In the 1980s, the rise of VHS led to the circulation of unrated films in the UK – many of which contained extreme content. In response to growing unease around the perceived corrupting influence of these titles (also known as “video nasties”), owning and distributing certain films was outlawed. This is the anxious world in which Censor, the feature debut from Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond and best British horror in years, takes place.
Censor follows a young woman called Enid who, while working as a film censor, discovers something in a video nasty that suggests a connection to her sister’s disappearance. Stylish, unsettling and set against the backdrop of conservative Britain, Bailey-Bond explores the moral panic around pop-culture, while taking visual cues from the vilified genre cinema of the era. Censor is anchored by a remarkable lead performance by Niamh Algar (Enid), Censor is equally satisfying as a critique of the pearl-clutching hysteria of the period and a tense mystery.
Ranging from unapologetic schlock to arthouse provocations, the list of banned movies is broad and haphazard in a way that reflects the startled, reactionary attitudes which led to this censorious legislation. It’s this list, and the kind of films it featured, which form the basis for Censor.
Bailey-Bond sat down with us to talk us through her favourite previously banned video nasties and how they informed Censor.
10: ‘Basket Case’ (1982, Frank Henenlotter)
PB-B: Not an official video nasty, but it was seized during video shop raids and things. If it was an official video nasty I'd probably have put it higher on the list, because I just love this film so much. It’s the perfect midnight movie to watch with a massive group of people in a cinema, because it’s really funny and quite mad.
One of the things I love about it is the extras, actually. Every single character – even if they only pop up onscreen for part of a scene – feels rich and distinct. I’d like to know more about where he got his extras from, because they all feel a bit like they might be playing themselves.
9: ‘Nightmares In a Damaged Brain’ (1981, Romano Scavolini)
PB-B: This features my favourite decapitation scene in any film, which is used in the opening title sequence of Censor. It's bonkers, totally bonkers.
I’m not sure if it’s Romano Scavolini who claimed Tom Savini did the special effects for this, but somebody did. There was maybe a photo that popped up on set, but Tom Savini denied it. I just think it’s really funny that somebody would be trying to argue that somebody had worked on a film they didn’t work on. Actually, the distributor of Nightmares In a Damaged Brain was sentenced to 18 months in prison because they refused to cut even one second from the film. Can you imagine a distributor going to prison nowadays for a film they released?
8: ‘Blood Feast’ (1963, Herschell Gordon Lewis)
PB-B: Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis, considered the godfather of the video nasties. When I was watching the video nasties as part of my research for Censor, I remember writing down some of the dialogue because it’s really fun and silly. I remember something along the lines of “hopefully tonight’s dinner will take our mind off all these terrible murders”. Stuff like that. It’s just so much fun. I think one of the issues I imagine the BBFC had with the film is the kind of glorifying of images of dead women. There’s a whole conversation to be had around that, but I think this is just a poppy, fun, beautiful film if you like that kind of thing. That would be one I’d recommend people have a look at.
7: ‘Axe’ (1974, Frederick R. Friedel)
PB-B: Also known as Lisa, Lisa, or California Axe Massacre. It was banned and prosecuted but I think it was only on the list because of the title. It’s only 68 or 70 minutes long. It’s quite a slow film and it had terrible reviews when it came out. It was shot for something like $20,000 with a very small crew and it’s a rape-revenge film, essentially – but a very quiet one. Again a surprise, really, that it’s on there, and I do think that it’s a film that could’ve been completely forgotten about if it weren’t on this list.
The quietness and some of the imagery – of this young girl with an axe – was one of my influences for the film within [Censor] called Don’t Go In the Church. I was referencing that as well as The Blood On Satan’s Claw to my crew, which is another film I think is very underrated.
6: ‘The Beyond’ (1981, Lucio Fulci)
PB-B: Lucio Fulci was a massive inspiration for me in terms of the kind of films within a film. The Beyond was a film I showed most of my crew, I think. This has one of the most nightmarish endings and I adore it for that reason. It is like one of my nightmares in terms of its tone, this sort of like ‘oh my god, where have we ended up?’
The visual world that Lucio Fulci conjures is something I’ve always admired, and there were bits of The Beyond that I was referencing for the dreams [in Censor] as well - some really beautiful sequences, again using those kind of pinks and purples. I also looked at The House By the Cemetery for some of the kind of films within the film. Asunder, the film where we first see Alice Lee, is heavily inspired by Lucio Fulci’s visual style.
5: ‘The Thing’ (1982, John Carpenter)
PB-B: I always forget that this one was banned. I’m always just surprised that people didn’t love it when it first came out because it’s such an incredible and, again, really fun movie. I don’t know how much to say about The Thing. I love it, basically, and I’m always surprised it’s on the list.
4: ‘The Evil Dead’ (1981, Sam Raimi)
PB-B: This wasn’t so much an influence for Censor, but it’s definitely been an influence on me as a filmmaker. I grew up watching The Evil Dead repeatedly as a teenager and when I studied performing arts in college, my final performance, which was like a stage performance, was inspired by The Evil Dead and The Company of Wolves. It was called “Kill Her If You Can, Loverboy”, which is a line from The Evil Dead. So you can imagine how obsessed I was with this particular film and also how dominating I was over what we were doing as a final performance. It was probably quite a bad performance, but I think as a teenager I was just totally blown away by this film because it was so much fun. It’s just really, really fun horror and that’s kind of what Sam Raimi does so well. Drag Me To Hell also is just immensely fun horror.
