Britain in the ’80s was grasped by the talons of Thatcherism: a brand of right-wing politics that upheld the individual and traditional family values. Some (many!) decried it as fascist, a call that became all the more emphatic when the Thatcher government took on Britain’s industrious towns and cities, closing down mines, mostly in the north and Wales, and destroying entire families’ livelihoods.
For Prano Bailey-Bond, the first-time director behind Sundance hit Censor, it’s difficult to separate Britain’s turbulent contemporaneous politics from the panic around video nasties: gore-heavy, straight-to-VHS B-movies around which the tabloids rustled up a profound moral hysteria, egged on by the state. “In Britain at that time, you have job losses, you have welfare being cut. People were living in poverty,” she says. “So there’s going to be more unrest, and I think horror was an easy scapegoat for all the bad in the world — it took pressure off politicians, off what was actually going on.”
This political reality serves as a tangible through-line in Censor, which follows a relatively simple conceit. Enid, a film censor played by Niamh Algar, is on the front line in Britain’s war against the nasties; she decides whether they’re fit for public consumption. All the while, she’s tormented by the mysterious loss of her sister: Once inseparable, she vanished without a trace when they were young. But when she sits down to rate a particularly graphic film by the notorious gore-hound Frederick North, things begin to spiral, her perception of reality and fiction blurring at an exponential rate. The crescendo Censor eventually hits offers one of the more unsettling dénouements in recent horror cinema.
With Censor being released this week, Vulture chatted with Bailey-Bond about moral panic, why we love watching films that indulge in the most grotesque of body horror, and whether the video nasties, despite their reputation, can be appreciated as art.
Film censorship happens everywhere, but the moral hysteria around video nasties was specific to England in the ’80s. Can you tell us a little about that history?
The birth of VHS led to a boom in low-budget horror becoming available. In every country, these films could go directly to the home, be watched and rewatched — potentially getting into the hands of children. For various reasons, the U.K.’s reaction was one of the most conservative in western countries. It’s a moral panic that emerged in the Thatcher era, this idea that these films were going to possess those who watched them, make them throw their moral compass out of the window, and do terrible things: garrote each other with shoelaces, attack each other with axes.
In the Daily Mail, there was an article called “Pony Maniac Strikes Again,” which was about a bunch of ponies who were attacked. And the police statement in this article said that the attacker was probably influenced by either video nasties or the full moon. So suddenly the real world becomes this supernatural place where we’re all howling at the moon, and growing hairs, and going out to attack ponies. It’s amazing how the tabloid press was about to whip up this moral panic around these films.
There are moments in Censor where you contrast the political violence of the Thatcher era — in the background of one scene, there’s archival news footage of police cracking down on a miners’ strike, for example — with the grotesque, but otherwise benign, horrors of the video nasties. Why is that?
It’s what I see when I look at that footage. Because obviously in the background of all of this were the miners protesting about the mines being closed down and everybody losing their livelihoods. And you see police brutality in the footage that’s not being highlighted or looked at as perhaps not the right way to deal with things, when you look back. But some kind of gory, probably campy special effects are supposed to infect someone’s brain and make them go out and murder somebody.
We don’t watch a horror film and then completely lose all of our morals. The reason people do terrible things is not that simple. It comes from somewhere much deeper; it can come from how we’ve been treated in life and how we feel in our heads. It’s such a simple explanation to just blame horror.
It feels like there’s a direct line between this moral panic, happening in a very specific political moment, and, say, the hysteria around video games in America over the past decade or so. The idea that games like Grand Theft Auto lead to shootings …
Absolutely, and that’s sort of why I wanted to set the film in the past, so that you have an objective viewpoint. When we were developing the film, a few people said, “Why don’t you make it about a contemporary censor?” But the period — and what was going on — is just too rich not to set it then. But you also have distance from it. You can go back and go, “Well, in the ’50s, it was comic books that were going to turn little boys into horrible big men. And then it was video nasties. And then it was video games.” It’s been Marilyn Manson; it’s been rap music.
Specifically with the VHS thing, I found it interesting to think about just how fragile we think we are, or how fragile our moral compasses are as people, that this new piece of technology is going to completely destroy our understanding of right and wrong. We’re so scared of technology; we’re so scared of the things we create and what they’re going to do back to us.
Sometimes the fear of what they’re going to do causes more of a problem than the technology itself. I think you’ve got that in the fears around social media and what that’s going to do to us — and how that is warping our perception of reality, which is perhaps warped already, because then we can go into, What even is reality? And we won’t go down that road. Maybe we’re just a frightened species.
What is it with our attraction to the morbid, the grotesque, and gore — what attracts us to, say, people being torn limb by limb by zombies, beheadings, and disembowelment?
I think about this a lot. Some people love it, and some people just can’t stand it. I know from my perspective it’s not so much about the gore. There’s something very physical about watching these kinds of films. I think horror is the most similar, of all film genres, to a roller-coaster ride. You can feel the electricity sometimes when you’re watching a horror film, and I don’t think you get that from other genres. For me, I’m really interested in trying to understand why people do bad things. I’m really interested in dark minds and picking them apart.
It’s a funny one: My sister isn’t really into horror, but she loves crime dramas, and, actually, women are the audience for a lot of serial-killer films. Sometimes I think, Is it because we want to protect ourselves? I don’t think anyone wants to genuinely put themselves in these horrific situations in real life, but because we know it’s fiction, there’s something very cathartic about it — it’s an adrenaline rush at times, too. I don’t have a hard-and-fast answer. I’m still trying to work it out.
There’s an early line of dialogue where a film producer — he’s supposed to be a bit of an asshole, I think — shows some artistic appreciation for an eye-gouging scene that Enid wants to cut: “It’s King Lear’s Gloucester,” he contests. “It’s Un Chien Andalou.” Looking back, do you think the nasties can be framed, and appreciated, as art?
I think some of them can. The video nasties, as a whole, are quite varied in terms of their art. Some of them are only known or spoken about now because they were banned; had they not been banned, I don’t think we’d be watching them. Some of them were impressively bad.
But some of them I do think of as art: You look at something like [Dario Argento’s] Suspiria or [Matt Cimber’s] The Witch Who Came From the Sea — they are pieces of art, in my opinion. They have a real kind of vision behind them. And they’re quite sophisticated filmmaking in their own way. It’s a real range. There’s the really schlocky ones, and there are some really fun, wild ones — like Basket Case. But even then, there’s art in Basket Case, you know.