The release of Prano-Baily Bond’s debut film Censor, in theaters June 11 and on VOD June 18, has caused me to go off the deep end in terms of personally investigating banned movies and the ideas of censorship through the Video Recordings Act of 1984. As a horror fan, I knew certain films had been banned, but not to the extent of realizing how this list of “obscene” movies actually came to be. Many people stateside, especially those under the age of 35, are likely unfamiliar with the background Censor seeks to shed light on—the era of the “Video Nasties.” Where the United States only had to endure the establishment of the PG-13 rating in 1984 thanks to the likes of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist, The United Kingdom was indoctrinated into believing unrated horror and exploitation films were a blight on society.
According to Mark McKenna, an estimated one and a half million U.K. households had adopted VCR technology by the summer of 1982, with the number projected to double by the year’s end. This new format allowed for a loophole in how distributors could move their titles since there was no governance for the new media. Films bypassing the British Board of Film Censors’ (BBFC) rating process and subsequent editing process would go straight to the local video store shelves unedited and without a rating. This infuriated BBFC secretary James Ferman who stated, “they are watching shocking scenes which we would never allow in a cinema, even under an X-certificate.” The catalyst for the outrage is said to have been complaints lodged against video stores over VHS cover art and advertising materials for The Driller Killer, SS Experiment Camp, and Cannibal Holocaust.
Calls for stricter control over what was allowed to be used in film marketing, as well as the need for a classification system for parents, quickly snowballed into government cries for censorship of violent material. This deflection of inadequate government action provided an excellent opportunity to use the films as a scapegoat for a steadily rising crime rate likely due to an increasing unemployment rate that reached three million in 1983. Parliament.uk cites averages “over one million crimes recorded each year in the 1960s, increasing to two million during the 1970s, and 3.5m in the 1980s.” The correlation between the violence in the streets and the access people had to these films in their homes helped MP Peter Lloyd build on the outdated Obscene Publications Act of 1959 and forming the Obscene Publications Squad. The squad, which raided video distributors, confiscated and destroyed thousands of films what the press had begun calling the “video nasties.”
When all was said and done, a list of 72 films had been found in violation of the Obscene Publications Act, with an additional 82 films undergoing a lesser charge. This all led to the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which forced producers to resubmit their films for edits and classifications for home video release. Many of the films edited or banned include many beloved horror features such as Evil Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, Night of the Living Dead, Friday the 13th, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
This is where we find Enid Baines, played captivatingly by Niamh Algar in Censor. Enid believes wholeheartedly in her job, cutting scenes of realistic eye-gouging from a gruesome horror picture, fervently insisting she’s protecting the public from the contagiousness of the depraved, violent acts within the film. Censor doesn’t journey too deep into the political atmosphere and hysteria of the time but focuses mainly on Enid as one of these film censors coming to grips with a personal tragedy.
Enid’s sister, Nina, went missing years ago while the two played together as children. Remembering very little about the events of that day, Enid sees her everywhere that she goes, frequently stopping people in the subway or seeing her in the faces of the actresses of the films she’s editing. Enid’s parents, looking for a way to move on from the tragedy, decide to declare Nina dead in absentia, while Enid still holds onto the hope that her sister is alive.
Shortly after learning her sister has been declared dead, Enid is handed a film from controversial film producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley), and told that the director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) asked for her, specifically, to make the film’s cuts. Upon viewing the diegetic film Don’t Go in the Church, Enid begins to make parallels to the day she can’t recall. The shocking events seem perfectly aligned against what she’s able to remember, leading Enid down a rabbit hole as she searches for more of the director’s work in a world where most horror films have been confiscated or destroyed.
Bailey-Bond never plays into the draconian conservatism the history serves up but instead opts for a more stylized Grimm fairy-tale of obsession. This allows the viewer to stay within the confines of Enid’s story, only getting the moral panic aspects via newspaper and television reporting when it bleeds through to Enid’s journey.
As Enid enters a video store to score some contraband celluloid, she becomes the subject of a media scandal. Returning home to view an older Frederick North title, she believes the actress in the film, Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), to be her sister held captive by this vile horror director since that day in the woods.
The obvious duality of Bailey-Bond’s title takes root over Enid’s refusal to accept her sister’s disappearance. Her repression against what happened all those years ago begins to blur the line between fiction and reality. Enid’s edited-for-content memory looks for a way to shield itself from the truth, and the final act of the film is stunningly achieved by creating the type of immersive atmosphere very few films have the ability to do.
When I reviewed the trailer in anticipation of Censor’s release, I mentioned that the film reminded me of two films, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness. Though maybe some will take issue with the indirect nature of my position, Videodrome especially being more of a body-horror experience, I stand by it now having seen Censor.
Videodrome and In the Mouth of Madness both have that similar immersive nature to Censor that psychologically bends the characters within them through similar means. For example, Videodrome’s Max Renn (James Woods) becomes obsessed with finding the producers of a rogue transmission, much like Enid goes looking for director Frederick North. In the Mouth of Madness,’ John Trent (Sam Neill) follows the similar rabbit-hole aspect Censor uses as John journeys to find an author whose content is causing his fans to turn into monsters. I think the decision to cast films from both of these horror legends into the “video nasties” category—Cronenberg’s Rabid and Carpenter’s The Thing making the list—helped their films respond through dignified subtext.
