Features Published 31 August 2021

Censor, censorship, and theatre’s 21st century video nasties

Following the release of new film Censor, Natasha Tripney traces the stories of screen violence, from Mary Whitehouse’s outrage to today’s horror theatre livestreams.

Natasha Tripney

The crimson tide: a still from 1980 film The Shining

When I was 14, some friends came over to my house while my mother was still at work and we watched a video of The Shining. When the elevator disgorged its river of blood, we began giggling – not because we found it funny, but because we needed to respond in some way to what we were seeing and did not want to admit we were scared. When Jack Nicholson took an axe to the bathroom door, we squealed louder than Shelley Duval and fled up the stairs. We worked ourselves up into quite a state and I am not sure we ever made it to the end of the film. I remember there was a palpable sense that, in watching it, we had let something malign into the house.

Looking back, I wonder how much of our mania stemmed from the fact that what we were doing felt so illicit, so naughty. This was a little bit after the video nasty era, but the idea of the video cassette as a contaminant still felt very present in our minds. Watching a scary film was a transgressive act. How much of our fear was a result of our understanding that such things were in some way bad for us?

Censor, Prano Bailey-Bond’s wonderfully woozy debut feature, is set at the height of the video nasty panic of the 1980s. Enid (Niamh Algar) works for a BBFC-style organisation and spends her days watching films, assessing the level of violence on display, evaluating scenes of rape and torture. “Doesn’t it ever affect you?” her hungover colleague asks, blanching during one particularly gruesome scene, but Enid is adamant it doesn’t. She watches with an impassive detachment, noting the exact length of every scene of mutilation and disembowelling.

Prano Bailey-Bond on the set of Censor

While her posh, Oxbridge colleague compares scenes of eye gouging to King Lear and Oedipus and the famous razorblade-meets-eyeball moment in Buñuel’s La Chien Andalou, Enid only notes how much spatter there is and how long the camera lingers on the bloody eye socket.

She views her role as that of protector, containing a pollutant; she singles out the repeated acts of brutality against women in these films as particularly egregious. She has the power, and she believes, a duty, to cut material she finds particularly repugnant. Cutting is central to the censor’s role – there is an element of violence to it.

But is Enid truly immune to this constant stream of violent imagery? When a man murders his family in a similar manner to one of the films she passed for classification, the media sharpens its knives and Enid’s world – and maybe her mind – start to come apart. Enid already carries around more than her fair share of trauma; her sister went missing when she was a child and she has gaping holes in her memory of these events. Try as she might, Enid cannot compartmentalise this trauma. It is part of who she is. She becomes obsessed with a film Don’t Go in the Church that she thinks holds the key to those locked-off memories – one of the actresses might even be her sister, all grown up – and goes in search of the film’s creator.

At this point, the film begins to mutate. The colour palette shifts from muddy, muted 1980s shades to vivid Argento red and it ceases to be a film about horror and becomes a horror film. Algar’s manner shifts with it, from one of brisk efficiency and cool detachment, to something more skittish and volatile. She spends the last third of the film tearing around a dark forest in white nightgown, a combination of petrified victim and avenging angel. The film’s visual nods to Evil Dead, early Cronenberg films, and the dreamy surrealism of A Nightmare on Elm Street feel less like homage than signs that the membrane between the screen world and the real world has been violated. It becomes increasingly hard for viewers to figure out how much of what we’re seeing is occurring inside Enid’s head.

By its end, Bailey-Bond’s film has become deliciously ambiguous. The later scenes are an eruption of suppressed trauma and violence, with both Enid’s face and the camera lens flecked with crimson, her white gown glimmering against the midnight green of the forest. The boundaries between the imaginative, filmic and physical worlds have broken down completely.

A still from Censor

The idea that the contents of horror movies could somehow escape the screen and bleed into our waking world was the source of the video nasty panic of the 1980s. There was a real fear that watching this imagery could infect people, sparking copycats or desensitising the public. There had been a real boom in home video in the early 80s. The rate of video ownership in the UK was one of the highest per capita in the world. Suddenly film was no longer confined to the cinema or one of the four TV channels. People were able to watch what they wanted when they wanted in their homes. The market for horror duly exploded with a lot of, often European, films with lurid covers and names like SS Experiment Love Camp and Zombie Flesh Eaters flooding the market. The prospect of these films entering people’s homes filled campaigners like Mary Whitehouse and her Viewers and Listeners Association with alarm. Their chief worry was that children might be exposed to unsuitable material, but there was a classist undertone to a lot of their concerns, a belief that the working class could not be counted on to make sensible decisions about what they chose to watch or allowed their kids to watch. The Mail ran sniffy articles about videos replacing babysitters and claimed video nasties were “raping our children’s minds”. Even the term ‘video nasty’ contains an element of judgement. It implies that this is grubby stuff and those who watch it, who even maybe enjoy it, are themselves grubby.

Whitehouse’s campaign and the media frenzy it sparked led the DPP to issue a list of films it believed might contravene the Obscene Publications Act – including films like Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left – but the police weren’t always sure what constituted obscene material and there are stories of copies of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and the Samuel Fuller war flick The Big Red One being seized by some over enthusiastic officers.

Eventually the Video Recordings Act was passed in 1984 giving the BBFC – then the British Board of Film Censors – the powers not just to classify but cut or even ban films, while the sale of non-classified films became an offence. The UK ended up with one of the strictest film classification systems in the world and the BBFC often made cuts to films to remove imagery it deemed problematic. Sexual violence often got the snip; blood splashed on bare breasts was verboten. Some films, like The Exorcist, which had been available for years, were removed from the shelves.

