by Anne Billson
FILM POSTER FOR KING KONG, 1933
Remember the video nasty era? That fleeting but glorious window in the early 1980s when horror fans discovered that legendary gorefests they’d only read about were suddenly available, uncut and unrated, at VHS rental stores? Such a rumpus it caused, with Mary Whitehouse, MPs and the tabloids all clutching their pearls in a moral panic when confronted by out-of-context highlights from The Driller Killer (1979) and Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981).
Censor (2021), Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature, revisits the heady days of the 1984 Video Recordings Act, when the British Board of Film Censors, rebranded as the British Board of Film Classification, was tasked with snipping away at video sex and violence, indicted as the source of all society’s problems (which obviously had nothing to do with inner city deprivation, racial tension or the dismantling of the UK’s manufacturing base). The censors were in a lose-lose situation: on one side horror fans were outraged at having their freedoms curtailed, while on the other tabloids named and shamed – what we would now call “doxed” – luckless members of the BBFC for having passed certain horror films at all. As always, the videos themselves weren’t nearly as disturbing as the presumptuousness of moral guardians deciding they had a right to police what their social inferiors could or couldn’t see.
But just how gruesome were those nasties? While I would happily forgo ever again having to watch the sort of sexual violence depicted in films like The Last House on the Left (1972), I have fonder memories of the heroine of I Spit on Your Grave (1978) listening to Maria Callas singing “Sola, Perduta, Abbandonata” from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut while the rapist she has just castrated bleeds to death in the bathroom. It’s hard to fathom how anyone could have been upset by the rubber monster meltdowns of The Evil Dead (1981) – though admittedly the rapey tree might raise eyebrows in the #MeToo era – or Isabelle Adjani miscarrying a monster in the Paris subway in the arthouse cult horror Possession (1981), a scene so literally hysterical my friends and I used to amuse ourselves by doing impressions of it while drunk.
The overriding perception now is of spectacle in the tradition of Grand Guignol, more demented than depraved, from the gleeful 3-D eviscerations of 1973’s Flesh for Frankenstein (yuck!) to the splinter through the eyeball of 1979’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (eek!) or the axe that suddenly crashes through a window and chops off a woman’s arm in 1982’s Tenebrae (aagh!), a scene that might have been horrific were it not so obviously and hilariously fake.
During one of the endless bouts of digital fisticuffs during this year’s Godzilla vs Kong, I caught myself thinking how much more fun it would be if the monsters were still being played by actors in rubber suits
And there’s the rub. Most of those supposedly ghastly special effects are so hokey they nowadays seem almost charming. The blood is too crimson, the severed limbs too rubbery, the acting too self-conscious, and it’s easy to imagine a team of geeky effects technicians sniggering like schoolboys as they tug levers or press buttons just out of frame. But while practical effects like these might have dated, the best retain a tangible plasticity sadly lacking in most computer-generated imagery, which often looks weightless, like the badly drawn animation it essentially is.
These days it’s all too easy to find footage of real-life atrocities on social media, but horror fans are aware, more than most, of the difference between fantasy violence and reality. And movie magic has little to do with realism: it’s an unspoken pact between filmmakers and their viewers, who agree to suspend their disbelief and let imagination take over. It’s clear that Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion Cyclops and duelling skeleton in The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) aren’t real, but that doesn’t make them any less thrilling. During one of the endless bouts of digital fisticuffs during this year’s Godzilla vs Kong, I caught myself thinking how much more fun it would be if the monsters were still being played by actors in rubber suits, somehow more relatable than all those sophisticated arrangements of pixels.
Only last week, a prominent film director (son of a legendary pop star) proposed on Twitter that someone should sharpen up the special effects in Jaws (1975), filmed with a famously malfunctioning mechanical shark. Incredibly, a depressing number of people thought this a good idea. But I have watched Jaws innumerable times, and never once thought, “Oh, this would be a better film if only that Great White looked as though it were really eating Robert Shaw.” And once you started tampering, where would it end? The original 1933 King Kong replaced by a zoologically-correct giant ape? The whole fable would lose its tragic gravitas and become a kiddy cartoon.
Rob Bottin’s creature effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) endure, not because they look realistic (they don’t) but because the gnashing mouth-chests and disembodied heads scuttling around on spider legs tap into the sort of primal imagery that would surely have delighted Goya, or the Surrealists. Compare these chimeras of the subconscious to the flimsy digital placeholders in today’s horror, scifi and creature features. One would have thought the absence of limits bestowed by computer technology would have liberated the filmmaking imagination, but instead it cruelly exposes its limitations. Anything goes, so nothing really matters.
Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer