The relationship between British filmmakers and the state censor, the BBFC, is an odd and fascinating one. In recent years, several directors have gone on the record to speak about how they show screenplays to the BBFC during their writing process, while the classification board itself even runs a podcast aiming to rehabilitate its image from its more censorious past, painting the organisation as a film lover’s paradise. Very few seem willing to question whether a regulatory body with the power to change and even prohibit the distribution of art should be so fondly regarded, and whether those creating films should have a relationship with them in the first place.
Censor, the directorial debut of Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond, is a stylish but flawed rebuke to the conservative idea that our minds are corrupted by the films we watch. Set at the height of the video nasties era, when the UK tabloids went out of their way to manufacture new controversies surrounding straight to video schlock, the film is at once a love letter to a past era of exploitation cinema and a broad criticism of the very nature of censorship. Unfortunately, it’s one which keeps tripping over itself ideologically to the extent it frequently becomes as conservative as the thing it’s criticising.
Photo © Magnet Releasing
Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) is a socially awkward censor in London. Compared to her colleagues, she’s cold and precise; she can watch the most visceral work of horror and remain unmoved, so devoted to the cause of ensuring audiences are “protected” she’s internalised any lingering effects from what she witnesses. That is until the sleazy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) reads her name in the newspaper, after discovering that a film she categorised as safe for release winded up being linked to a brutal crime. He insists that she be the censor who views his latest project, an art horror from the director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), titled simply “Don’t Go in the Church”. And it triggers a long suppressed memory for Enid, due to the shocking resemblance to a horrifying childhood incident – leading her to start going down the rabbit hole to find out more about this mysterious filmmaker.
It’s not a new idea for horror filmmakers to comment upon the genre being used as a scapegoat when society needs to blame something for a tragedy that’s impossible to rationalise. Censor is at least unique in how it directly ties this into a depiction of the infamous video nasties heyday of the 1980’s, where all manner of banned content could still be bought under the counter at a rental shop in a brown paper bag. The problem is that it remains a very surface level depiction of the era, one that wows in its aesthetic attention to detail (much of the third act plays out like a grimy VHS recording), but never expands upon a commentary you’ve seen thoroughly explored in better films. Wes Craven managed to spin an entire franchise out of exploring the relationship between onscreen violence and the viewer, Bailey-Bond barely manages to sustain her exploration for 84 minutes.
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Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, in which a foley artist loses his grip on reality while recording sound effects for a 70’s giallo, feels like an obvious reference point – but Strickland’s decidedly less conventional affair never felt burdened to make the same social commentary, and the surface level style of Censor is weakened by how it never develops beyond its obvious thesis. It’s a perfect example of the “I get it” movie; a genre that isn’t subtle in the point it’s trying to make, but never expands upon it, merely wearing the viewer down when it should be exciting them. It’s an on the nose satire of Thatcherite values, albeit one that spends a significant amount of time unintentionally reinforcing the ideas it’s lining up to mock. Here, witnessing the violence of a video nasty leads a seemingly reformed character back on a destructive downward spiral, with the film’s closing moments (an idealistic Tory dreamscape of a world free of crime and violent movies) ineffective in their clear satire of those values because of everything that came before. It’s a movie that spends its entire time neutral to a more conservative ideology, only to offer an overcompensating “gotcha” at the end – not the most effective method when it comes to ensuring the satirical punchline lands.
Despite these clear flaws, Censor is still an exciting directorial debut when viewed purely as surface level horror, divorced from any wider social commentary. Prano Bailey-Bond effectively mimics the aesthetics of video nasties, in a way that becomes doubly thrilling in a third act that blurs the line between constructed fiction and reality. And she creates a palpable sense of paranoid unease throughout, without becoming overbearingly grim; Michael Smiley’s supporting performance as a sleazy scumbag of a film producer walks a fine line between sinister and nonsensical, as at home here as he could conceivably be as a recurring character on The Fast Show. There’s an inherent ridiculousness to the tabloid hysteria of this era, and the best moments in Censor are when Bailey-Bond fully leans into it.
There’s a lot of promise in Prano Bailey-Bond’s directorial debut – but many will be left wishing she put as much time into thoroughly researching the video nasties era, and not just its aesthetics.
Written by Alistair Ryder
Video © Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
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