3.5 out of 5 stars

The debate surrounding entertainment promoting violence and sordid behaviour has been controversial for decades. What originally began with horror publications, including James Herbert’s The Rats and Shaun Hutson’s Slugs, soon transitioned to films. The arrival of uncensored horror movies on home video in the early-1980s thrilled fans and appalled many conservative activists. In the UK, a total of 72 movies were banned and VHS cassettes could be confiscated by the authorities. Stigmatised as “video nasties”, many of these movies are considered genre classics today, including The Evil Dead (1981) and Possession (1981). This political reality serves as a tangible undercurrent in Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature-length debut, Censor. Set at the height of the video nasties era, Censor is both an ode to the era of exploitation cinema and a critique of the very nature of censorship. 

Enid (Niamh Algar) is a British film censor charged with watching all the horror movies submitted for rating. She meticulously studies every scene on every reel, removing gratuitous sex and violence. Driving her sense of duty is her repressed guilt over her sister’s mysterious disappearance when they were children. After meeting producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley), he suggests she should watch the latest film by director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). However, while watching the film Enid notices eerie similarities to her sister’s disappearance, and her shocking discovery prompts her to dig deeper into the works of the controversial filmmaker. As she becomes increasingly obsessed with the mystery surrounding her sister’s disappearance, it triggers repressed memories from her youth. Can Frederick North solve the mystery that’s been haunting Enid since childhood? Or has months of exposure to violent films taken affected her sanity? 

Following her performance in Nick Rowland’s Calm With Horses (2019) and Guy Ritchie’s Wrath of Man (2021), Niamh Algar continues to demonstrate her versatility as an actress. Undoubtedly, Censor is anchored by her powerful performance as Enid, a strong and independent woman determined to make the right decisions. Enid spends her days meticulously penalising the vilest horror movies but maintains a detached perspective. She understands these films are potentially dangerous and she’s thus passionate about her profession (“this isn’t entertainment. I’m protecting people”). However, beneath her professional exterior and amazing ’80s wardrobes is a traumatised woman. Reminiscent of Morfydd Clark’s evangelic performance in Saint Maud (2019), her stoic appearance hides her emotional vulnerability. Although she isn’t given much dialogue, her nuanced bodily tics speak louder than words. Scenes of her nervously picking at her cuticles and straightening her shoulders hints at a woman on the verge of collapse. It’s a wonderful performance, and Algar effortlessly showcases Enid’s emotional conflicts and mental deterioration that’ll continue to resonate once the credits roll. 

Censor is a remarkably confident debut from writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond. Co-written by Anthony Fletcher, the story expands on similar themes explored in their 2015 short Nasty. For a first feature, Bailey-Bond does an admirable job keeping a consistent tone of fear and dread. Censor begins as a mystery and slowly develops into psychological horror, exploring how one deals with repressed trauma. While borrowing elements from Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Bailey-Bond forces us to confront our deepest fear and change how we perceive reality. As Enid becomes immersed in the surreal world of exploitation cinema, it begins taking a detrimental effect on her mentality. The catalyst that starts her descent into madness is the film Don’t Go in the Church by prolific provocateur Frederick North. After becoming obsessed with the director’s work, Enid’s repressed traumatic experience begins to resurface. Eventually, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic as the nightmarish hallucinations consume every aspect of her life. Bailey-Bond continuously plays with the audience’s perception as reality and fiction begin to merge into one, steadily ramping up the atmosphere before a perplexing climatic finale. 

While not as effective as The Love Witch (2016) or Mandy (2018), Censor’s audiovisual experience is intoxicating and evocative. Bailey-Bond’s strong visual choices retain an incredible command of style throughout: from the distinct vintage opening credits to the static tracking lines. The film elegantly captures the era’s aesthetic. Enhanced by Annika Summerson’s (Mogul Mowgli) cinematography, Enid’s nightmarish descent is captured on both 35mm and 8mm celluloid. Much like It Comes at Night (2017), the aspect ratio imperceptibly changes from anamorphic widescreen to 4:3, intensifying Enid’s enveloping isolation. Whereas Paulina Rzeszowska’s (Saint Maud) production design becomes more vivid and disorienting as the lines between truth and fiction become blurred. Echoing Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), everything is drenched in reds and blues, begging the audience to question reality. Throughout its short 85-minute runtime, Enid’s deteriorating equilibrium is captured through various filmmaking techniques. Bailey-Bond clearly understands how to emphasise the horror of her story, meticulously crafting every element using visual language. 

Admirably, Censor raises the question of whether the arts, particularly horror films, are responsible for real-life violence. During the ‘80s, video releases were originally uncensored by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), but once the media and politicians saw a chance to blame violence on films the government passed the Video Recording Act of 1984. This resulted in all home videos being judged by a board of censorship before release. Rather than examining real issues including trauma, mental health, and parental abuse, politicians condemned fiction for the increase of violence. As stated in an interview, Bailey-Bond argues “we don’t watch a horror film and then completely lose all of our morals. The reason people do terrible things is not that simple. It comes from somewhere much deeper; it can come from how we’ve been treated in life and how we feel in our heads”. The filmmaker argues that the lies of politicians are likely to cause more violence and distress than the stylings of Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer (1979).

Bailey-Bond skilfully explores the sensationalism around this debate, while highlighting that real horrors exist outside of the frame. Throughout, she reinforces her theory by using news footage of Mary Whitehouse on her moral crusade and newspaper headlines reading “Censors To Blame”. A particular scene features news footage of the tumultuous miners’ strikes, as one of Enid’s peers rhetorically asks “if they’re so worried about the general public, why do they keep slashing social services?” Censor captures the frustration of a generation of filmmakers that grew up under a conservative government who proceeded to blame artists for social decay. An era when horror movies served as a convenient scapegoat for a collapsing society instead of the austerity politics of Margaret Thatcher. Society doesn’t become violent because of unrealistic movies, it becomes violent because of social inequality, lack of opportunities, and media manipulation. As the fictional director Frederick North says while defending his movies “people think I create the horror. But I don’t. Horror is already out there, in all of us.”

Although Censor is an ode to exploitation cinema, unfortunately, it never fully embraces the genre. While exploring the darkest corners of cinema, Bailey-Bond mostly evades graphic violence as she crafts an effective psychological horror. As if Enid herself was in charge of the editing process, most of the bloodletting is brief. Although one particular exciting sequence of body horror evokes David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), it’s very brief. However, the camera doesn’t linger on the grotesque details and most of the bloodshed is captured aurally. Instead, the filmmaker creates an unsettling atmosphere that prompts the audience’s imaginations to cast suspicions into every dark shadow. The most terrifying element of Censor is the inability to control one’s psychological state. Bailey-Bond explains “Censor poses the idea that as humans we are afraid of ourselves and that fear of ourselves can be the most dangerous thing of all.” The filmmaker effectively demonstrates that if we’re unable to process our traumatic experiences, eventually our minds will unravel like an unspooled VHS.

After years of retro-influenced horrors trying to emulate the giallo aesthetic, Censor is a welcome addition to the genre. Prano Bailey-Bond’s directorial debut is a stylish, thought-provoking homage to the exploitation flicks of the ’80s. Whereas Niamh Algar delivers an incredible performance that aptly captures the psychological turmoil of her character. Similar to other social horror critiques produced by the BFI including In Fabric (2018) and His House (2020), Censor will likely be divisive amongst fans of the genre. Its methodical pacing moves along with a dark psychological pulse, slowly building towards a bloody climax that blurs the line between reality. However, it stylishly captures the historical paranoia caused by exploitation cinema and the relationship between art and real life. In many ways, the historical context mirrors contemporary cancel culture and should urge others to revisit several genre classics.

UK | 2021 | 84 MINUTES | 1:33:1 • 2:39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Prano Bailey-Bond.
writers: Prano Bailey-Bond & Anthony Fletcher.
starring: Niamh Algar, Adrian Schiller, Sophia La Porta, Vincent Franklin, Michael Smiley & Nicholas Burns.