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Back in 1994, when I was the UK correspondent for the American horror magazine Fangoria, I wrote a piece that the editors dubbed “the scariest article you’ll read all year”.
This was a bold claim, particularly since Fangoria (or ‘Exploding Heads Monthly’ as it was affectionately known to its readers) specialised in reports on the goriest horror films around, lavishly illustrated with full-colour images of splatter-filled dismemberment. Yet the article, which appeared under the headline ‘The British video massacre’, clearly touched a nerve with international readers, who were far more appalled by the prospect of horror films being cut, banned and vilified as ‘dangerous’ than by anything in the films themselves.
That response will doubtless strike a chord with any die-hard horror fan, most of whom have experienced the strange sense of otherness that comes from loving a genre that, from the outside, can appear merely grotesque. It’s certainly familiar to Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond, a long-term horror aficionado whose haunting and exhilarating debut feature Censor is set during the days of the so-called ‘video nasties’ scare.
Focusing on the titular character, Enid, who spends her days watching, classifying and cutting scenes of violence, Bailey-Bond’s impressively uncategorisable film is situated somewhere between the strict rituals of Atom Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991) and the outlandish surrealism of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). But Censor has a distinctly British edge, setting its drama within an early-80s scandal that was very specific to these shores.
For UK horror fans, the era of the ‘video nasties’ (a term beloved of the tabloids that should always appear in inverted commas) offered a heady mix of freedom and repression. For decades, Britain had been sheltered from the more outré elements of international cinema by the British Board of Film Censors (it changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification in 1984), which classified, cut or rejected outright films submitted for public exhibition. While the BBFC had no statutory role as such, local councils – with whom the power to permit or ban the exhibition of films in cinemas resided – respected and enforced their decisions, with fairly few exceptions. As a result, films without a BBFC certificate were effectively banned from general exhibition in the UK.
When the new medium of home video surfaced in the early 80s, however, there was no legislation other than notoriously vague obscenity laws to restrict them. Spotting a loophole in the BBFC’s tight net, a few industrious entrepreneurs took the opportunity to release on video movies that the BBFC had not passed for cinematic exhibition. Key examples included Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer (1979), Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Sergio Garrone’s SS Experiment Camp (1980), all of which suddenly became available on tape. For a fleeting moment, a wide range of previously restricted international shockers was available to UK fans – unrated and unregulated. In my own local video store, for example, films that I had previously only read about – Herschell Gordon Lewis’s 60s gore granddaddy Blood Feast, Mario Bava’s 70s slasher A Bay of Blood, Joe D’Amato’s early 80s grinder Anthropophagus – were all available to rent for £1.50 a night!
It was not to last. As a wave of media-promoted hysteria gripped the country, ‘nasties’ were effectively blamed for all manner of social ills, with video-dealers dubbed ‘merchants of menace’, corrupting the minds of young and impressionable viewers, undermining the nation’s moral fibre. A spate of Obscene Publications Act prosecutions followed, with the director of public prosecutions drawing up a notoriously ad-hoc list of impoundable titles which confusingly mixed films banned by the censors with those that had previously been passed for theatrical release. Although some video versions contained scenes that had been cut for UK cinemas (as with Tony Maylam’s 1981 slasher film The Burning), other titles, like Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, were deemed liable to confiscation on tape in the same format as the BBFC-approved cinema versions. Chaos and confusion reigned.
In its 1983 manifesto, the Conservative Party made the spectre of ‘video nasties’ an election issue, promising to “respond to the increasing public concern over obscenity and offences against public decency, which often have links with serious crime. We propose to introduce specific legislation to deal with the most serious of these problems, such as the dangerous spread of violent and obscene video cassettes.” Following a landslide victory, it did just that, rushing through the Video Recordings Act (VRA), which empowered the BBFC to classify or cut video releases with “special regard to the likelihood of video works… being viewed in the home”. This deceptively mild phrase was to have far-reaching consequences, for it established in law the principle that home-viewing was inherently dangerous in a way that cinematic exhibition was not. In effect, it called for videos to be treated more punitively by the censors than cinema releases.
