The climactic scene from Prano Bailey-Bond’s new horror film Censor presents an image that will be familiar even to moviegoers who watch horror movies with their hands clasped over their eyes: a bloody young woman running through the woods. But the way the character says, Censor the protagonist Enid (Niamh Algar), achieves it like no previous film – Enid is a film censor in the mid-80s in England whose work begins to blend into its reality in hallucinogenic proportions. Not only Censor providing a unique take on meta-horror, he’s exceptionally thorough in his exploration of the psychology of his protagonist.
“There is a language of horror that the public understands,” Bailey-Bond told Jezebel this week from London via Zoom. “With hardcore fans, you can have another conversation in the horror genre you’re referring to. I really appreciate it. But also creating female characters that maybe feel a little more real to me… you kind of want to update those things and keep them up to date.
For the record, Bailey-Bond, who co-wrote Censor starring Anthony Fletcher, is a horror fan who adored the type of movies that its protagonist is on a mission to protect audiences. Censor takes place in Thatcher’s England at the time of the ‘video nasties’, a unique cultural moment in the UK during which violent and bloody exploitation films from the ’70s and’ 80s were presented in the press as a cause of specific crimes and, more generally, the evils of society. This led to the cutting and (in most cases, temporary) ban on multiple films, including well-known genre entries like The last house on the left and I spit on your grave. The list of 72 films that have been prosecuted (or for which lawsuits have been attempted) has become an infamous treasure for horror fans. The closest American counterpart is the “grindhouse movie,” but these were widely available on this side of the Atlantic uncut.
“Personally, I don’t think this movie is going to make someone throw their moral compass out the window and do something really horrible to someone else,” Bailey-Bond said. “If someone does this, it’s because they’re out of balance. We need mental health support. I think it’s about seeing how we deal with people who need help. It’s an easy fix and easy blame to say that a movie or some type of music or video game is going to cause someone to do something horrible to someone else. I just think it’s more complicated than that.
And complicating is something Censor done prodigiously. On the one hand, the film does not suggest that the entertainment has non focusing on her psyche – still reeling from the loss of her sister’s childhood, Enid begins to fill in the hazy details of the disappearance when she recalls it in a movie she is tasked with seeing again, Do not enter the church. (This is one of the many compelling, villainous films in the film that Bailey-Bond has imagined.) It’s not that the character isn’t influenced by what she sees; is that his experience is so singular and so obviously as informed by his own mental health issues as by exploring said experience, Censor is able to lay bare the ridiculousness of making art a scapegoat directly responsible for people’s behavior. The savage development of the aforementioned third act, in which Enid breaks the spectator continuum and enters an alternate cinematic reality, functions as an ad absurdum argument. This is what movies would look like to dictate people’s behavior, this Censor, as its protagonist wields an ax in a cabin in the woods. A deceptively sunny resolution that, via video glitches, calls out bullshit about itself, imagines what the world would be like if the censors were right and always right about art carrying all the social responsibility for human behavior. So it’s ridiculous.
“The era of mean video is so rich,” Bailey-Bond said. “It’s such an influential time for my generation of filmmakers. Plus, when you objectively look at what happened, you can see things with a different set of glasses. You look back and say to yourself, “Did we all overreact? Was it something else that was happening politically and the villainous videos were a very handy scapegoat for something else? ‘ “
Elsewhere, the Bailey-Bond film suggests that not only was moral panic illogical, it was misplaced as well. Enid experiences sexism and harassment on the job from fellow censors and a morally bankrupt film producer. As tabloid writers wrung their hands over imaginary violence influenced by cinema, a very real exploitation was underway. In Jezebel, Bailey-Bond also pointed out that some of the nasty videos, like Ruggero Deodato’s infamous vomitorium in 1980 Cannibal holocaust, also depicts a very real cruelty to animals.
“I love horror, but there has to be a limit to how we treat each other when we do it,” the writer-director said. “No one needs to hurt themselves while we’re making it – animals, women. There is no need for that. So that’s definitely where I draw a line. But that doesn’t have to stop the joy of watching horror and experiencing this fun, cathartic genre.
The vast majority, if not all, of the mean videos were made by men. In contrast, with itself, the Bailey-Bond team 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 response to the genre’s historic male dominance, according to Bailey-Bond, who says her hire was “slightly circumstantial” and based on who she thought was right for each role. Nonetheless, she says, “It’s nice to be able to claim something that I guess people don’t necessarily fit naturally into a female director. I like the idea that we can create [beyond] what people expect from us.
Enid works at a fiction agency which is loosely based on the British Board of Film Classification, which was responsible for censoring and banning mean videos. While writing their screenplay, Bailey-Bond and Fletcher visited the BBFC (“really helpful”) and spoke to people who were working as censors at 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 was really crappy and she was just sitting in that dark poky room watching some soft porn and like, you know, she was leaving work and it was dark and you haven’t seen the light of day, ”Bailey-Bond says. “And that stuff really inspired me in terms of thinking about the space and the atmosphere of the censorship office and this idea that it looked like some sort of underground rabbit maze. You know, in the halls at the end, you get like the screams of people who die in horror movies.
I wondered if any of the censors Bailey-Bond spoke to had any regrets in line with his film’s reassessment goals. They didn’t, but Bailey-Bond found evidence of such a reexamination nonetheless.
“I remember reading the file of the Evil Dead, ” she said. « [The BBFC] cuts were made every time it was first examined and then about seven years later they reexamined it. There was this little note from one of the reviewers who originally saw it saying, “I can’t believe we reacted like this because there is nothing harmful about this movie but the atmosphere. back then made us all more careful. “