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(Credit: Mark Chapman)

Film

Exclusive: Director Prano Bailey-Bond discusses the urgency of modern horror

@Russellisation

It feels like far-flung history when the likes of horror icons such as Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers were dominating the silver screen with countless remakes and sequels, as the modern genre has evolved to adopt a new identity entirely. With a diverse range of voices and artistic styles, horror has transformed into a more inclusive genre, without losing sight of the violence, gore and terror that has forever made it such a beloved mode of filmmaking.

Stifled for generations by dominant male voices, the horror genre has seen genuine innovation in recent years, with the likes of Jennifer Kent, Julia Ducournau, Nia DaCosta and Prano Bailey-Bond breaking the mould of female objectification that has long plagued the genre. 

Bringing her own creative flair to British horror in 2021, Bailey-Bond’s Censor evaluated this era of dominant male voices in the context of the video nasty moral panic of the 1980s. Telling the story of Enid, a film censor working in the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, the modern horror debut explores how the mind of the protagonist is corrupted by violence and a mental confusion between fact and fiction. 

We spoke with the co-writer and director of Censor, Prano Bailey-Bond, about the recent resurgence of the genre, the “snobbery” of ‘elevated horror’ and the thrill of the video nasty. 

Far Out: What is it about the era of video nasties that made you want to deconstruct such a time of moral panic?


Bailey-Bond: “Initially, the idea I had was to explore the character of a film censor. When I was thinking about this character, I was thinking about a film censor who was going through their own personal moral panic about what they were seeing on screen. I started to research censorship through the ages and that was part of landing in the video nasty era, because it felt like it was echoing what I wanted to explore in the character. 

“But also the films that were being made, and being accused of being video nasties or being labelled for the nasties, were films that I love and films that I grew up watching. That era felt like it spoke to me personally as a horror fan but also, it spoke to my style as a filmmaker So all of it kind of came together

“I think it’s, it’s a really interesting time to look at our relationship with horror and the fears we have about ourselves and each other and this idea that we’re kind of one Lucio Fulci film away from just snapping and killing someone”.

Which of the video nasties do you think transcended into mainstream culture? What were your personal favourites? 

“There were the ones which I watched when I was much younger, because they were the ones I was actually able to access. Things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Suspiria, The Evil Dead and Cannibal Holocaust, I was really watching as much as I could. I felt like I could be inspired by any aspect, the scores of those films are so incredible, they elevate these images, and have become iconic in their own right. 

“Or something might just have a brilliant stupid idea in it, like, even the way that the actors are being blocked around the camera that feels really unnatural. I could take that idea and plant that into one of my fake video nasties within the film. I was sort of mining all of them really to just get as much inspiration as I possibly could. But particular films were inspiring for colour, such as The Beyond, by Lucio Fulci and Suspiria by Dario Argento and those were the ones I was showing my DOP. Then, there were some, like, The Witch Who Came From the Sea, that I only saw after I finished Censor and I wish I’d seen that before I made the film because I think it is probably the masterpiece of the video nasty list, in my opinion”. 

It’s briefly explored in the subplot of Censor that these video nasties have had an effect on the mentality of the public, do you think this has any ground in real life?

“No, the only effect I think it’s had directly is to entertain. I don’t believe that somebody goes out and does something terrible because they saw it in film or that they were influenced by a piece of art, I think people do terrible things because they have problems in their life or mental health problems, or there are societal issues that push them to the brink. 

“But that’s why this is such an interesting period socially, because I think it was very convenient at the time when it’s like you’re in Thatcher’s Britain, the cuts are being made, and on the other side of that, there’s a supposed rise in crime, people are in worse off situation sort of socially, and personally I think it was a great scapegoat to be able to turn around and say that all of those things were because of these horror films released on VHS. But I think we see that time and time again, because in the 1950s, it was comic books and, more recently, it’s been different kinds of music, whether that’s hip hop or Marilyn Manson or video games, but those are easy explanations that don’t actually allow anybody to kind of get in there and really unpick problems and do anything of worth in terms of solving these issues”.