Let’s face it, horror has historically been targeted for being the black sheep among the other genres. In one of the key scenes of Censor, Enid and a co-worker are put in the spotlight when one of the films they pass for release gets cited as an inspiration for tragedy. I believe this directly references the Hungerford Massacre of 1987 and the Jamie Bulger murder in 1993.
Witnesses of Michael Ryan’s vicious killing spree in Hungerford told the press that the mass shooter was “dressed liked Rambo” and the films were blamed, although the shooter had never seen any of the Rambo films.
Two-year-old Bulger was tortured and murdered when two ten-year-old children abducted the boy while his mother was distracted at a butcher shop. Child’s Play 3 was found to be among the rentals of one of the boys’ fathers. The film was blamed even though the boy wasn’t living with his father at the time. Child’s Play 3 would again be cited in the murder of Suzanne Capper, and once again, the film would be exonerated. Still, the media persisted with the headlines leading to studio choices to delay the releases of Natural Born Killers and Reservoir Dogs in the U.K.
For me, horror has always had that way of tricking you into believing what you’re about to see has no place in reality, setting plots that seem far-fetched until you piece together their underlying themes, often by approaching them from another angle. A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, can be viewed as a villainous nightmare-man who kills teenagers, or it could be about a parent’s worst nightmare of being unable to do anything while their child is hurt or suffering. To me, that is far more terrifying. It’s all in how the film is perceived.
If we strictly examine the title for Get Out, there can be a stylistic ambiguity in whether it references Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris Washington escaping the Armitage family or if it insists on the racist nature of the Armitage’s not wanting him around in the first place.
Get Out succeeded in increasing audience appetites for raising social issues and awareness of the cultural imparity of racism in America through the horror tableau. I found Jordan Peele effortlessly matched Get Out‘s enthusiasm through the narrative of his follow-up Us. But it isn’t like these issues weren’t being addressed in the years before or through the same veins.
Bernard Rose’s Candyman premiered 25 years before Get Out‘s release telling a story of inequality that many failed to see, paying attention only to the two-dimensional aspect of the nightmare-man slasher and his vicious on-screen kills but failing to see what’s happening at the Cabrini-Green and to the people within. It’s a film that’s often brought up as a great horror film but, until recently, was seldom thought of as a film that was aiming to point out social injustice.
Films that faced criticism of being overtly violent or depraved in the era when Censor takes place may not be regarded anywhere near as highly as a film like Get Out or even use the same subtext. Still, I could make a case for a specific film in the “video nasty” catalog that points a finger at a not-so-civilized group of anthropologists (and a film I’m often torn on): Cannibal Holocaust.
Cannibal Holocaust has a notorious film history. Much in the way that The Blair Witch Project masterfully crafted its release in 1999, tricking audiences into believing the events occurred, Cannibal Holocaust used similar tactics. The film’s marketing strategy was designed to make aspects of it look like a documentary. Its non-surviving cast members were asked not to appear in movies, commercials, or advertisements until a year after the film’s release. This became exceptionally problematic when a French magazine reported that one particular impalement scene featured an actress that was actually killed on camera for the movie and classified the movie as a snuff film. This landed the film’s director, Ruggero Deodato, in hot water, and all copies of the film were turned over to the Italian Magistrate. Deodato had to prove his innocence in court, so a portion of the film’s cast was interviewed on an Italian television show. Combined with pictures showing the movie-making special effects of the actress in question, Deodato’s charges were dropped. However, the reputation for Cannibal Holocaust endured and helped the BFCC prosecute it for obscenity, landing it on the list of “nasties.”
There are severe depictions of rape, ritualistic murder, genocide, and actual animal cruelty within Cannibal Holocaust, which is part of the reason it remains edited in the U.K. today. Those animal scenes are still some intensely hard scenes to stomach. However, I believe the film has been judged more harshly when compared to other non-genre films that depict actual animal death scenes that haven’t suffered the same treatment. Film enthusiasts and critics still rave about films like Apocalypse Now, Heaven’s Gate, Andrei Rublev, The Rules of the Game, El Topo, and Oldboy. Three of those films are even featured as part of the Criterion Collection.
Cannibal Holocaust is a movie that sets out to make its point through extreme violence and ultimately succeeds. The danger lies in the fact that people have judged it based on its horror label. If I told you that the film was about the incivility people from a concrete jungle bring to an actual jungle, maybe the film’s concept seems slightly more tangible. Hell, for some, I’m sure it’s more than conceivable. Horror is the only medium that holds that type of extreme mirror up to society to grant the shock value that these issues deserve, and Censor understands this beautifully.
Enid’s judgmental nature to the violence on screen in Censor finds her co-workers noticing her in a desensitized state until, all at once, violence seems to find her. Beginning with the viewing of Don’t Go in the Church and working its way to Enid tracking down the latest Fredrick North production. Still, it isn’t the film that causes her to react violently. Her violent past and detached memories are still a part of her, and her unwillingness to face personal problems finds her looking for an outlet to unleash that repressed rage.
Censor is a bit of a slow burn, though it never feels that way. The script, written by Prano Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher, finds the right balance in mixing Enid’s imperious career and crumbling personal life. The ending of Censor and the technical magic the film uses in colorization, lighting, and retro presentation generally elevate the film to art status. In other words, the film is absolutely gorgeous. It also features the best use of the 4:3 viewing aspect in a film to date, something I often find easy to criticize in modern-day filmmaking. I truly loved Censor. It’s an absolute knockout and a wonderful way to honor a period in film history that seems as though it wants to be edited out too.