Almost exactly a decade later, the VRA’s grip would be further tightened via an amendment in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that required the BBFC to “have special regard… to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers, or, through their behaviour, to society, in the manner in which the work deals with… violent behaviour or incidents [and] horrific behaviour or incidents”. This amendment had been added after Justice Morland suggested that exposure to violent videos may have encouraged the 11-year-olds convicted of the 1993 murder of James Bulger. The police found no evidence to support Morland’s outlandish claim, but the Sun newspaper responded with a front-page image on the 26 November 1993 issue showing Child’s Play 3 videos on fire in a bin, under the banner heading: “For the sake of ALL our kids… BURN YOUR VIDEO NASTY.”
Rave against the machine
Prano Bailey-Bond, who was born in 1982, is too young to remember the first-wave ‘nasties’ panic of the early 80s. But when I ask her why that period strikes a personal chord, she makes an intriguing connection: “I see the ‘video nasty’ era as being a bit like the underground rave culture in Wales when I was growing up,” she remarks. This is an important link, since it was the same Criminal Justice and Public Order Act in 1994 that sought both to stamp out raves and to clamp down on ‘video nasties’ – prompting my Fangoria article about Britain banning horror.
For Bailey-Bond, however, the connection goes deeper, cutting to the heart of an ironic sense of bonding that the clampdowns caused. “By making something illicit,” she says, “what you actually do is to unite an underground culture. I mean, the idea of the horror community – the movement that gave birth to things like FrightFest – it all comes out of being oppressed, doesn’t it? And I think there’s something quite beautiful in that idea that the oppression actually creates a community.”
You can find echoes of that strange sense of outsider ‘community’ in Censor, which (like its inspirational predecessors) is a very different film to what you might imagine. On the surface, it follows a film censor whose sister went missing many years ago, and who finds herself at a crisis point when faced with horror videos which the press and public believe are corrupting the nation. Although shocked by what she sees on videotape at work, Enid (rivetingly portrayed by Niamh Algar) is also drawn to these films, particularly to the work of Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), a fictional British filmmaker whose schlocky scary movies seem to offer answers to long-buried questions. As Enid delves deeper into the world of the ‘nasties’, so the divide between fiction and reality seems to become blurred.
For me, and indeed for all the horror fans I know, horror isn’t vile or evil. In fact it’s somewhere that you can find something quite healing and cathartic, and darkly beautiful.Prano Bailey-Bond
Censor has its roots in the 2015 short Nasty, which Bailey-Bond pitched to the BFI Short Film Fund as a pilot for her feature. The BFI funding never came through, but the short progressed nonetheless, becoming a test ground for Bailey-Bond’s ideas about the positive power of forbidden cinema. In Nasty, a young boy named Doug who is searching for his father finds a family connection through the portal of horror videos – specifically a ‘nasty’-style movie punningly entitled Evil Dad. Although the narrative trajectories of Nasty and Censor are very different, both involve a character longing for a lost loved one, being drawn into the world of the ‘nasties’ – literally.
“I was exploring the blurred line between fiction and reality,” says Bailey-Bond, who wanted to satirise and invert negative perceptions of horror. “The key point is that, for me, and indeed for all the horror fans I know, horror isn’t vile or evil. In fact it’s somewhere that you can find something quite healing and cathartic, and darkly beautiful. So in both films I wanted to subvert the traditional idea of what you can get from horror. The popular perception is that these movies are harmful – that they can somehow do bad things to viewers, and therefore need to be cut or banned. But in both Nasty and Censor, you could say that the horror world rescues the central character. In the fiction of the horror world, they can have what they want, when they can’t in real life.”
In Nasty, Bailey-Bond playfully riffs on a line from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, as the video calls out for Doug to “join us” – an acknowledgement of the sense of kinship many horror fans experience. As for Censor, perhaps the film’s most poignant moment comes when the quasi-mythical fictional character the Beastman (Guillaume Delaunay), whom Enid has witnessed committing atrocities on screen, embraces the censor with what seems to be a healing hug. Inspired by the figure of Michael Berryman, who became a horror icon through his starring role in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the Beastman “became a metaphor for the whole ‘video nasties’ phenomenon; something that is dressed up in monstrous form but is actually harmless. It’s funny, but as we were shooting that scene, I realised that it’s the only time in the film that Enid is held in an almost safe, protective way. It’s so beautiful, and so morally weird, because it features a character realising that they are being welcomed by the dark side, and that this place of fantastical horror is actually kinder than the ‘light side’ – the reality in which no one is reaching out to her or comforting her. I think that’s why that moment exists; it was all about the idea that in horror you can find some sort of solace, and I think that’s true for a lot of horror fans.”
