With her stylish and haunting debut feature Censor, Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond offers audiences a window into a troubling time in horror and film history: the 1980s Video Nasty era.
The term refers to then-VHS-released horror and exploitation films which British tabloids, pearl-clutching Bible-bashers and hypocritical politicians deemed prosecutable under the Obscene Publications Act of 1964, for “tending to corrupt or deprave persons”. The ensuing moral panic, stoked by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, lead to the Video Recordings Act 1984, which allowed the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors, as it was then known) to impose heavy cuts on the “dangerous” flicks.
The film follows Enid (Niamh Algar), a diligent film censor with a traumatic past, who is charged with cutting scenes before the films are released. It premiered this year in Sundance and at the Berlinale, and is one of the most exciting releases of 2021.
We had the opportunity to speak to Prano Bailey-Bond about what drew her to the Video Nasty era, her way of portraying 80s Britain, and how governments will do anything to scapegoat in order to not face themselves in the mirror.
You were born in 1982, so obviously your experience with Video Nasties is very different to that of your central protagonist’s – what was your first contact with these films and the social hysteria they created at the time?
The first thing I remember is more linked to censorship. I must have been about eight years old. It was the first time I saw a man called Simon Bates introduce a classification at the beginning of the feature. I remember this official looking man, wearing a suit at his desk. We had rented the film Lady in White from the video shop. Bates came up on screen and said: “Anyone under the age of 12 must not watch this film” and said something about being prosecuted and breaking the law. I was absolutely terrified that they were going to come and arrest my mum. I ran to see her, panicking: “Mum, am I going to get you into trouble if I watch the film?” (Laughs) I was really upset and I remember having the image of the police driving up our little driveway in the middle of rural Wales and taking my mum away and that I might be left on my own. But she explained that she wasn’t going to get arrested and reassured me that everything would be fine.
Did you end up watching the film or was that scenario too paralysing?
I did end up watching the film. I understood the difference between fiction and reality and knew the film wasn’t real. But Simon Bates was real! (Laughs) So, that was the first time I became aware of censorship. In terms of Video Nasties, I didn’t really know they were Video Nasties when I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Evil Dead. I was obviously a bit older then, and they were more available by that time. I became more aware of Video Nasties when I moved to London in my early 20s. It was then that I started to delve more deeply into more obscure titles, through film festivals and meeting other horror fans.
Censor feels like an extension of your short film Nasty, which screened at the Final Girls Film Festival here in Berlin a few years ago. Was that short the jumping off point for Censor?
The first project was Censor, funnily enough! I started to research censorship in the UK and quickly landed in the Video Nasty era because I wanted to look at the idea of a film censor who was so convinced about the fact that these films do corrupt that they start to question their own moral compass. That was the initial idea. The more research I did, the more I saw that around this period, the concerns were aimed at children. I thought that if I make a short film, it would be a good way for me to explore some of these ideas and the techniques I wanted to use in the feature. That was how Nasty came about. I didn’t want to do a proof of concept for Censor – it was more a way for telling another story that could be going on at the same time on the other side of town. But part of the journey and experience of making Nasty informed Censor.
Can you tell me a bit more about the research you did for both films?
The first place Anthony Fletcher, my co-writer, and I went was the BBFC (the British Board of Film Classification), where we wanted to get a sense of what they knew about the period and how the organisation worked then. We also got to look through their files for films from that period. That was really fascinating because the comments on the films are initialled – you don’t have the censors’ full names. But we did start to see the same initials popping up, getting a sense of that censor’s subjective viewpoint, whether they were very focused on violence towards women or if they were more light-hearted about the whole thing. I managed to get in touch with a couple of women who worked as film censors during the 80s, and they both had different viewpoints: one was not really into horror and the other one was. There were details that were so useful when talking to them – how they worked, the atmosphere of the time… Even things like how it felt being in those tiny little rooms, watching horror films… One of them said it felt like she was watching soft porn all day in a dark room and that she would leave work feeling really grubby. I loved that – that was inspiration for the production design right there!
Did you discover any Video Nasty gems that you weren’t previously aware of?
I actually discovered one since making the film, and I keep telling myself “Why the hell didn’t I watch this sooner?”, as it would have been the perfect reference! It’s The Witch Who Came From The Sea. It’s not very well known, but it’s an absolute masterpiece. It’s a woozy film about a woman and her post-traumatic stress that decries from sexual abuse when she was younger. It turns into this feverish nightmare, and it’s shot by the same DoP who shot Jurassic Park and Death Becomes Her! I went back a lot to Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond when I was making the film, and I love (Frank Roach’s) Frozen Scream – I’d watch that quite a lot. It’s a really bad film, but I love it. There’s a clip of the film at the beginning of Censor – it’s the film that Enid is watching at the start, where the man is being injected into the eyeball!
Through your research, did you gain further insight into why the UK drove itself into such extreme levels of frenzy in the name of so-called ‘morality’?
