Censor is the British film that perhaps benefited most from the pandemic’s impact on cinema releases in the UK. After initially appearing at a range of film festivals, including Sundance and Berlin, and getting a US release in June, the film opened in the UK in August of 2021. It gained a profile from national reviews and for a while it was a ‘must see’ film. Although it got some very good reviews, it seems some horror film fans were disappointed by what is actually a very sophisticated narrative ‘about’ horror films and how they both generate fan communities and controversies. Censor is now streaming on MUBI in the UK (and is available to rent or buy on most UK streamers).
Censor is the début film of Prana Bailey-Bond, a young Welsh woman, too young to have first discovered the ‘video nasties’ during the period when they were being pilloried in the tabloid press in the UK in the early 1980s. She first experienced horror films on video in the mid 1990s and became aware of the history of the controversies. She became interested in the politics of the attacks on video viewings of horror films and in an interview has suggested that she equated them with the attempts to repress ‘rave culture’ which she recognised as a form of rebellion as a teenager. Working with scriptwriter Anthony Fletcher, she directed a short film Nasty (UK 2015) and when that was well received, moved on to the development of Censor.
A little history
I think it’s quite important to understand the history of ‘video nasties’ and the structures of the film industry in the UK, especially for non-UK readers. There is a long history of film censorship in the UK which up to 1984 operated in a typically British ‘gentlemanly’ manner. The industry itself established the BBFC (then the ‘British Board of Film Censors’) in 1912. The board both classified films to be seen by adults only or children of set ages and required cuts for films deemed unacceptable. The Board had no statutory powers. These rested with local government authorities which issued performance licences for venues. The only other law that could be applicable to films was the Obscene Publications Act – which was notoriously difficult to use for prosecutions.
The development of video cassette technology in the early 1980s created a new viewing environment and the initial refusal by the Hollywood studios to release their films on video (at a time when, in the UK, cinema admissions were falling rapidly) meant that a new domestic market was created for films not classified for cinema screenings. The Thatcher Conservative government, pressurised by campaigners against obscenity and pornography, created the Video Recordings Act (1984) which charged the BBFC with a statutory power for the first time to ‘protect’ younger audiences. ‘Video nasties’ was the term used by the tabloids to describe around 70 horror films, most made outside the UK, which were then proscribed by the BBFC. Around 2000 the BBFC (British Board of Film ‘Classification’ since 1985) organised extensive public consultations which then informed new classification policies. Many of the original ‘banned’ titles were then re-classified for public viewing.
Prana Bailey-Bond was a diligent student of the furore that surrounded the video nasties controversy and in particular the defence by film and media scholars, especially in Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (1997) an anthology edited by Martin Barker and Julian Petley. She researched the films in question but decided to adopt an approach which avoided direct historical references. Instead she imagines a group of ‘film censors’ working away in an underground office space sometime in the early 1980s. She doesn’t reference the BBFC directly. One of these censors is Enid (Niamh Algar) a serious and intense young woman who dresses rather primly. Enid lives alone and works diligently to suggest edits in films before ‘passing’ them. Later, it emerges that Enid is at odds with her parents over the disappearance of her younger sister Nina when the two girls were playing together in the woods some years earlier. Enid becomes particularly interested in the films of a particular producer of cheap horror films who at one point comes into the censors’ office. She becomes aware of the media controversy about horror films when one of the films she has ‘passed’ is named in a court case as possibly prompting a vicious attack. She also visits a local video rental store where she observes that the more notorious ‘extreme’ films are kept ‘under the counter’. As the pressure on Enid mounts she begins to lose her grip on reality, especially when she thinks that an actress in one of the films she is working upon might be her sister, now grown up. In the final section of the film, as the audience, we can’t be sure about what we are seeing as Enid appears to cross over into the fictional world of horror films.
I’m not sure what to make of Censor. I remember the video rental market very well. It involved sexploitation films, thrillers and martial arts films as well as horror – all of which would otherwise have struggled to get into cinemas. I was never particularly interested in the video nasties. I’m too squeamish for gory horror films, but I’m not necessarily interested in banning them. I am interested in horror as a genre but more inclined to ghost stories and psychological horror. Bailey-Bond does call Censor a ‘psychological horror’ and although there is plenty of blood at times (and the screen is suffused with a red glow), the film is not particularly scary as such. Having taught horror films and read widely around the subject, I can see that Prana Bailey Bond is an intelligent and talented filmmaker (and recognised as such in industry circles). She certainly develops an impressive performance by Niamh Algar and she packs a great deal into the brief 84 minutes running time of her film.
It seems clear to me that the 1980s is now a time of fascination for two groups of people. For one group who were children of the 1980s and who are now established in more senior roles in society, there is a nostalgia for childhood experiences. For younger groups discovering the 1980s for the first time and necessarily without the cultural baggage of the period, films like Censor must feel rather different. For my generation the 1980s was a nightmare – unless you were willing to embrace Thatcherism and the real horrors that accompanied it. I’m intrigued by Bailey-Bond’s linking of the horror films on video to rave culture and I think she has produced an intelligent and illuminating film. The performances are strong and the film has a distinctive visual style. I’m not sure I’m competent to evaluate how effective/appropriate it is but I do note that DoP Annika Summerson has used a wide range of formats for image capture with aspect ratios varying from ‘Scope to Academy and along with production design by Paulina Rzeszowska has achieved a look that might well suggest horror on video in the 1980s. This is definitely a film to look out for, but only as long as you don’t expect a standard generic horror flic. Here’s the UK trailer.