Film-maker Prano Bailey-Bond: ‘People think horror is just exploding heads’

This time last year, writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond was finishing work on her feature Censor and looking forward to 2021. Her unnerving film about horror – rather than a horror film per se – had been invited to the Sundance film festival. But then Covid restrictions stopped her attending. 'Normaalweg," sy sê, “you’d get to go to the premiere of your debut feature. I slept through mine because it was on in the middle of the night on the other side of the world.”

Sedertdien, egter, she has been able to bask in the film’s glory. Released in the UK in August, Censor has earned her serious plaudits, insluitend die Screen FrightFest genre rising star award and being included in Variety magazine’s list of directors to watch. When we spoke last week, Bailey-Bond was a few days away from attending tonight’s Bifas (British independent film awards), waar Censor has nominations in nine categories including debut director and debut screenwriter.

At a time when horror cinema is very much in the limelight, Censor comes across as a vividly imaginative inquiry into the genre that Bailey-Bond loves – both lurid en lucid. Set in the 1980s, during the widespread panic over “video nasties”, it stars an extraordinary Niamh Algar as Enid, who works for a thinly disguised version of the UK classification board, the BBFC. Employed to trim horror content in the name of the public good, she finds herself responding drastically to her own deep-rooted trauma. “I wanted to explore a character who was having a conversation with their shadow self,” says Bailey-Bond, “and that – in relation to the moral panic around VHS horror – was what was happening to society in this period.”

How did people at the BBFC respond to Censor when they saw it? “I actually went out for lunch with them – they said it was the most meta experience they’d ever had, examining a film about examining a film. They felt it was truthful to them, which was lovely for me to hear.”

Censor received a 15 certificate; wouldn’t Bailey-Bond have preferred an 18, purely as a badge of honour? “We have clips from real video nasties in the title sequence, but they said the context meant that it didn’t warrant an 18. They said ‘the film doesn’t dwell in gore’. So if I want an 18 in future,” she laughs, “I have to dwell in gore.”

The film also made its way on to the front cover of the BFI’s film magazine, Sight & Klank, the centrepiece of a discussion of the video nasty era – to the delight of genre connoisseurs. “People were saying, ‘I never thought I’d see the day – Sight & Klank celebrating this period that has been named as a trashy, terrible time for film.’” Censor has also connected with non-initiates. “People have somehow found their way to it thinking they don’t like horror – then realise it’s a character study and maybe start to see that horror can be something different. People think that horror is just exploding heads and decapitations – of which we have a few in the film.”

When I ask why horror is undergoing a boom, Bailey-Bond eschews the sociological explanation and says that it’s simply the industry responding to the success of certain risk-taking titles: The Babadook, Get Out, Raw. As for her own horror tastes, “For me it’s all about character and story, like it is with any film. Or it could be just pure thrill.” This year, she found that thrill in Rob Savage’s computer screen chiller Dashcam - “an absolutely wild rollercoaster ride – but then you have a film like [Rose Glass’s] Saint Maud, which is a slower burn but you’re absolutely drawn in by the character. Op 'n punt, all the hairs on my arms stood on end.”

Bailey-Bond was born in 1982. Her parents had worked in drama and art before becoming Hindu sannyasin (hence her name, van prem prano, meaning lover of life) and moving to rural Wales. “It was an amazing place to grow up – when I was little, we had no running water, no electricity. You get to spend a lot of time with your own imagination, and that was really good for me. I would draw a lot of pictures, go for walks in the woods and imagine magical things that could happen – and when I was older and we had electricity I’d watch a lot of my parents’ video collection.”

She is currently very busy, writing new scripts, discussing TV projects and working with Censor co-writer Anthony Fletcher on her forthcoming feature – an adaptation of Things We Lost in the Fire, a story by the Argentinian writer Mariana Enríquez about a group of women and their extreme response to domestic violence. Bailey-Bond’s future is bright – one suspects, bright red. Long may she dwell in gore.

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