When you look at Thatcher’s Britain, Video Nasties were an easy scapegoat. There were a lot of decisions being made in the government that weren’t helping society in that period – there was less support for social welfare, people were under a lot of pressure, so many lost their jobs… I think that it was a good distraction, an easy thing to blame for all the bad things in the world. I like the idea of blame – through research on the period, that became a strong theme: always having to find the fault, the reason why bad things happen. There’s a lot of blame running through the film and I think I saw that through my research into Thatcher’s Britain – Who’s to blame for the ills of the world? It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with government decisions! It must be the fact that VHS has been invented and that people can now watch horror films at home! (Laughs)
Your film brilliantly captures this tension and culture of blame, but it struck me that while things have evolved, scapegoating still exists when it comes to the relationship between onscreen violence and real-life events, and that ‘cancel culture’ is its modern iteration…
It has evolved in the UK, that’s for sure, and now we don’t have so much censorship. There is classification, and the BBFC really supported us for the film. They’ve changed hugely as an organization, and what’s interesting is that now these films are more widely available, there’s not as much interest in them in some ways. The fact that they were illicit and that they were going to deprave and corrupt you was the perfect advertising for these films! Now there’s more openness. It’s being closed that leads to unhealthiness in people and society.
One aspect of the film I really appreciated was the fact that Censor is first and foremost a character driven story and that you don’t lean too heavily on social commentary, even if it’s always there as a backdrop. Were you ever tempted to include more political critique?
There were drafts of the script that had more of a social commentary, but it became more and more about Enid as the project developed. The politics are in there, but it was important that it be tangled up in Enid’s journey as opposed to the other way around. In many ways, her journey is the manifestation of the politics of the time. I wanted to keep it a bit more abstract and not spell it out too much, because black-and-white answers don’t always exist, despite the inherent hypocrisy of Thatcher’s government using Video Nasties as a scapegoat.
With regards to the look and sound of the film, which Video Nasties and filmmakers influenced you the most?
Quite a few, and I had a lot of fun watching them. But there were other films that influenced me when it came to the character’s journey – I was looking at psychological horrors and thrillers, like Black Swan and The Machinist. There’s also Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, which is one of my favourite horror films. I love the way that that film plays with a woman doubting her own sanity and not being sure what’s real and what’s not. That was something I kept returning to. Regarding the 80s Britain world, I was very inspired by photographers like Martin Parr and Paul Graham. Graham did a really great series called ‘Beyond Caring’, photographs of dole offices, people in waiting rooms. The photographs are quite bleak and it’s really not the 80s Britain you see a lot on screen, with the shoulder pads and perms. I was going for a more oppressive look to Thatcher’s Britain, even if, on the other end of the spectrum, I was looking at Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, the more lurid and violently colourful world of the Video Nasties. It was all about how to weave these elements together, slowly peppering colours, techniques and camera movements as we went on, so that the audience would be taken on Enid’s journey, one which gradually goes from bleak 80s Britain to the Video Nasty world.
Talking of techniques and camera movements, your DoP Annika Summerson does a stunning job here at engulfing the viewer in this bleakness that is gradually and troublingly punctured by more garish colours…
Yes, a bit part of that was shooting on Kodak 35mm, with some additional footage on Super 8, VHS, and one iPhone shot! That captured the period look we were looking for. Annika and I met at university in London and we’ve made quite a few shorts and music videos together. I love working with her and we talked a lot about colour and the camera movements, and how the film would start in this sort of oppressive and slightly claustrophobic world, with the camera not moving that much, and as the film progresses, we start to move the camera more. Annika’s background is in lighting, so she comes at lighting in a way that suits me because we’re talking about character and story and how you use shadows to better illustrate their journey.
As well as gradually peppering the screen with colour and Video Nasty aesthetic, you pepper the narrative with elements of humour too…
I think that’s because I had such a great cast and there are some phenomenal actors that I managed to get to be in this film, even if it was only for a couple of days here and there. People like Nicholas Burns and Felicity Montagu, who are essentially comedy legends, and of course the great Michael Smiley, who manages to be menacing, hilarious and so charismatic all at the same time. The ease of getting the humorous moments was all down to casting.
And how much fun was it to make those films within films, your own Video Nasties?
I wish we could have filmed those in their entirety! (Laughs) When we got down to editing, me and my editor, Mark Towns, who is the biggest Video Nasty fan, were saying “Ah, I wish we had the whole thing!” It was great fun and the kids who appear in Don’t Go Into The Church Video Nasty were loving it. We were talking them through the scenes beforehand, calmly, making sure that their parents were on set… We told them “There’s this axe, but don’t worry, it’s a fake axe… We’re going to cover you in blood now…” and they absolutely loved it!
Lastly, it’s just been announced that your next project is the adaptation of Mariana Enriquez’ ‘Things We Lost In The Fire’. That’s such a fantastic short story, about a female community that resorts to extreme measures in response to male violence against them. When do you start work on it?
It’s all very early days, but I’m very excited about it. Two different people sent me the book, so there were so many things pointing me towards this project! And when I read it, I thought about how uncomfortable, provocative and philosophical it is. It’s a relevant and ferocious story and that excites me enormously. I can’t wait to start writing – that will take some time, so watch this space!
Censor is out today in cinemas – read our review here.