The women behind British horror Censor dissect its bloody chills
Since its premiere at Sundance, the indie has received critical acclaim for its arresting take on Eighties "video nasty" aesthetics. Slightly scared, we meet its creative team.
In 1984 the Tory government passed the Video Recordings Act, ensuring that films must carry a classification from the BBFC to be screened in the UK. This was a direct response to the moral outcry caused by “video nasties”, gruesome horror flicks such as The Driller Killer, Zombie Flesh Eaters and Cannibal Holocaust, which had flooded the market on VHS after the introduction of home video in the late 1970s.
As social hysteria and worn-out VHS tapes swept the nation, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made it an election issue, emphasising the links between obscene movies and violent crime in her party’s 1983 election manifesto.
This context serves as a vivid backdrop to Censor, a new psychological horror film that harks back to the moral panic of the 1980s to interrogate our relationship with cinematic splatter. The story follows Enid, a film censor in 1985, who finds herself at the centre of controversy after a film she passes (with extensive cuts) appears to inspire a series of real murders by a man the tabloids dub “The Amnesia Killer”.
As tensions flair, Enid is troubled by a second film, which she believes contains scenes featuring her long-missing sister. As VHS tapes, murderers and Enid’s own trauma all become entwined, the divide between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurred.
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Censor has been acclaimed for its rich atmosphere, intoxicating style and vivid British historical setting. But as director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond, producer Helen Jones, composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch and lead actor Niamh Algar divulge, it also took a whole pantheon of horror touchpoints to shape the finished feature. With Censor finally hitting cinemas, the female creative force behind it now stake their bloody claim: it’s not only greater than the sum of its influences, but also the savviest British horror film of the year.
“I grew up in Wales,” says director Bailey-Bond. “And in Tregaron, there was Elfed’s video shop – this tiny little corridor, just wall-to-wall with videos.”
The scene she describes evokes Censor’s own Gerald’s Videos, the site where a “merchant of menace” rents Enid the banned film Asunder, by notorious horror filmmaker Frederick North. The shelves are lined with made-up film titles like Beast Man and The Day The World Began, while the walls peel with posters showcasing rental bargains. This kind of vivid place, says Bailey-Bond, was where she first experienced the world of video censorship.
“I must have been about eight or nine, and me and my mum rented The Lady In White. It was the first time I’d ever seen Simon Bates – this very official-looking, bespectacled, suited man who came up on screen to introduce the film’s classification. He said: Iit is an offence for anybody under the age of 12 to watch this film.’ I ran into the kitchen, really upset, saying: ‘Mum, the police are going to come and take you away!’”
Ironically, Bates’ introduction was more frightening to a young Bailey-Bond than the film itself.
“This man, Simon Bates, was a real man – and these were real laws. That terrified me. Because even as an eight-year-old, I could tell the difference between fiction and reality. But during the video nasty period, it seemed a lot of people were getting these things muddled up.”
That blurring of fiction and reality – and the hypocrisy that the public might “start hacking each other to death with scissors” upon viewing these films, while the censors were immune – is at the heart of Censor, says Bailey-Bond. With Enid’s psychological journey between these two extremes central to the film, the character’s performance would require a versatile and dynamic actor. But Niamh Algar, it turns out, initially identified with one side of the character more than the other.
“I’m terrible with horror films!” admits the actor. “When I was a kid, I wandered into my Dad watching Alien and watched as the alien exploded out through John Hurt’s stomach. I didn’t sleep for about a week after that.”
To prepare for her role as a video gore veteran, then, Bailey-Bond convinced the actor to indulge in some of the more brutal texts of the era, to get into the minds of both the infallible censors and the susceptible, weak-minded public.
“It was really interesting to watch something like Cannibal Holocaust,” says Algar of the notorious 1980 Italian exploitation film banned from UK exhibition until 2001. “It’s such a disgusting and grotesque film. They use real animal violence when it’s so unnecessary and horrific. It’s something that provokes this real inner trauma. That was a good reference point for Enid, both physically and mentally.”
Algar’s appearance in the film further underlines the transformation. As a censor, Enid dresses in oversized spectacles, buttoned frocks, beige roll-necks and long trench coats – armour against what she sees onscreen at the censor’s office. Algar compares the character’s changing form to that of Natalie Portman as ballerina Nina Sayers in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological horror Black Swan.
