Suppressing Trauma in the Belly: Prano Bailey-Bond on Her Video Nasty Film Censor

“If violent images are meant to make us do really terrible things, what protects the film censor from losing control? How come they’re not affected by these things? That was my starting point,”

director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond says about her hallucinatory first feature Censor.

Premiered at Sundance this year, Censor intertwines a commentary on the moral panic surrounding video nasties in 1980s Britain with a compelling story of suppressed trauma. 

These low-budget, gory films were blamed for triggering the viewers’ most depraved instincts. In the late 1970s, the British Board of Film Censors (the C stands for “classification” today) could only exert their authority on public exhibition. This loophole allowed video nasties to thrive in the unregulated home video market. When censorship extended to VHS in 1984, such a bigoted crusade inevitably backfired and only helped establish these films’ cult status. 

Similarly to many horror aficionados, a teenaged Bailey-Bond fully fell under the spell of video nasties.

“I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Wales, and there was no cinema around. So I just had like, my parents’ VHS collection, and used to sit and watch the same films over and over again,” the director tells Signal Horizon.

“And some of those films were The Evil Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and probably things I should not have been watching at that age,” she says.

Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor and the dark face of the 1980s

Now opening in theaters across the US, Bailey-Bond’s 1980s-set film stars Niamh Algar as the titular censor. Her buttoned-up and aloof Enid Baines is devoted to her job at the BBFC. There, she sits through the ghastliest nasties, deciding what stays and what ends on the cutting room floor. Her sole duty is to protect audiences, she tells herself at every proscribed title. But who’s protecting her? And from what, exactly?

Bailey-Bond’s infectious passion for video nasties finds an outlet in an unplanned cameo in the opening montage of Censor. The director pops up in a fake nasty the protagonist reviews in a blink-and-you-ll-miss-it, extremely bloody moment. Like many other movies of the time, it gets rejected.

“I wasn’t aware so much of the kind of social and political side of what happened around these movies. But then, as I got older, and my sort of interest in horror deepened, I became more and more aware of the moral panic that happened,” she says.

More than 70 films ended up in the Video Nasty list at the time. Sensationalistic media coverage rode the hysterical wave suggesting that horror movies were responsible for a surge in violent crimes.

“If you look at the political landscape in the UK at that period, it’s Thatcher’s Britain. So you have cuts in jobs, cuts in social care, all these things that create civil unrest, and perhaps a rise in crime. But actually, it’s much easier to blame horror films for all the bad things that are happening in the world,” the director argues.

Photos Courtesy of BFI Film Fund

Reclaiming the exploitation of video nasties

This is not to say she doesn’t think the nasties are exploitative, particularly for their unnecessary, hyper-graphic violence against women.

“The first time I watched [rape-revenge horror] I Spit on Your Grave I was pretty devastated,” the filmmaker admits. “But you’re trying to kind of reclaim some of that in a way through the work that you’re doing,” she adds.

Bailey-Bond explains it was “a slight balancing act” to tell Enid’s story without ignoring the nasties’ violence against women.

Censor touches upon these films’ misogynistic, exploitative component when Enid and her colleague Anne (Clare Perkins) are reviewing a sexual assault scene. The latter is visibly uncomfortable; Enid, on the other hand, seems unfazed, robotically trapped in her job’s routine. 

Her overzealous façade, however, conceals something terrible happened years prior. Anesthetized to the horror of the nasties, Enid loses the plot when a familiar film hits especially close to home. After decades of burying her guilt, the protagonist needs to confront her flickering memories as fiction and reality blur dangerously.

“Ultimately, I wanted to tell the story of a person who maybe thinks that, deep down, they are bad, they’re rotten, that they’re terrible. And what that might do to that person, and how that might eat away at them. And if they’re unable to talk about that with other people, how that affects their psyche,” Bailey-Bond says.

Bailey-Bond’s references for Enid

Algar’s brilliant turn was informed by a series of excellent references that the filmmaker provided her with during production. Bailey-Bond cites Isabelle Huppert in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher to Zohra Lampert’s gripping performance in 1971 horror Let’s Scare Jessica to Death among her inspirations. Building onto these reference points, the lead treads a tense line between sanity and madness beneath her almost concerning composure.

The haunting score by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch also taps into the idea of the trauma that Enid is harboring deep down.

“I said to [Emilie], ‘I want to reference the [nasty] period, but I don’t want it to become a pastiche. It needs to have its own DNA. And it needs to carry the audience with Enid,’” Bailey-Bond said about working with the composer.

“I talked a lot to her about this idea of trauma, and suppressing trauma in the belly. And when Emilie delivered her first piece of music she’d done it, she hadn’t even seen the film. She sent us this piece of music, and we put it to picture. And it just tuned us into Enid in this incredible way,” she adds.

Censor and the magic of the TV box

As Enid’s trauma begins to unravel, the whole film starts closing in on her. Censor trades grey, grim hues for a neon, violent grading, and the aspect ratio shrinks to resemble that of period television sets.

“This is a film about watching films in some ways, so the TV becomes a motif quite naturally,” Bailey-Bond discusses.

“The films that I was watching during the 1980s were all on 4:3 because that was the shape of our tellies. But also, I liked the way that [the aspect ratio] closes in in a kind of very subtly claustrophobic way on Enid,” she continues.

Censor is indeed a movie about watching controversial movies, but it’s also a pre-streaming era, nostalgic celebration of the magic box in our living room. Enid manages to connect to her most secret, unutterable thoughts via the static noise coming from her TV, in a way that speaks directly to the VHS generation.

“I love the idea of the TV as a portal into another world,” the director highlights. 

“I guess, in some ways, that’s my experience of watching TV as a kid. You’re transported into this fictional realm where you can experience a different world, a cathartic outlet,” she adds.

A scary movie stemming from a place of love for the medium, Censor challenges the misconception of art fostering violence. Whatever the 1980s narrative had you believe, horror is already out there. All we can do to face it is stop suppressing trauma in the belly and slice ourselves open.

Censor opens in theaters in the US today (June 11)

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