By MICHAEL GINGOLD
One of the most contentious periods in horror history is revisited with a personal, dramatic and scary perspective in CENSOR, which arrives in theaters tomorrow and on VOD June 18 from Magnet Releasing. It’s set in the thick of the “video nasties” scandal that gripped Britain in the 1980s, and in the first part of this exclusive chat, director/co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond explores her process of revisiting this troubling time.
“Video nasties” was the term applied to graphic horror and other exploitation films when they began hitting VHS, and the British tabloid press stoked fears that they were corrupting children and turning their viewers violent. Video stores were raided, tapes were seized and some people harboring these movies were prosecuted, while the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification, previously the British Board of Film Censors) imposed heavy cuts on numerous shockers before they could be issued on cassette. CENSOR stars Niamh Algar (WRATH OF MAN) as Enid, who works for a BBFC-esque organization, determining which violent acts need trimming before they can win release. One particular nasty triggers repressed memories in Enid about the disappearance of her sister in childhood, and she becomes obsessed with discovering how and why this fright fare might be tied to her lost sibling. (See our review of CENSOR here.) Bailey-Bond, who also discusses the movie in RUE MORGUE #200, drew on both her own youthful memories and modern research to frame her story…
When you were young, was there a sense of video nasties being forbidden fruit, something you weren’t allowed to see?
Well, that’s the interesting thing: I didn’t ever feel that. I had an older brother and sister who would watch that stuff, and I would just watch what they watched. I didn’t have that feeling so much of these films being illicit; the only time I felt that was the first time I ever saw a classification at the beginning of a movie we’d rented at a video shop. There was a guy over here called Simon Bates, who used to present all the films; he’d sit behind a desk and explain the classifications. The first time I ever saw him do that, I was watching a [movie rated] 12 and I must have been around 8, and he said something about it being an offense for someone my age to watch this film. I misinterpreted what he was saying, basically, and I thought I was breaking the law, because he did say that in his intros: “Don’t make these people break the law by renting these videos to underage people!” I was so freaked out by that that I went to my mum saying, “Are you going to get into trouble? Are they going to arrest you for letting my watch this?” She explained that it was fine, and she wasn’t going to get arrested, and if I wanted to watch the film, I could. And I did want to watch the film, and it didn’t scare me because I understood the difference between fiction and reality, even at 8 years old.
Do you recall what film it was?
It was LADY IN WHITE. I’ve got vague memories of it, and it was quite haunting–but not as scary as the classification intro.
How did you develop the character of Enid, and her relationship to the movies she’s working on?
I co-wrote the script with Anthony Fletcher, and I love research; I feel that really enriches my process. I first really delved into the world of the film censor, and particularly what that would have been like during this time. I interviewed censors who worked during the period, particularly women. I spoke to women who were massive horror fans, and others who were not and found that watching these movies felt quite seedy, because they were in these dark rooms, sometimes watching soft-porn films, and then leaving at night and feeling a little bit vulnerable. I found that really interesting. And equally, I spoke to women who loved horror films, and didn’t feel at all like that.
Did you ever approach the BBFC for their involvement or approval in any way?
Not for their approval, and I’d be interested to hear what they think of the film [laughs]. They’ve been really supportive, though, and I believe they’ve changed a huge amount since the period in which this film is set. We didn’t intend to make a historical piece of work; it’s a piece of fiction, so the censor’s office in the movie is not the BBFC, and the people are not based on the censors who worked during that period. But obviously it’s the closest thing we have over here to what we’re representing in the film, so it was important to speak to them. They were so helpful; we spoke to David Hyman, who was working at the BBFC during that time, and he was so knowledgeable. He’s a huge horror fan, and knows so much about video nasties. We were also able to go look at files and other material over there; you can book time at the BBFC to weed through the files on THE EVIL DEAD or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and so forth. That was very interesting, and it was helpful to just be in that building as well, and kind of feel the space, even though it’s nothing like the one in the movie.
When you talked to the censors who were horror fans, did you get a sense of how they reconciled enjoying these films with their job of cutting them to make them acceptable for mass consumption?
Yeah, and I think everybody has a line when it comes to what they think is OK and acceptable. I could sense that there were things they’d seen that they felt crossed that line. I remember one examiner talking about THE NEW YORK RIPPER, and how upsetting that had been to watch. Yet at the same time, she really understood the power of horror, and the way you can use it to feel afraid in a safe space, and how that can be a cathartic experience. I found that very interesting, because censors watch a film with both a subjectivity and an objectivity. They have to do both at the same time; they have to experience the film, and then also have this second brain that’s going, “But what if…?” That’s a very unique way to view something, always thinking of the potential danger or copyable techniques, or what this movie might do to somebody else.
There’s a part of me that finds that point of view really patronizing as well, though [laughs]. Not the particular censors I spoke to; they were amazing, and I had open, frank conversations with them. But for example, James Ferman, who was the head of the BBFC during this period, I believe it was he who said something like, “It’s OK for us to watch this, but what if somebody from a council estate [public housing] in Manchester watches it? What will happen to them?” It was this idea that if an educated person or a middle-class person watched these films, they could handle them, but if you weren’t from that background, they might make you go out and garotte someone with a shoelace or something. There’s something a bit nannying about that.
I found it interesting while watching CENSOR that it’s not as much of a political statement as one might expect beforehand. It’s more of a personal story, and the political element is kind of in the background. Can you talk about taking that approach?
I always saw it as a character study first, where we’re going into Enid’s mind. Then within that, we were playing with the idea of what’s going on around her in society, the more political aspect, and how that affects her as an individual, and how those things structure someone’s perception of reality. Sometimes there aren’t always black-and-white answers to these questions, and we can point fingers and blame, and does that not make it worse for some people? And then obviously, we’ve got the slight nods toward the hypocrisy of what was going on in Thatcher’s Britain, using the video nasties as a scapegoat for the bad things that were happening in the world.
TO BE CONTINUED