When we were researching Censor we were going into the BBFC and looking at their files. We had the chance to look at the file for The Evil Dead and it was really interesting, because they revisited the film a few years after they first looked at it. One of the examiners who had originally said ‘this isn’t appropriate, this is going to deprave and corrupt everybody’ watched it again and made a comment along the lines of ‘I can’t believe we reacted to this film like that’ and ‘we must have been influenced by the atmosphere at the time, because there was so much in the press, so much hysteria around the kind of films…’ So, it was an interesting one to look at because of how quickly the views of these kinds of films were changing.
Then, when I made my short film Nasty in 2016/2017 it screened with The Evil Dead in Germany – and that was Germany’s first ever legal screening of The Evil Dead, because it had been banned up until then.
3: ‘Suspiria’ (1977, Dario Argento)
PB-B: I’m calling them all masterpieces, but I think this is Argento’s masterpiece. I love that the fact he talks about Suspiria being inspired by Disney films. The colours, the sort of technicolour element… the sound and vision of this film is immense. I saw it a few years ago when it was restored, and watched it at the Barbican with a Q&A with him. It was just such an incredible experience seeing it on the big screen. Me and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch [who scored Censor] talked about the score for Suspiria as a reference for the music in Censor, and it’s probably been a reference for many other horror films as well.
Colour was something I was really looking at in relation to Enid’s dream sequences. In the film we start very much with a kind of grey, blue, bleak eighties Britain. It’s when we start to go into the dreams that we introduce pinks and purples, which are then woven back into Enid’s real world. I was looking very much at Argento’s work and particularly Suspiria for those colour references and talking to my cinematographer about that as well.
2: ‘The Witch Who Came From the Sea’ (1976, Matt Cimber)
Prano Bailey-Bond: What I’m disappointed with myself about is that I watched this after I shot Censor. I wish I’d managed to get to this one beforehand. The reason being, it’s a very woozy film about the trauma of sexual abuse. It’s about a woman who, off the back of the trauma of sexual abuse, goes on a killing spree – or does she?
There’s this blurry dream-like element to this film, which I think would make it quite a good double bill with Censor. You’ve got this really interesting central character who’s kind of going back to her memories and her past. So that’s certainly one that I wish I’d known about earlier on, or at least explored earlier on. Also, Dean Kundy, who was the cinematographer on Jurassic Park and Death Becomes Her was the associate cinematographer on that film, which I think is quite an interesting one, because it’s put on this list of low grade B-movies, when actually I think it’s a bit of a masterpiece. It’s a gem of this list, for sure, that not many people know about.
1: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (1974, Tobe Hooper)
PB-B: For me, this is the most raw and intense of the video nasties and probably one of the most raw and intense cinematic experiences. I think Marilyn Burns’ central performance and particularly stories of how they had to go back and reshoot the ending, that she was so traumatised by the shoot, that her performance at the end is kind of part real... She’s just so terrified. There’s stories that she was just so distraught that she had to go back and shoot more stuff because it was such a horrible experience making the film.
One of the things we looked at in relation to Censor [is how], in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, all of the running in the woods is shot within the same few metres, so they just set up one track and lit a single part of the woods and just ran backwards and forwards. We thought that was quite interesting because shooting in forests is tough. We didn’t actually do that in Censor, we had different parts of the forests that we shot sections in, but it was an inspiration.
‘Frozen Scream’ (1980, Renee Harmon)
PB-B: There’s a clip in Censor from this film as well. I’ve watched it probably six times but it’s possibly one of the worst films - I don’t want to say ever… but I love it. It’s easily the worst film that I love. It’s impressively bad, and it’s so much fun to watch because of that in a way, and I watch it over and over again.
‘Cannibal Holocaust’ (1980, Ruggero Deodato)
PB-B: I think this is a really really incredible film and there’s so many interesting stories around it, but the reason it didn’t make my list is because I just can’t handle the cruelty to animals. It’s not even just cruelty, its murder of these animals – and he was prosecuted for that.
Interestingly, when he was taken to court about this, they also thought it was a snuff film because he’d made the actors sign contracts which said they wouldn’t appear in anything else for X amount of time after the film came out because he wanted people to think that they were real people who died. That’s why he cast unknowns, he wanted it to feel like it was a found footage film essentially. So he had to get the actors to come to court and say “It’s OK, we’re alive, it was all acting” – which I think is like a film in itself, basically that whole idea.
I spoke to the BBFC recently and they said there was a scene of some kind of rodent being stabbed, which got taken out, and it’s in very few versions of the film. They said it’s one of the worst things they’ve ever seen. I feel like I’ve seen it but I don’t know if I just imagined it...
Censor will be in UK cinemas on the 20th of August. For more information visit Vertigo Releasing.