It was certainly true for me. In an essay entitled ‘I was a teenage horror fan’, which appeared in the 1997 anthology Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate, I fondly remembered the late-night horror screenings where I would find myself “surrounded by other ‘loners’ who, like me, were clearly getting more out of these movies than passing scares, watching them again and again, learning them, studying them”. While writing Censor, Bailey-Bond found herself drawn to Ill Effects, particularly to an introductory essay to the Second Edition written by editors Martin Barker and Julian Petley. “There’s a quote in that introduction where they say about horror movies: ‘What is condemned as “gratuitous” and “immoral” is actually experienced by its key fans as political.’ That really tied into many of the themes of Censor; themes of free will; the function of interpretation; the power to create a personal narrative; and the way that we read films according to what we want to see. They go on to say: ‘There is a strong tendency for press, politicians and pundits to “name” something as “violence”, to judge it in simplistic moral terms, and thus warrant searches for simple “causes” (such as “violent media”) of events which happen for a whole variety of complex social and political reasons.’ Again, that was something I was thinking about in Censor, because it’s sort of central to the whole idea of the ‘video nasties’ scare.”
To evoke that age of the ‘nasties’, Bailey-Bond and her team (which included executive-producer/advisor Kim Newman) conjured a series of fictional titles – such as ‘Asunder’ and ‘Don’t Go in the Church’ – that resembled movies on the aforementioned DPP list of impoundable titles. The key was evoking the aesthetic of films which had been feverishly viewed on VHS and Betamax in the 80s without descending into parody or mimicry – a complicated balancing act that involved a mixture of homage and update.
To director of photography Annika Summerson, Bailey-Bond gave a collection of Lucio Fulci films, while cast and crew were asked to study everything from Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Romano Scavolini’s Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (aka Nightmare, 1981) and Joe D’Amato’s Absurd (1981) to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s gialli-inspired 2009 Belgian oddity Amer. For Niamh Algar, Bailey-Bond suggested John Hancock’s cult offering Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and Michael Haneke’s sadomasochistic romance The Piano Teacher (2001) as touchstones.
It’s to do with the idea that we self-censor traumatic experiences. We censor to protect ourselves; and we also censor to protect others from ourselves.Prano Bailey-Bond
“I also used a scene from Cannibal Holocaust that I showed to the actors playing the censors during rehearsals. I wanted them to engage with the idea that they weren’t just watching sausages-for-intestines type stuff and fake exploding heads. I did want to keep them in that headspace that it’s not just something to look back and laugh at. I wanted to make it real for them.” Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato was famously pursued by legal cases following the release of his notorious 1980 movie, amid allegations that it was actually a ‘snuff’ film in which cast members had been killed.
Down the rabbit hole
Most intriguingly, Bailey-Bond directed sound designer Tim Harrison to the 1978 animation Watership Down, having been told by a former censor that the BBFC building was like a rabbit warren – an idea that tickled the director. (Like Disney’s Bambi, many young viewers still remember that animated Richard Adams adaptation with a mixture of heartbreak and horror). She was similarly struck by the ever-so-slightly seedy ambience of the BBFC’s Soho headquarters, full of rooms in which people were watching sex and violence, while the real treasures were buried in the basement.
Former examiners like Carol Topolski offered memories of the process of film censorship, while former BBFC head of communications Catherine Anderson and long-serving compliance officer David Hyman were typically open, helpful and welcoming – a sea-change since the more patrician days of chief censor James Ferman, who ran the organisation from 1975-99. Yet Bailey-Bond is keen to point out that Censor is first and foremost a work of fiction, one that very specifically avoids getting bogged down in the exact detail of the ‘nasties’ scare, in which the BBFC was initially bypassed – the very cause of the original panic.
“We thought about that a lot in terms of when we set the film,” she says. “The thing is that there is just so much annoying history. And we decided that we just had to get away from that: making the films that we talk about fictional; making it ‘the censor’s office’ rather than the BBFC; not really specifying what city we are in; and keeping the exact time-period somewhat vague – it’s a loosely fictional 1985, although we went back and forth between that and ’82-’83 during the development. So we basically created a world in which we could be a bit slidey with facts and history. Because there is a lot of ‘lore’ around the ‘video nasties’, and specific things that happened at different times. And if you try and stick rigidly to that it just constricts you creatively. And also it’s no fun. Because we’re not making a documentary – we’re making a character journey. And you have to remain focused on how to explore all these ideas, through this character, in an entertaining and meaningful way. You have to bend the facts.”
