Arguments in favour of censorship often claim it’s to shield society, to protect a public who somehow might be damaged by dangerous forbidden material. But if the odd explicit novel or violent film has the power to harm us, what impact might they have on the censors themselves, who are exposed to an endless succession of potentially damaging material?
This question is the seed of Prano Bailey-Bond’s enjoyable arthouse-horror Censor which opened the midnight strand at Sundance 2021 and screened at this year’s Sundance London.
The movie, Bailey-Bond’s first feature (a development of her short film Nasty) takes us back to the scuzzy and headline-grabbing ‘video nasties’ moral panic in Thatcherite early-eighties Britain and concerns Enid (played by Niamh Algar), a precise and dedicated young female film censor working for the BBFC. Her job is to forensically review and decide which scenes, shots or frames must be excised before the submitted films are adjudged safe for the public.
Enid’s drive to protect others from violence derive from her deep guilt and trauma from a childhood tragedy, a memory that she has partly repressed. However, when one particular film resonates with her trauma, the real world and the video nasties she watches begin to merge and blur, as she delves deeper into the unconscious, self-censored elements of her psyche.
Those of us at least a little familiar with the era will enjoy the loving nods that pepper Censor. The shabby video rental shop cautiously touting under-the-counter bootleg films is particularly knowing. There are in-jokes that play with the more ludicrous elements of the genre; the invented video-nasty ‘Don’t Go In To The Church’ echoes several similar real-life titles, and a side plot about a copy-cat serial killer who hadn’t even seen the film that was meant to have inspired him.
The film’s enjoyably retro opening credits immediately transports us straight into the 80s. She even uses vintage FilmFour and BFI logos before ‘treating’ us to a montage of gruesome clips from genuine video nasties including Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979) and Romano Scavolini’s Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981), and the laughably absurd Frozen Scream (1975). And the care Censor takes to recreate the aesthetic in its own invented ‘video nasties’ demonstrates a solid appreciation of the genre.
The lurid, colour-saturated world of these vintage video nasties contrasts pleasingly with drab 1980s reality; this is a very British setting) with its faded 70s stylistic excesses peeping through from the recent past. This is a world of grey skies, bad wallpaper and beige airless offices. The censors’ department is situated in a windowless basement, as if to contain from the wider world any risk of moral contamination. Clips of grey Thatcherite Britain – of police violence at miners strikes, rising crime, mass unemployment, self-righteous politicians, and self-appointed moral arbiters such as Mary Whitehouse – punctuate the narrative.
The central story concerns Enid’s reluctance to address her past, specifically the guilt and grief she feels for her sister Nina who vanished as a child and is long-presumed dead. Enid was present when her sister disappeared, but she seems to have been too young to remember. Enid anxiously refuses to lose hope that her sister might still be alive, and resents her parents for seeking closure. When a sleazy producer (played deliciously by horror-regular Michael Smiley) submits a film by elusive director Frederick North (the name an echo of Fred West?), Enid becomes obsessed that perhaps her now-adult sister might be an actress in the production, opening up all sorts of repressed trauma.
Niamh Algar’s impressive portrayal of Enid never feels hysterical or deranged. Perhaps that’s because she starts as dispassionate, professional and repressed before gradually becoming more desperate and delusional. The film’s production choices reinforce her journey as Enid’s inner world increasingly resembles the fantasy tone of the films she censors. Cinematographer Annika Summerson’s framing becomes closer, claustrophobic, with changing aspect ratios and film stocks as fantasy and reality blur. The costume design also subtly evolves. Initially, Enid’s clothing matches her personality, muted colours and prim blouses, but as she moves to the video nasty world it becomes incongruous with her outward persona.
This is a fascinating psychoanalytical character study. Enid’s fastidious profesional approach is a way to both shut out and assume control over a chaotic world. Her work is both an avoidance of her own trauma and a means of atonement. She approaches her vocation with a detached and zealous dedication (to her colleagues, she is scorned as ‘miss goody-two-shoes’) and it seems her personal mission to protect the public, which is clearly a displaced repentance for her failure to protect her sister.
In some ways Censor has overlaps with Saint Maud (production designer Paulina Rzeszowska and editor Mark Towns worked on both). Both are modern British horrors, directed by women and depicting the female protagonist damaged by a previous trauma and losing grip of reality. However, one difference is that Censor depicts a woman who is not just delusional, but who is directly confronting her own psyche.
Bailey-Bond makes the familiar cabin-in-the-woods horror trope become a symbol of Enid’s repressed memory, a trauma that has been locked away in her subconscious. Enid is the Censor of her own psyche. Helplessly standing outside, gazing into the open door, knowing that terrible things lie within but not allowing herself to step inside. Enid faces this image repeatedly – an echo of her (reconstructed?) childhood memory, a scene from the horror film she’s reviewing, and an inner blurring of the two, it represents both what she fears and what she needs to confront.
Stylistically, the film takes inspiration from video nasties, of course, but there’s also a strong David Lynch influence. The forest cabin reminded me of the abandoned Twin Peaks train car, there’s a death that’s echoes a scene in Lost Highway, and an ending that’s as reminiscent of the coda of Blue Velvet as it is of Saint Maud.
Censor is an assured and very enjoyable debut. Somewhat surprisingly it’s not as luridly dangerous as the video nasties it depicts (things aren’t so frightening once you pull back the curtain), and this certainly isn’t a conventional, scary horror film. However, its fond nostalgia for the video-nasty era forms an effective backdrop for an inventive psychoanalytical character study of grief, guilt and repressed memories, and it’s a film to be enjoyed on the big screen if you can.Follow @davefilmblog
Censor will be released in the UK on Friday 20th August 2020, with some previews and Q&As scheduled in advance of that.