From Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 to Ken Park: films that failed the censorship test | Film

Tobe Hooper’s 1986 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, was made available to stream on Stan on 9 February. But for 20 years the film wasn’t even allowed in the country: it was banned by the Australian Classification Board, with the ban only being lifted in 2006.

In the cool, calm light of 2019 it seems ludicrous that a film like this, a gory but broad black comedy starring Dennis Hopper, a sequel to Hooper’s 1974 film of the same name, could be deemed unfit for the delicate sensibilities of Australian audiences. But then and now, both the Board and the Australian Federal Police took the importing of contraband media very seriously.

An acquaintance of mine discovered just that when he tried to mail order a bootleg copy of the film on video back in 1988. The tape never arrived, but two AFP officers did, and proceeded to grill him in front of his horrified mother as to what other disgusting media he might own. When he surrendered his single, much-loved issue of Playboy, the cops realised that he was perhaps not the monstrous purveyor of horror and pornography they had expected to find.

With hindsight, that youthful indiscretion is now a pretty funny story, but it’s also a useful yardstick for how Australia’s attitude to censorship has changed.

Australia has form for banning the works of some quite notable filmmakers. New Zealand Oscar winner Peter Jackson’s first film, the 1987 homemade horror comedy Bad Taste, was only released uncut on DVD in 2005. Meanwhile no less a critical light than Margaret Pomeranz championed a protest screening of director Larry Clark and writer Harmony Korine’s film Ken Park in 2003.

Ken Park was originally scheduled as part of the 2003 Sydney Film Festival, but the Office of Film and Literature Classification (now known as the Australian Classification Board) handed down a ban, citing the work’s prolonged scenes of unsimulated sex. A screening at the Balmain Town Hall was stopped by police as the opening credits rolled, prompting critic David Stratton to observe: “It is an explicit film, and it is a confronting film, but it’s a film that certainly deserves to be seen by an adult audience. It’s sad that we in this country today have got to a stage where adults can’t choose whether or not to see a film like this.”

The urge to purge the culture of questionable content seems to be baked into Australia’s DNA. At the dawn of the film industry we even banned an entire genre – movies about bushrangers were deemed unfit for public consumption, a mere six years after Australia produced the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang.

Guardian Australia’s film critic Luke Buckmaster noted that the ban was a reaction to that film taking a disparaging view of the forces of law and order, writing that “its sympathies lay on the side of Kelly, who was hung 26 years before the film was originally released”.

The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Charles Tait and shot in and around the city of Melbourne. Photograph: Internet

A clear attempt at social engineering by media control, the so-called “bushranger ban” had a catastrophic effect on the nascent Australian film industry, curtailing a booming genre. Film production levels didn’t recover until the 1970s.

Even in the 60s, chief censor RJ Prowse wielded almost unlimited discretionary power, and landmark films by the likes of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and more were refused exhibition, lest they debase the moral character of the Australian public.

And then there was the infamously zealous Queensland Film Review Board of the 80s, who made “Banned in Queensland” a badge of honour for horror movies, but also drew the curtain on films like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Those measures seem excessive by today’s standards, but films are still parsed for public consumption by the Classification Board, and many works that were once deemed horribly offensive are given the stamp of approval upon resubmission, thanks to evolving social mores. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 joins its progenitor, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; Pier Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom; and many more notable films, now available in Australia uncut, which were once banned outright.

Although outright banning is unusual for fiction features now, some films are altered by the studios and distributors themselves in order to gain a more lenient classification. And they’re not always the films you might think of as being transgressive – Great Gerwig’s Oscar-lauded coming of age drama Ladybird was snipped by Universal Pictures to get an M rating for its theatrical run, excising some swearing and nudity (it’s available uncut on disc and digital) in order to more easily attract a wider audience. While that’s more a response to market pressures – an M-rated film will get more teenage viewers than one rated MA15+ – it’s clear that, even though censors do not mandate cuts in cases like these, their influence is unarguable.

In 2018, Sari Braithwaite created [Censored], an experimental documentary constructed wholly out of scenes cut from films by Australia’s censorship apparatus. It explores the deep-seated culture of censorship in Australia and shows that though cultural standards may change, the authoritarian drive to classify, clip, cut and sometimes ban is still with us – and can reveal deeply unsettling things about us, too.

Still, at least now we can watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in peace.

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