After a brief delay, Prano Bailey-Bond’s eagerly awaited debut ‘Censor’ does not disappoint as it finally hits UK cinemas.
For many young UK horror fans, the video nasties scare from the 80s seem like a bygone era. Whereas the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is now widely championed for its accountability and openness, Prano Bailey-Bond’s excellent debut feature Censor transports us back to a time where VHSs were taking off and the BBFC were under heavy scrutiny amidst the moral panic surrounding uncensored horror videos being coined as ‘nasties’.
Set in 1985 Thatcher Britain at the height of the ‘video nasties’ scare, Enid (Niamh Algar) is a film censor who spends her time watching, classifying, and cutting various titles within the murky depths of the ‘censor’s office’ (a fictional stand-in for the BBFC). Unfortunately for Enid, most of her workload consists of unclassified horror films ranging from the tame to the extreme. Even though she is carrying out her duties with astute professionalism, the daily exposure to barrages of blood, guts, and horrific sexual violence is seemingly taking a massive hit on her mental health. Meanwhile outside of work, Enid has has her own vengeful agenda in trying to find her long lost sister who mysteriously disappeared many years ago. But despite her parents June and George’s (Clare Holman and Andrew Havill) attempts in closing the case, Enid’s hopes are reignited after examining a film called ‘Don’t Go In the Church’ by notorious director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) that potentially bears answers to her sister’s whereabouts.
As the film’s title and its premise suggest, Censor is firmly rooted within the historical context of its era. The opening credits are a montage of gory and violent clips from titles like Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, accompanied by audio snippets of news reports from the period that cleverly provides crucial exposition for those unfamiliar with the period. Censor also has its roots in Bailey-Bond’s 2015 short Nasty where a young boy searching for his father believes that the clue to his disappearance is within a collection of horror videos. But even though Censor shares a similar narrative with Nasty alongside its historical roots, there is still plenty of visual and aural splendour for horror fans to get their teeth stuck into throughout its brief 90mins runtime.
On an aesthetic level, Bailey-Bond and cinematographer Annika Summerson have created a cinematic texture that offers its own sense of nastiness to its banned counterparts. Shot on 35mm, Enid’s world feels murky as tobacco smoke lingers in meeting rooms and underground alleyways are grimly lit at night. Likewise, the censor’s office is depicted like an underground bunker with labyrinthine corridors and cramped screening rooms which reflects the isolated nature of Enid’s job.
There is a foreboding sense of claustrophobia in its visual language and Niamh Algar’s magnetic performance as Enid reflects this too. As the pressures of her personal and work life mount up, Enid’s calm, measured approach to her job is replaced with paranoia and eventual desperation. It’s a character arc conveying a rapid downward spiral and Algar manages to achieves this through subtle facial cues in depicting Enid’s trajectory.
In addition to its tactile visuals and a terrific central performance, there are many intertextual references that horror aficionados will share delight in spotting out. This ranges from Enid starring intently into her TV that pays homage towards the poster of Poltergeist to her obsession with finding director Frederick North baring similarities to Max Renn’s quest in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. However, the most interesting comparison to be had with Censor is that it could arguably fit within the dark anthology series Black Mirror. From the opening scene where Enid’s notes for an unclassified horror nasty sardonically reads ‘eye-gouging must go’, the film’s script by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher balances a careful cranking up of tension with a British wry sense of humour that’s normally laced into Charlie Brooker’s writing—even a menacing appearance from Michael Smiley as creepy producer Doug immediately cast my mind back to his spine-chilling performance in the Black Mirror episode ‘White Bear’.
But although the film’s creative endeavours, there are a few flaws that I can’t help but notice. At times, the dialogue quickly falls into self-evident exposition as though the audience have missed vital narrative cues in previous scenes and are in need of a quick refresh (Enid’s scenes with her parents sadly fall into this problem). Furthermore, the narrative lacks a sense of urgency at the beginning as we watch Enid’s cyclical routine of going to work, reviewing some shtick and coming home before her discovery of Frederick North snaps everything into focus.
That being said most of these issues can be cast aside when, for the most part, Censor is a debut horror being delivered with such excitement and confidence by Bailey-Bond. As the film enters a realm of bonkers in its final five minutes, it shows in the Welsh director’s skill that the narrative does not collapse but instead elevates into an area of meta that sent shivers down my spine. It’s unexpected but proves that Bailey-Bond’s talents are worth watching in years to come.
Despite a slow start, Censor becomes a thrilling journey into the shadowy world of censorship and video nasties filmmaking. As a first-time feature, it immediately places Bailey-Bond as someone to watch within British horror and even though its release date suffered a slight push back, our patience has been thoroughly rewarded.
Words by Theo Smith
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