As well as the horror in the film, there’s a camp comedy to it as well. Is that something you felt like you needed to put into your film? 

“I think there was always an inherent comedic element for me in thinking about the film censors, and this idea of a bunch of highly educated, incredibly intellectual, very eloquent people who were sitting around analysing in depth, like exploding heads. So for me, that was always a little bit funny and I just think that comedy is always in the dark areas of life somehow, the absurdity of these things ends up shining through and, for me, comedy and darkness align”. 

It’s something innate within British horror films as well, with actors like Michael Smiley bringing this comedy to Censor

“Yeah exactly, Michael Smiley is sort of the perfect bridge of that when you think of his other work, how he sort of seems to seamlessly move between really quite dark disturbing work. He floats between those genres so effortlessly, which is amazing”.

He’s got all the tools to play a great villain in the future.

“Yeah, he’s brilliant to work with. He’s a really lovely man and so fun,  he improvised quite a lot. We were doing some of the scenes in the censors office, and he’d improvise coming in and out of the scenes, and we used a lot of that, and he was keeping everybody quite entertained on set”.

Filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland have carved out a niche in this blend of horror comedy, but when it comes to strict horror it’s been female filmmakers that have really excelled in the genre. How do you think female horror filmmakers particularly can pioneer change in the genre?

“I think that we’ve been starved historically of female stories told by women. Even our history has kind of written out women’s stories. Having more female storytellers coming through in any genre is a positive step because it’s far more interesting for all audience members to open up that aspect, that point of view on the world and all these stories from women’s points of view that haven’t been told. So I think, generally speaking, female storytellers can be a pioneering change by sharing their point of view and that can be really cathartic as well for female audiences, but also provide another perspective for all audiences”. 

We’ve seen such a diverse range of horror films in the past decade and I think it’s down to female filmmakers like yourself providing different voices and different angles.

“Yeah, exactly. I did my first ever woman in horror panel in 2010 and, so for me, I’ve always known a lot of female horror filmmakers through going to festivals and making short films, so I don’t see it as something that’s new. I think we’re starting to see more of that kind of breakthrough in the eyes of the mainstream, so it’s really good, it’s what’s needed; more like diverse voices across the board. Otherwise, it gets a bit boring. I want to hear from other people whose perspectives haven’t been shared. The more diverse the better”.

On the genre of horror, particularly, why do you think that it is now that horror is flourishing in such a fragile cultural time?

“I think there’s been a lot of really difficult issues being faced head on in the last few years and horror is a genre that does face difficult issues in a way that is really fun and entertaining. You can take something really dark and horrible that’s in the real world and actually present it in an entertaining, roller-coaster sort of way. 

“You can think of racism in Get Out or Jennifer Kent in The Babadook and its approach to motherhood and grief, and those films are actually really quite fun. So I think people are more willing to have those conversations and perhaps have seen true stories like this that have broken out, that horror can speak about. It’s like a really great cycle going on with horror at the moment where the more audiences see important films, the more you have these kinds of gatekeepers who want to make horror films, and then the more opportunities are coming forward for these really interesting perspectives to make great horror movies”. 

The term ‘elevated horror’ has recently been used to characterise films like Get Out, but there’s definitely a discussion to be had that horror has always been tackling these social and political issues.

“Yeah, exactly, I think there’s something quite snobby about the term elevated horror because what it suggests is that there’s a type of horror that’s sophisticated, and only smart audiences and intellectual people can engage with them. But then there’s this other section to horror that apparently isn’t worth looking at. Horror has always been the genre that’s gone to the difficult places and been tackling complicated psychological or sociological ideas”.

So, what’s next on the horizon for yourself, will you be keeping in the realms of horror, or diverging off into pastures new?
“There’s no, kind of, move over to a rom-com or anything like that but things kind of vary in terms of how, how far into horror each project goes. So I’m developing a number of projects, one has been announced, which is Things We Lost in the Fire, which is an adaptation of a short story. But I’ve got one project that’s very grounded in horror and then other things that sort of drift into very dark corners, and sometimes, definitely horror corners, but not into a full blown genre piece”.

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