So, if the film is specifically not a recreation of historical fact, what does the central theme of censorship mean for Bailey-Bond? “It’s to do with the idea that we self-censor traumatic experiences,” she replies. “Enid can’t exactly remember what happened the day her sister disappeared. And in a way, her job becomes a way of exploring that idea of censoring ourselves. We censor to protect ourselves; and we also censor to protect others from ourselves.”
As for the redemptive power of horror, Bailey-Bond is clear that (as Barker and Petley suggested) “there’s a great tendency to just categorise the genre as schlocky – to dismiss it, when actually it is trying to say something complex and intelligent. Horror is part of the real world, so if film isn’t ‘granted permission’ to reflect that, are we avoiding facing it as a reality? All the terrible things that have happened throughout history, that get rewritten or covered up – society can’t heal from it, and we can’t process it. On both personal and social levels we kind of need to face the ‘bad stuff’ in life in order to get past it. That’s not a radical thought – it’s why anyone goes for counselling, and hopefully comes out feeling better!”
And what of the future? Since a radical overhaul around the turn of the century, the BBFC has become one of the most open and accountable ratings boards in the world, preferring not to cut movies, but rather to rely on age ratings and consumer advice for regulation. Today, many of the movies which were subject to prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act back in the 80s are available uncut, with official BBFC certificates. Can the sense of camaraderie and comradeship that Bailey-Bond spoke of earlier still exist in an age when horror films are no longer the subject of censorious outrage?
People can still be shocked. And there are still filmmakers out there trying to shock.Prano Bailey-Bond
“I still think things are frowned upon by people,” she says “and as long as that happens, I think the camaraderie still exists. People can still be shocked. And there are still filmmakers out there trying to shock. Look at Lars von Trier. He’s doing a great job! I only watched The House That Jack Built  in the last couple of months and I actually sat there shouting, “This is so feminist!” I couldn’t believe I had bought into the hype about it – about how unwatchable it was. I found it really funny and it didn’t offend me as a woman in any way. I thought it was really feminist. That scene with Riley Keough that everyone got enraged about; I thought the politics were really clear. And when you have a woman screaming ‘Help me!’ out of the window, and Matt Dillon’s character is saying ‘No one’s going to listen to you, nobody cares’ – that’s saying something quite powerful about the world. I just thought it was such a clever film. There’s something going on that’s much more intelligent than what’s on the surface.”
As for the DPP’s notorious list of impoundable titles that was once intended to stamp out the ‘nasties’, it had the opposite effect – creating a check-list of horror movies that every self-respecting fan needed to seek out simply because of their inclusion. Many of us still have the issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin in which Kim Newman and Julian Petley attempted to identify every film on the long version of the DPP list (known as the ‘Big 60’ but actually numbering some 70-odd films). Some of the titles are absolute junk – from the Canadian oddity I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses (1978), which mixes bland whodunnit thrills with moments of ill-judged splatter, to the Italian Nazisploitation schlocker The Beast in Heat (1977), which is exactly as terrible as it sounds. But others, like Matt Cimber’s weirdly unsettling 1976 psychological chiller The Witch Who Came from the Sea, are brilliantly intriguing fare that ultimately benefited from the DPP’s attentions.
“That is such a fascinating, sophisticated film,” enthuses Bailey-Bond. “It’s so complicated – as it should be when dealing with something like sexual abuse and trauma. And then you’ve got Axe/Lisa Lisa (1974) which was handling some very heavy subjects, and doing a good job.”
I suggest that perhaps The Witch Who Came from the Sea can be seen as the DPP’s gift to horror fans – the good that came of all this madness; the film we would never have seen otherwise. “Well, I’d never have watched Frozen Scream  five times if it hadn’t been for that list!” says Bailey-Bond with a laugh. “I love that film. It’s possibly the worst film I have ever seen. It’s so impressively bad that I adore it, and it even gets a little cameo appearance in Censor. And if it hadn’t been on the list, it wouldn’t have ever been remembered… by anybody!”
Vile VHS: unspooling the history of the ‘video nasty’ controversy
By Kim Newman
We spit on your grave: women and the video nasties
By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Cruel Britannia: six British ‘video nasties’
By Kim Newman
Censor splices cut-throat video nasty violence with smart social commentary
By Ela Bittencourt