“It’s this person who feels like they’re in so much control, but she unravels from this idea of someone so pure and clean, and the darkness begins to seep in, picking away at her layers.”
Like Sayers, Algar concludes, Enid is like a “tightly-wound coil, that at any moment is about to snap”.
For her part, producer Helen Jones likens Algar’s performance to Julianne Moore’s in Todd Haynes’ 1995 cult classic Safe, in which a suburban housewife in Los Angeles is afflicted by a mysterious illness caused by the environment around her. “You can’t take your eyes off them,” she says. “You buy into their story and go on that journey, even though it becomes very psychologically disturbing.”
She’s quick to point out the strength of the supporting cast as well, with Nicholas Burns (Nathan Barley), Felicity Montagu (I’m Alan Partridge) and Michael Smiley (Kill List, Spaced) contributing to a distinctly British core for the film. Equally significant, in that sense, was Bradford Forest, the site of a week’s worth of night shoots that would produce some of the film’s most effective sequences.
“We almost sort of cast the forest, it was such a key and pivotal location,” says Jones. “We looked in Wales, Birmingham, all over the country, but that particular forest gave a real kind of Lynchian quality.”
Enid’s hallucinatory vision – of a Twin Peaks-esque cabin in the woods, surrounded by billowing smoke and emitting a blinding white light – is another of the film’s most vivid sequences. And while Bailey-Bond concedes that a direct reference to Lynch’s Lost Highway can be found elsewhere, the original idea for this climactic sequence was inspired by another director entirely.
“There’s a hint of David Cronenberg in that scene,” she says. “And of course Evil Dead. I originally wanted it to feel like we were inside a television set. I wanted the whole cabin to be filled with smoke that had white noise projected onto it – until I realised that we wouldn’t be able to see anything that was going on!”
Likewise, the film’s journey through colour, from the washed-out greys of Thatcher’s “oppressive” Britain, to the psychedelic horror of the vibrant video nasties, was very deliberately planned.
“I was looking at Paul Graham’s Beyond Caring photography,” says Bailey-Bond of the former. “Images of people in dole offices and in forgotten parts of society. We based a lot of the colour palette on those images in terms of the backgrounds for this kind of bleak world.”
But as Enid’s reality becomes blurred with the films she watches, inspiration was also sought from the era’s imaginative Italian horror filmmakers.
“I kept going back to Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond,” says Bailey-Bond, “as well as Dario Argento’s Suspiria. When you go into Enid’s dreams, we see those pinks and purples of the video nasties she watches at work come through into the real world. We were almost weaving colour through the film, to gradually drift into the video nasty world.”
Bailey-Bond wasn’t the only crew member inspired by the vivid style of Suspiria. Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s title theme recalls the work of prog-rock band Goblin, whose carnivalesque synth arpeggios remain one of the most celebrated facets of Argento’s classic.
“I have it on vinyl just there,” gestures the composer over Zoom. “I listen to it a lot. I thought it was good to pepper [the title theme] with little references for genre fans – there’s even a little bit of an Exorcist moment in there when you have the close-up of the little boy axing someone to death.”
The sound design for the censors’ offices may have been inspired by Watership Down, because “those eerie British voices of the rabbits always haunted me as a child,” says Bailey-Bond, “but instead of the voices of rabbits echoing down the hallways, it’s the screams of someone being murdered in a horror film in the next room.” But the score’s movement into more abstract soundscapes, built on creaking drones and eerie sound effects, came from another universe entirely.
“Obviously John Carpenter,” says Levienaise-Farrouch of the cult horror filmmaker and composer, known for both directing and penning the scores to Halloween, The Fog and Prince of Darkness (and back in the culture right now via his remix collaborations with Chvrches). “I love the way his scores are just a little bit imperfect, like the tuning isn’t always there.”
“There’s still a lot of static and a bit of crunch to give this sense of imperfection,” she concludes. “I was just tweaking the presets on these vintage synths until I found something that was beautiful, and also slightly shit. That was very important, because low-budget video nasties wouldn’t have been perfectly recorded – and in the end, it’s all about being in Enid’s mind, and being with her.”
With Censor, then, you might have to watch with your eyes and your ears screwed shut.