With her striking debut feature Censor, Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond offers a gruesome yet hilarious look at 1980s video nasties through the eyes of a film censor.
In the film, which is backed by the BFI Film Fund, diligent 20-something Enid (Niamh Algar) spends her professional life watching horrific, unsavoury images while recalling the traumatic childhood disappearance of her sister. Tension ramps up in her office when a reported murder appears to copy a killing in a film that Enid and bullish colleague Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) recently passed for release, while Enid’s disorientating dreams and sleazy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) pile on her torment.
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Bailey-Bond, who co-wrote the script with Anthony Fletcher, had the idea for Censor before she made her award-winning short Nasty (2015), which looked at a 12-year-old boy’s descent into the murky depths of VHS horror, but says the short still ended up influencing the feature.
Other inspirations, from folk horror to Dario Argento, can be detected, while some elements recall both Ringu (1998) and Berberian Sound Studio (2012). Clearly Bailey-Bond has great affection for the world she depicts, its ominous atmosphere heightened by director of photography Annika Summerson’s vivid compositions and a chilling score by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch.
Shot in Leeds and nearby Pudsey during autumn 2019, barring a couple of pick-ups in July 2020, Bailey-Bond finished post-production just before Christmas 2020 in time to deliver the film to screen at the (virtual) Sundance Film Festival. She joined us for a Zoom chat from her home in south-east London on the eve of the world premiere and was in open, spirited form. Her own favourite video nasty is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
What initially piqued your interest in video nasties?
I love the films from this period. This was such an amazing film to make because I got to watch all these films again and discover new video nasties and call it work.
When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with The Evil Dead (1981) to the point that when I studied performing arts, for our final performance, we did this weird mash-up play that was inspired by The Evil Dead and The Company of Wolves (1984) called Kill Her if You Can, Loverboy, which is a line from the under-the-trap-door zombie character in The Evil Dead. So that, Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Suspiria (1977) – they’re all films that I grew up watching and loving.
That period and the whole idea of the birth of VHS was my introduction to film, because we lived in the middle of nowhere in Wales and I didn’t have a cinema nearby. My access to film was this shelf of videos that belonged to my mum, dad, brother and sister, so there’s a lot of personal nostalgia in wanting to explore that era.
Can you tell us about your research on film censors?
I was researching right from the beginning of censorship, when they used to read the scripts before they let them make the film.
They’d actually censor the scripts during wartime. Or certain films, they’d say “We don’t want to have this film made because it’s going to make workers think they have rights and stuff.” Censoring was very political early on, but it’s much more juicy and dark in the 80s. What drew me to censorship was, as someone who’s called a horror director, you’re always being asked, why horror? And I find it a really difficult question to answer. Some of my family were into dark films and things, but not to the extent I am. So, you’re like, “Why do I want to watch all this stuff? Where do you draw the line?” Everybody has a different line, so my way into censorship was through all of that.
The video nasty era was just so fascinating, because this new form of technology is in place and people can now devour these films in their home, and we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors and what they’re going to do to people.
As humans we think that we’re one scene away from going out and killing someone. And I think that we’ve got more control over ourselves than that. I don’t think it’s films that make us do those things. So it was a very deep dive into lots of things that really excited me.
How did you develop the film’s visual style?
We’ve got the real world that Enid starts off in, then the film she watches on screen, then the film evolves visually. I wasn’t going for that stereotypical 80s that we often see. Obviously they all had big perms, but we’re not having ghetto blasters walking down the street. It was really great 80s Britain – the Britain that I see in pictures from my past. Paul Graham’s photography was a massive influence on me.
Then there was the world of the video nasties, where there’s just such an amazing pile of incredible references from that time. You’re trying to lean into that without it becoming a parody. Definitely Lucio Fulci films; I love them. They’re so vibrant and luscious. Then Dario Argento, but also some of the films within the film were inspired by things like The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). My own style probably takes from those films a little bit already as well. It’s a merging of those references.
The film has a distinctive sound design and score. How did you brief these?
I write the sound into the script as I’m going, imagining how it looks and how it sounds.
I’ve worked with sound designer Tim Harrison across a number of shorts and was talking to him about the sound from a really, really early stage. Before we’d even shot the film, Tim had actually done the soundscape for a whole bunch of fake video nasties. He sent me this file of amazing, weird scores and clips, which are all the films that you hear in the background of the censor’s office.
At the point where Emilie came on board it was about how sound design and music should work together. We would all meet and talk about the project. It was always meant to be very single point of view – in terms of we’re with Enid, how do we keep the audience with her? When Emilie sent the first piece of music in, and we put it to picture, it just felt like we’d connected with something deep, deep within Enid. She tuned into Enid’s trauma in this amazing way that I never really expected to happen. She did a lot of work with her voice, so even though you won’t recognise the sounds as vocal, a lot of the sounds are vocal – which I think gives it a texture that’s very guttural and visceral, which is what we needed.
You mentioned Enid. Could you tell me about your collaboration with Niamh?
We met first on the Screen Stars of Tomorrow [Screen International’s influential annual list of up-and-coming actors and filmmakers]. Neither of us knew that we were going to go on this journey together.
There was this moment where we first met up and started to think about the look of Enid and work with the hair and costume. And that was when there was this day where I just remember going, “Wow, this is Enid, this is the character that we’ve been writing for years, and I feel like I’m just getting to know her now.” Niamh was then working in Cape Town shooting [TV series] Raised by Wolves (2020-) for the months leading up to the shoot, so we were ahead of the curve in terms of working remotely, Skyping every week, long sessions. We’d talk about either the role of the censor or Enid’s personal life, her family, and feed into that from both sides.
She’s become a really good friend now. I remember at the end of the shoot, she said, “Oh, you’re going to be so sick of my face in the edit. You’re not going to talk to me ever again.” And that’s not the case at all. We’ve been talking to each other constantly, even since the shoot.
How did you go about incorporating comedy into what is obviously quite a dark story?
I find everything that happened in the 80s a little bit ridiculous. For me, it has to have a wink to the audience. Most of the things that I’ve done in my short films have had a wink. I like that space where people can have different reactions to something. But equally, sometimes that doesn’t always land with everybody, so I’m really happy that you found it funny. I find it really funny because it’s all very ridiculous really, isn’t it? The whole thing. I think it’s important to laugh at ourselves, as well.
Originally published: 29 January 2021