At the beginning of Prano Bailey-Bond's Censor (2021), we are introduced to Enid (Niamh Algar) in a state that is most likely intimately familiar to most horror aficionados. Bathed in the blue light of a cathode ray television as she watches her third or fourth VHS of a horror movie that day, a remote control gripped tightly, her hand constantly hovering over an abused rewind dial, and widened eyes scanning for spectacles of excessive violence and gore to replay ad nauseam. The crucial thing missing from what would be a relatable tableau is the enjoyment factor. Enid is a BBFC-certified censor in the mid-1980s when the puritanical moral panic over unregulated horror tapes (dubbed the Video Nasties by a sensational press) in the burgeoning video market in the UK reached a fever pitch, and she's not watching these movies for pleasure. The meticulous scrutiny she is applying to these recurring images of viscera, sadism, and cruelty which peppered the exploitation fare of the era is not out of fascination, but rather indignation, couched in her civic duty - she believes these depictions are harmful to the public and "some things should be left to the imagination."
Despite Enid's life and career revolving around cataloging these scenes of spectacular violence, curiously Bailey-Bond's film rarely exhibits them. The audience is deprived of a solid view of the sordid materials Enid catalogs on a day-to-day basis, offering only gruesome hints from glimpses of her extensive notes and asides she speaks to her fellow censors. The rest, to borrow Enid's adamant belief, is left to the audience's imagination. We hear the screams emanating from her television, we see her jot down notes describing "eye-gouging" and "overblown blood and gore" that she believes should be cut. We listen to her describe scenes involving "a tug-of-war with intestines" or a "stomach being ripped open with serrated scissors" while such imagery is noticeably all but absent from the film itself. Through this noticeable absence of objectionable imagery for the period, Bailey-Bond interrogates the supposed power they carry.
Censor takes the 'video nasty' moral panic's underlying narrative of impressionable youth and imitation of screen violence and sadism and takes it at face value using Enid, a person whose career dictates an unending media diet of these supposedly corrupting images. Pointedly, as the film never deliberately trades in these images or emphasizes their visceral affectations, as Enid descends into mental instability and ruthless violence, Censor can't be said to emphasize her watching habits as a contributing factor. Her grip on reality begins to loosen due to a traumatic moment she has carried since childhood being unearthed while inspecting a film called Don't Go into the Church (likely deliberately named for real video nasty title Don't Go in the Woods.)
Even though this discovery sends Enid on a self-destructive obsession that leads to bloodshed and her vacillating between reality and delusion, it's not the excessive brutality of the infamous video nasties which inspires her own violence. Much like the propagators of the video nasty moral panic, the real "evil" of these videos is what the viewer projects onto them, especially when they are already inclined to believe they are inherently objectionable to begin with. Enid's degenerative blurring of reality and fiction can't be traced back to the grisly images that she reviews daily, but from her harbored belief that the film contains some answer to her unaddressed trauma. And as Bailey-Bond leaves the content of these films to our imagination, the power that has been ascribed to them by the moral panic's narrative becomes inherently suspect due to their pointed absence.
Though the film is set in the United Kingdom in the mid-80s when the affective potential of horror and exploitation film was an intensely debated subject worthy of government oversight, the conscious decision not to bring attention to what exactly was being debated places the power they have in the hands of the viewer to fill in the blanks. This calls to mind another tributary horror period piece which also interrogates the power of screen violence in the form of Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio (2012). A deliberate giallo throwback set in the subgenre's heyday of the 1970s, the film follows a fellow outsider to the horror phenomenon in the form of sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones). Having enjoyed a fruitful and stoic career in Dorking, England overseeing the sound design of natural history documentaries, he is tapped by the titular studio somewhere in nondisclosed Italy to oversee the post-production of The Equestrian Vortex; a giallo deliberately patterned after the bloody, satanic witchcraft model popularized by Dario Argento.
Much like in Censor, Strickland takes the narrative opportunity of a loner who is objectionable to the grisly images the horror genre trades in to explore their affective power. Like Bailey-Bond's film, it is set in a period where the subgenre peaked in popularity, which inadvertently brought these films under a level of more intensive critical scrutiny. The official video nasty lists published by the BBFC a decade later featured films reviewed for censorship or successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act. Italian horror and exploitation films were featured more prominently than any other national cinema. Much like Bailey-Bond's film and its relation to history, Strickland's film places itself at the height of giallo's cultural cachet in order to interrogate the viewer's relation to screen violence by way of the nebbish sound engineer in Gilderoy.
In a similar vein to how Censor questioned the video nasties and their corrupting influence through a poignant use of suggestion and absence, Berberian Sound Studio is virtually bloodless. Strickland never allows a frame of the fictional The Equestrian Vortex and its alleged gory material to be shown to the audience, only letting its graphic contents be teased sonically via Gilderoy's work. Much like Enid's carefully selective eye, which focuses exclusively on the morally suspect material, Gilderoy ruminates on these transgressive scenes of violence to make sure they sound as realistic as possible for an industry that operates exclusively in post-production dubbing. Often this involves watching any number of scenes of wanton brutality on a loop until the foley sound syncs up just right.
But what the sticky qualities of these scenes contain, we can only infer from context and our own imaginations. Our curiosity is piqued by actresses (Fatma Mohamed, Chiara D'Anna, and Eugenia Caruso) in a sound booth, enraptured as they recite their dialogue and let out blood-curdling screams. We are treated to disturbing scene descriptions spoken by the recording engineer and sound cues scribbled in Gilderoy's notes to help fill in the horrifying blanks ("Flashback to the interrogation of a witch, in which a red-hot poker is inserted into her"). And we witness the associated foley work of the uncomfortable Gilderoy, who splashes water onto a hot pan in time with the screams. But again, the picture is never complete, and it is up to the audience to fill in what Strickland leaves out.
By directing our attention to the materiality of how these scenes of screen violence are invoked through sound, (Gilderoy using a blender and tomatoes to suggest a chainsaw murder, throwing a ripe marrow onto the ground to simulate someone falling to their death), we are confronted with the artificiality of the recorded image. Even when Gilderoy morally struggles with the film's content, eventually slipping into a precarious state similar to Enid's where his reality begins to blend with the film he is working on, Strickland repeatedly emphasizes the questionable verisimilitude of the imagery which sent him spiraling. As his supervisor Francesco (Cosimo Fusco) puts it when Gilderoy cannot continue with the red-hot poker scene: "It's just a film. You are part of it. You can see how all this is put together. What's your problem?"
As in Censor, through analyzing the suggestive properties of screen violence, we begin to re-evaluate their power to influence us. Both Gilderoy and Enid become unable to differentiate reality from fantasy to grave consequence, but neither Censor nor Berberian Sound Studio places that mental unraveling as the fault of the kind of film they consumed, willingly or otherwise. That both films constantly invoke gratuitous violence while set in eras where it was synonymous with cinema and yet rarely if ever feature it, inherently takes that ascribed power away and requires us to look beyond the content of the image and instead on who is watching it, how it is being produced, and why is it being watched. Left to the imagination, horror films can only influence us if we let them.
Censor is now available on DVD and On-Demand from Magnolia Pictures under the Magnet label, streaming on major platforms, click below to watch now.