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Censor – a new film remembers a dark episode in Britain’s cinematic past

In early 1982, reports began appearing in the press about the horrific nature of some of the films that were available in newly established video shops in the UK. Dubbed the “video nasties” by a tabloid journalist, these films were believed to belong to a new wave of extreme horror films arriving in the UK from the US and Europe.

Papers stoked fears about these films, arguing that their graphic depictions of sex and violence would lead to wayward and criminal behaviour. As a result, a moral panic broke out, leading to a whole new classification system for films released on video in the UK.

A new horror film set in the 1980s presents audiences with a darkly romanticised vision of this panic, and a dark period in British history that has achieved almost mythological status. Censor has been hailed by the Sundance Film Festival as “a faithful, creative ode to 1980s aesthetics and a twisted, bloody love letter to the video nasties era”.

Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut film follows Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), a film censor working for the British Board of Film Censors at the height of the video nasties moral panic. Enid is haunted by the disappearance of her sister and, after prolonged exposure to violent videos, begins to suspect the director of one of those films of her abduction in what becomes a bloody descent into madness.

The idea that film can harm its viewer was one of the central tenets of the campaign against the video nasties, and the film employs this idea to great effect. Though in reality, the moral panic was drawn along lines of social class and those perceived to be vulnerable to the harmful effects of the video nasties were not the censors but working-class children.

Harmful home video

Home video was a new medium that Hollywood was initially suspicious of. This meant that major studios were slow to deliver their films on tape. In their space, independents popped up with cheap, daring new films.

For a time, home video was unregulated, meaning that there were no rules about what could make it into a film or who could rent them. This was because the industry didn’t sit within the legal purview of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), and films that had often been refused a theatrical release altogether were made available on video.

Films that the BBFC had deemed too violent, like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), went straight to video. Opening the door for a slew of movies with hyperbolic titles and graphic cover art that promised liberal depictions of uncensored sex and violence.

“Nasties” were everything from violent melodramas, Nazi exploitation films to traditional horror movies. Though the films themselves shared few unifying features, there was a belief, instigated and then perpetuated by the press, that they uniformly revelled in “murder, multiple rape, butchery, sado-masochism, mutilation of women, cannibalism and Nazi atrocities”.

Films like Cannibal Holocaust, The Driller Killer and The Evil Dead became front-page news, presented as a catch-all explanation for social decline. Moral crusaders took up the cause and all kinds of crime were attributed to the video nasties.

The Daily Mail spearheaded a campaign to “ban the sadist videos” in which the idea that children were being exposed to violent videos featured centrally. They spoke of the “rape of our children’s minds” and likened the effect of exposure to violence in these videos to the effect of drugs. All corners of the press espoused the belief that exposure to violent videos would lead to a breakdown in society and that, critically, those most at risk from the threat that video posed were those from working-class families.

Protect the children

Watching videos in the UK was a predominantly working-class pass time. The decision to make video recorders available via rental schemes through companies like Radio Rentals and Domestic Electric Rentals had democratised what might have otherwise been an elitist luxury product.

Such affordability meant that working-class consumers became early adopters of the platform as a cost-effective alternative to the cinema, and distributors began releasing films to appeal directly to this audience. However, an unforeseen side effect of this success was that it allowed the media to spin a narrative of feckless working-class families who were exposing their children to sex and violence. These moral crusaders cast the working classes as immature and unable to comprehend or determine appropriate content for viewing in their own home.

Responding to the outrage, the Department of Public Prosecutions compiled a list of 72 films deemed prosecutable under the Obscene Publications Act (1959). Of these, 39 had prosecutions upheld against them in events that led to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act (1984).

This act would bring about the end of the unregulated home video market and would see that all releases in the UK carry a classification provided by the British Board of Film Censors. Ironically, in what is perhaps the single greatest period of censorship of film in British history, the board would undergo a name change to the British Board of Film Classification to “reflect the fact that classification plays a far larger part in the board’s work than censorship”. With the introduction of the act, the panic vanished just as quickly as it had arrived.

Many of the films that had been the source of panic have since undergone a re-evaluation and are now celebrated as cult classics. Dario Argento, Wes Craven, Abel Ferrara, Lucio Fulci and Tobe Hooper all had their films confiscated under the Obscene Publications Act and are all celebrated directors now. Even Sam Raimi, a director who perhaps is better known now for his work with Marvel on the early noughties Spider-Man series and now the follow-up to Dr Strange, began with the celebrated video nasty The Evil Dead.

Censor has certainly benefited from the reappraisal of these films, appreciated rather than denounced for graphic violence that channels a 1980s aesthetic. Had it come out in the 80s, it might have just made it onto the list of 72 video nasties.

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