The idea of transgressive art as potentially harmful to the human psyche goes back almost as far as civilization itself. Particularly with the advent of film, the concept of art as potential corruptor has been used as an easy scapegoat for society’s ills, and various censorship boards were created around the world to keep a lid on things. When restrictions on content were significantly lifted in Hollywood thanks to the creation of the MPAA, the floodgates began to open. By the 1980s, exploitation cinema had grown so popular that it was nearly impossible to stop, and while various moral panic groups attempted to get gory horror films off American screens, Great Britain’s government board of censors, the BBFC, outright banned a large number of them. These “video nasties,” as they were deemed, functioned as a cancer the conservative, Thatcher-led government could excise, with the media all too happy to support the fight. Yet what they and the censors scrutinizing these films seemingly failed to consider is horror’s ability to reflect humanity like all other art—perhaps the true cancer was not external, but internal.
That’s the moral center of Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond’s new film Censor, which looks at the effect the video nasties had on a country and society too unwilling to examine itself in a subjective, character-based way. The film follows Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), a censor at the BBFC who sees her job not as a service but as a duty, believing herself to be a protector of innocent citizens from corruption or worse. After a brutal murder is committed by a man the media claim was inspired by a film she passed, Enid’s obsessive quest to keep nasties out of circulation becomes conflated with her deep seated guilt over the loss of her sister, who mysteriously disappeared as a child during an incident Enid can’t remember.
Her surreal journey takes her to exploitation producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley, adding another sleazy character to his impressive repertoire) and eventually director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), whose new film stars a woman Enid becomes convinced is her long-lost sister, Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta). Enid attempts to “save” Alice, never questioning her own deteriorating mental state as fantasy and reality begin to blur.
That surrealism is one of the joys and frustrations of Bailey-Bond’s film. Censor is a remarkably self-assured feature debut, gorgeously shot and lit by director of photography Annika Summerson, veering from cool muted tones to Argento-esque primary colors. The movie isn’t interested in making itself an exact replica of the underground and independent horror films of the period, but instead evokes them in subtle ways—a few scenes in the Underground have the oppressive eeriness of Andrzej ŻuŁawski’s Possession (1981), the BBFC offices have the stark officiousness of early Cronenberg, and the movie’s cabin-in-the-woods scenes not only recall The Evil Dead (1981) but at times capture the pinkish-red and green color scheme of its Palace Pictures ad campaign.
These elements prove that Bailey-Bond knows her subject matter. Yet those coming into Censor hoping for a Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson-like meta dialogue, a critique and examination of the horror genre from within, will be disappointed. The film is Enid’s story, and Bailey-Bond and her co-writer, Anthony Fletcher, make sure it’s entirely from her perspective. As Enid starts losing her sanity, Censor begins introducing doubt in the audience’s mind about what is real and what’s not, and perhaps a little too early in the runtime. There are numerous stylistic tricks and fake-outs, a lot of aspect ratio changes and shots zooming into a television screen which practically scream that reality has left the building, and that unmooring makes the film feel sluggish at times.
What carries the movie through to its haunting finale is Algar’s tightly controlled performance, portraying a woman deeply afraid of herself but failing to accept or understand that feeling. Literally pent-up in head-to-toe, prim and proper clothing for the majority of the film, Enid is unraveled bit by bit as she gets absorbed into her own personal horror movie, eventually ending up in a Hammer-style bloodied white nightgown, sobbing and screaming. While the film’s meta text of the video nasties in Britain is pushed into the periphery, Enid seems to literally take hold of the movie itself, her mind forcibly editing out anything that doesn’t conform to her preferred narrative. It’s something that the film equates to a mental illness at several points, and makes the movie akin to another character study of a woman afraid to face her own demons, Robert Altman’s Images (1972), with Censor being just as ambiguous as to its various events and consequences.
While Censor is undeniably a character study, it’s through Enid that Bailey-Bond calls into question the healthiness of censorship itself, the film’s finale a “happy” one that feels like Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” music video mashed up with a sickly sweet Adult Swim “infomercial,” both of those prominent examples of a “happy” facade that’s almost like plastic, barely containing unrest and reality-breaking terror underneath. Censor seems to say that horror is not for everyone, but it is undoubtedly more honest than repressive sanitization, which looks pretty on the surface but ultimately does more harm than good.
“Censor” is now available for virtual viewing via the Sundance Film Festival.