond

In 1980s Britain, low-budget horror titles swept the country’s then-nascent VHS market and sparked a moral panic as the tabloid press, government officials and conservative activists decried the films’ violent content, believing it would corrupt a generation. Before legislation was passed to bring home video under the jurisdiction of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), the Director of Public Prosecutions legitimized this hysteria by issuing a list of 72 so-called “video nasties”, from Possession to Cannibal Holocaust, that it alleged had violated obscenity laws.

Around half were ultimately prosecuted, as police raided video shops and moral crusaders spread misinformation on the airwaves. But inside one family home in rural Wales, “I was watching whatever I could get my hands on,” says Prano Bailey-Bond, co-writer and director of Censor, a psychological horror steeped in the world of video nasties.

Set in 1985, Bailey-Bond’s stylishly subversive thriller channels the period’s repressive atmosphere and underlying absurdity while honoring the transgressive cheap thrills of the nasties at its center. Niamh Algar stars as Enid, a tightly wound censor who approaches her job diligently (“Eye gouging must go!” reads one entry on her notepad) but lacks a life outside the office.

Screening a mysterious horror title one day, Enid discovers sequences that remind her strongly of a childhood trauma—the unsolved disappearance of her sister. As she investigates, the palpable gloom of Thatcher’s London gives way to delirious, giallo-inspired dream sequences, and the picture quality of Censor itself appears to break down, aspect ratios shifting to trap viewers inside a vintage VHS frame.

“The film is about format,” explains Bailey-Bond, who shot mostly on 35mm and wanted Censor to eventually resemble a video nasty in its increasing throbs of gore, color and static. It was especially important to capture the faded look of video nasties that had been circulating underground for years. “Fans were getting hold of nasties and creating next-generation copies, so the image was degrading slightly with each VHS.” Viewers rewinding and rewatching the scary bits only degraded tapes further, she recalls. “People would talk about their experiences in that sense, knowing something really horrible was coming up because the picture got more fuzzy.”

Prano Bailey-Bond on the set of Censor.
Prano Bailey-Bond on the set of Censor.

Growing up, Bailey-Bond lived far from the nearest cinema. Instead, she worshipped at the altar of her parents’ VHS shelf, filled with tapes recorded off low-signal Welsh television. As video nasties made headlines, she was too young to grasp the controversy but old enough to take an interest in the films. The Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, two better-known nasties, were among her first.

But Bailey-Bond believes she was first set on a path toward filmmaking after seeing David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. “I love the way it speaks to the dark underbelly of society, and to the dark side within us as people,” the director says. Initially gobsmacked by the film’s uncanny mystery of sexual obsession and shadow selves, she kept coming back. “I’d been swept away by the Lynchian universe at first,” she says. “But the more I analyzed it the more clever it became.”

Initially, Bailey-Bond pictured herself on screen, starring in the kinds of films that had mesmerized her. While studying performing arts she directed an absurdist play, The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco, and caught the filmmaking bug. “I was quite blown away by the experience of shaping a performance from the outside,” she recalls. “I also used to paint quite a lot, so it felt like directing was a way of me fusing performance and painting to create images.”

Niamh Algar as Enid in Censor.
Niamh Algar as Enid in Censor.

Bailey-Bond’s obsession with film exceeded her love of theater. “I felt more liberated by it,” she says. “You could control point of view and work in a more intricate way with sound.” After studying at the London College of Printing, she started at Goldcrest Films as a runner and worked various post-production jobs, including as an editor. It would be cheaper to make movies, she knew, if she could do more herself.

The first seed of an idea for Censor came not from video nasties but their precursor, Hammer horror, which shocked 1970s censors with its bloodletting and then-scandalous eroticism. Titles like The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and Twins of Evil starred legends like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, but they were racier than Hammer’s famed gothic horror.

“During that period, censors would automatically cut any image of blood on the breast of a woman, because they believed it would make men likely to commit rape,” explains Bailey-Bond, whose research never satisfied the biggest question this practice raised. “Surely, most of the censors in that period would have been men—so, I thought, what stops the censor from losing control, if these images are meant to make us do horrible things?”

To get inside a censor’s head, Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher spent time in the archives of the BBFC (now the British Board of Film Classification), examining notes on nasties like The Last House on the Left and The Driller Killer. “Even though you’ve only got their initials at the end of each comment, you start to see each individual censor’s personality coming through in the way they viewed the film,” she says. “Everybody’s got a political angle on why they’re there, what they think is and isn’t okay.”

As Enid develops an unhealthy fascination with a (fictional) filmmaker named Frederick North, Censor delves into two of his video nasties. Filming them on Super 8mm, Bailey-Bond used these films-within-the-film to honor her heroes. Asunder, with its hallucinatory atmosphere, evoked Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Lucio Fulci’s midnight classic The Beyond. “The end of that film is hell in a great way,” she says enthusiastically of the latter. “It’s not disgusting, but it makes you feel sick, the nightmarishness of where those characters end up.”

North’s Don’t Go in the Church, meanwhile, conjures The Blood on Satan’s Claw, about two girls in a dark forest; its title also references Don’t Go in the Woods and Don’t Go in the House. Bailey-Bond says it’s most indebted to “haunting” no-budget Axe (alternately titled Lisa, Lisa).

Surprisingly, one nasty that didn’t influence Censor is The Witch Who Came from the Sea, about an emotionally scarred woman who lashes out in ways she can’t control. “It feels like a companion piece in some ways, looking at this traumatized woman and this strange kaleidoscope of memory and experience all clashing together,” says Bailey-Bond, who saw the film, considered a masterpiece by many, after filming wrapped.

Censor is a cautionary tale, but it takes a clear stance against “depiction is dangerous” rhetoric. “No piece of art is going to make somebody go out and do something immoral,” affirms Bailey-Bond. “The reasons people do terrible things are much more deep-rooted. It’s important we look at that and at mental health, at society and the way we look after each other.”

“That was something I was always thinking about in terms of how Enid communicates in Censor, how closed-off she is from everyone else. She’s left to deal with everything on her own. That’s much more dangerous than any film.”

Censor’ is in theaters now and on demand from June 18.

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