behind the screams of the top horror movie of 2021
Hhowever, horror films are so often about women, but, historically, horror stories in cinema have rarely been told by women. That has started to change over the past decade, with directors like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Anna Biller (The witch of love), Karyn Kusama (The invitation), Alice Lowe (To inform) and pink glass (Holy maud) making weird movies about women who do more than scream and curl up. Prano Bailey-Bond, whose first feature film, joins this list of great horror directors Censor, has been one of Britain’s most striking horrors in years.
Located in the 1980s, Censor takes place amid the fury over “Video Nasties”. This large group of horror films has been “banned” by the British Board of Film Classification for being too obscene for the public. Nowadays, many of these films – evil Dead, Suspiria, Dawn of the Dead – looking relatively tame (while some are even considered classics), but back then it was believed that just looking at them would be enough to twist people’s minds and inspire copy crimes.
Censor follows Enid (BAFTA nominee Niamh Algar), a seemingly weighted censor who is rocked after watching a movie that seems to echo the events that led to her sister’s disappearance. As Enid obsessively tries to find out more about the film, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur.
“I had the idea of Censor around 2012 ”, recounts Bailey-Bond NME. “I was reading an article on Hammer Horror [the British studio that made the likes of Dracula, The Mummy and Curse of the Wolfman] which examined the functioning of film censors at that time. It made me think, “If the violent images are supposed to make us lose control, what is stopping the censor from doing it?” It was that hypocrisy of thinking, “I can watch this, but if you watch it, you’re going to come out and shoot somebody.”
Censor could have happened at any time, but Bailey-Bond opted for the Video Nasty period because “it’s a fascinating and rich era in terms of our relationship with horror. The UK had one of the most conservative censorship bodies. It was a time when VHS was taking off: with more people than ever able to watch movies at home, prudish guys were “worried the kids would be taken over by something bad from the TV.” It was also a time of extreme conservatism in government: Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the country was deeply divided as blame and fear set in.
The film’s’ 80s setting gives Bailey-Bond a choppy backdrop for its horror story. Enid’s mind begins to crumble as fear catches up with her, but the world around her is almost as irrational. “There was a practical scapegoat for everything that was going on in the world,” Bailey-Bond explains of that time. “‘Let’s not watch the government … or what they take away from society … let’s blame it on a bunch of horror movies.”
Bailey-Bond was too young to know Video Nasties at the time (she was born in 1982), but it was also in the 80s that she began her education in horror. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Wales, with my parents’ VHS shelf as a theatrical entrance,” she says. “They tasted really good, luckily. There were a lot of John Carpenter and David Lynch movies. The youngest of three siblings, she was always eager to see what her older brother and sister were watching. “I remember when I was in elementary school they were watching Twin peaks and… it was mind blowing. It’s not necessarily horror, but it was surreal and uncomfortable… and weird and scary. I think it had a big influence on me. This influence brought Bailey-Bond to the start of her career directing short films and music videos, all with the same sinister beauty that she brings to Censor.
While female-led horror has only recently become more mainstream, Bailey-Bond says she’s always been aware there are women in horror – if you watched. “One of my favorite movies when I was a teenager was American psychopath, which at the time I did not know was made by a woman [Mary Harron]. And then there was Near the dark [Kathryn Bigelow]. There were no masses, but they were there.
Bailey-Bond has seen the landscape change, with more and more women directing horror films. When it came time for Bailey-Bond to take her idea round for her directorial debut, it wasn’t so unusual anymore. “The way we talk about gender and representation [now], it feels like it allows for a platform where we actually celebrate and uplift female directors working in the genre more than we’ve done in the past.
For the role of Enid, Bailey-Bond chose, by chance and by chance, an actress who rises as quickly as her director. She and Niamh Algar met long before they started Censor: in 2018, they were both included in International Screen‘s’ Stars of Tomorrow’ list, and were put on the same table at a dinner celebrating the winners.
“We kind of got away with it, sitting down and talking about movies,” says Algar, who looks nothing like Enid in real life. Where Enid is brunette, English and calm, Algar is blonde, Irish and sociable. “About six months later my agent sent me a casting and I saw Prano’s name and immediately thought, ‘Oh, this is someone I want to work with.'”
For Algar, Censor crowns a few very solid years of career. She starred in the television series Ridley Scott Raised by wolves (and has already filmed the second season) and she was nominated for a BAFTA last year for her role in Quiet with the horses. Although it was not designed that way, the addition Censor to her CV is a good way to show that she has a great taste in big budget projects and independent films. “I always want to play characters that I guess people wouldn’t put me in the same box with,” she says. “The best compliment I got was when Mark Kermode said, ‘Niamh Algar is a character actor.’ Yes!” There is no doubt that Enid is a role that demands a lot from Algar. We won’t spoil where the movie goes, but Algar has to show Enid a lot of different nuances. It won’t be a surprise if this gets him a second BAFTA nomination.
One of the most striking things about Censor is that even though it takes place almost 40 years ago, it could take place at almost any time. Censorship is something that always exists: there will always be people who try to monitor what others are watching, out of fear disguised as worry. To day NME talks to both Bailey-Bond and Algar, Twitter is on fire with pearl-hugging guys objecting to Lil Nas X kissing her male dancer at the BET Awards and doing a pixelated nude prison dance in her “Industry Baby” video.
“I think there are parallels you can make right now with the ’80s,” Bailey-Bond says. “We’ve seen these moments of hysteria happen over the years. In the 1950s it was the comics and people worried about their effect on little boys. More recently we’ve had video games, Marilyn Manson videos, and rap music.
There will always be someone to insist that we have to think of the children. And I hope there will always be someone like Prano Bailey-Bond to hold a mirror for them and scare them into thinking.
‘Censor’ hits UK cinemas on August 20