Theatre had no such classification system. The 1968 Theatres Act abolished state censorship of the British stage, though it was still possible to mount a private prosecution against plays likely to ‘deprave or corrupt.’ In 1980, Whitehouse used this loophole to go after the National Theatre’s production of Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain for gross indecency. (The prosecution failed when the chief witness admitted that what he thought was a penis from the back of the stalls might actually have been an actor’s thumb).

Attempts to shut down stage productions were not confined to Whitehouse’s time. The 2005 BBC2 broadcast of Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: The Opera; with its tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members and nappy-wearing Jesus, elicited over 50,000 complaints and campaigning group called Christian Voice led protests outside the venues where it was being performed and, in 2007, attempted to bring blasphemy charges against the production. But in the 1980s there was more of an appetite, driven by Whitehouse and the politicians who pandered to her, for ridding our screens and stages of things people thought harmful.

Interestingly, in the documentary Ban the Sadist Videos, the Guardian’s then film critic Derek Malcolm is relatively sympathetic to Whitehouse’s position. It’s not that he agrees with her, quite the opposite, but he points out the other side never mounted a coherent counterargument. They never engaged with this idea that some art could be damaging, preferring to mock her for being a foolish old lady.

Then, in 1993, the murder of the toddler James Bulger by two ten- year-old boys, reignited the moral panic around ‘sick films’. The media were quick to single out one movie, Child’s Play 3, a sequel to the schlocky 80s movie about a doll inhabited by the spirit of a serial killer, because the father of one of the boys had rented it out, though there was no evidence the children watched it and one said explicitly he disliked horror films.

Mark Ravenhill has spoken about how the Bulger murder inspired him to write, how that haunting CCTV footage of the child being led through a shopping centre to his death seeped into his – and the public’s – subconscious. But it was Sarah Kane’s debut play Blasted, influenced by the horrors of the war in Bosnia, then on the news nightly, that came under heaviest fire from the media, with the Daily Mail famously describing it as “a disgusting feast of filth” and the Sunday Telegraph calling it “a gratuitous welter of carnage, cannibalism, male rape, eye gouging and other atrocities.” Kane responded to the outcry by saying “the thing that shocks me most is that the media seems to have been more upset by the representation of violence than by the violence itself.” There’s truth in this and arguably the video nasty media furore further fuelled the outraged response to Kane’s play.

Many horror directors would argue that there is ugliness and atrocity in the world and film is a place in which we can safely engage with that. (Though it’s probably fair to say, in some cases, the directors just really enjoyed splashing blood over women’s breasts). Theatre is also an arena in which to process the unpalatable. One of the reasons Poland has such a vigorously political visual theatre culture, is that while a text can be censored, a performance can deploy other, non-verbal methods to explore the rotten things in society.

Now it could be argued that theatre is having its VHS moment. It might not be as seismic a shift as the mass availability of home video, but the pandemic has inadvertently led to one of the more significant formal shifts in theatre’s history.

There is a pact that exists between audience and performer when we enter a theatre, whether it’s to see a Tennessee Williams revival in the West End or a piece of live art. As the form evolves, the nature of the pact does too. We understand that if we attend an immersive show there’s a chance that at some point in proceedings we might be grabbed by the hand and dragged off into a side-room for a one-on-one encounter. Now performance makers are creating work specifically designed to be experienced in your own home, from your living room sofa, or given how we consume entertainment, from your bedroom – in your bed. Theatre is a medium that trades in intimacy in a different way from film, and now like the vampire in Salem’s Lot, it’s knocking on the window and asking you to invite it in.

While so much of the moral panic surrounding video nasties was tangled up with snobbishness and aggressively classist rhetoric, there was a kernel of truth in the idea that we experience things differently in a home environment. It seems redundant to say this, given the sheer volume of culture we bathe in daily, but we do engage with things differently in a domestic space than we would in the more controlled – and policed – environment of a theatre. Maybe we do the ironing or send a couple of work emails or have several large G&Ts inside us. We let our guards down. It’s a different mode of watching.

Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature in NT’s Frankenstein. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

I’m not sure how much this matters but I do think it matters. The National Theatre tacitly acknowledged there was a difference in the NT at Home version of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein. The monster wore a little modesty loincloth, presumably to guard against an unsuspecting glimpse of Cumbercock. I suspect Enid would approve of this decision.

Over the last few months, I have watched Secret Theatre’s Redemption Room, a horror-laced gameshow style semi-interactive play that deploys imagery of suicide, including a shot of dangling feet filling the camera, for shock effect; Dirty Protest’s Kill Me Now, a comic monologue about the funeral business that plunges suddenly into an exploration of the rawness of bereavement. Deirdre Kinehan’s The Saviour, a play about an older woman’s love affair that erupts into a debate about paedophilia and inherited trauma. There are shows that ask you to blindfold yourself – Morpheus’ Manor of Lies is one – and others, like Interior, that instruct you to listen in your bed alone in the dark. Some of these shows are executed with a lot more care in respect to the audience experience than others.

The rules of engagement aren’t quite fixed yet and some of the appetite for digital is already fading. I suspect the work that stands the best chance of lasting, of evolving the form or maybe evolving into a new form, is the stuff that penetrates the screen, that emerges on all fours from our devices with black hair curtaining its face, that hacks its way into our world like Jack Nicholson with an axe.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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