Director: Prano Bailey-Bond
Stars: Niamh Algar, Sophia La Porta, Michael Smiley
In Britain in the early ’80s, numerous low-rent horror films became the scapegoat of the Tory government’s ills, dubbed “video nasties” and cut to ribbons by the British Board of Film Censors (now the British Board of Film Classification). This in an effort to demonstrate a response to rising crime rates rather than spend money on genuine reforms. Prano Bailey-Bond’s outstanding debut feature takes a deep dive into this cultural fixation and, in the process, marks her out as one of a number of women taking a decisive hold of the horror genre.
Strongly (and favourably) reminiscent of Peter Strickland’s Giallo-loving Berberian Sound Studio as well as the era-specific fetishes of his In Fabric, her film stars Niamh Algar as Enid, a prim member of staff at the BBFC whose thankless task is to watch these uncut gems and deem what is and isn’t safe for general viewing. Enid takes a certain amount of pride in her meticulous attention to detail, which has garnered her something of a reputation within the workplace. In a real sense Bailey-Bond’s film makes enquiries into how women are treated – both then and now – in such environments, but it also has bigger, juicier, filthier fish to fry.
Enid is haunted by the childhood disappearance of her sister Nina, something which still causes tension at family dinners. With pressure mounting thanks to the press linking vicious crimes to violent movies, Enid finds it increasingly difficult to separate her work and life stresses. While cataloguing the various offences in a new picture, Don’t Go in the Church, Enid comes to believe that the film’s star, Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), is her long-lost Nina.
Horror films sustain themselves on the deep-seated human paranoia of “what if…”. While evidence linking the violence in horror films to real-world acts of violence is scant and flimsy at best (and unflatteringly suggestive that we’re all little more than impressionable voids ready to be led by any material we come into contact with), Censor tunnels into the “what if…” of this particular strain of fear-mongering. Watching hour upon hour of sadistic cinema, Enid’s world-view becomes troublingly compromised, leading to reactionary decisions and an hallucinogenic downward spiral.
In charting this course, Bailey-Bond is able to lean lovingly into the stylistic tropes that typified the era. This comes to the fore particularly in the lighting, which increasingly favours the kind of lurid neon contrasts pushed by the likes of Dario Argento. The film’s cassette-era paraphernalia, meanwhile, allows her some good-natured nods to cult favourites from grand masters David Cronenberg and David Lynch.
But Censor is more than horror film buff fan service. At its centre is an exploration of a person carrying their past as a kind of open wound, and the torturous ramifications of folding one’s trauma into identity. The gnarly ills of the video nasty aren’t to blame for Enid’s descent, but they do act as a trigger for an already primed mental collapse.
Bailey-Bond heightens our own sense of claustrophobia by manipulating aspect ratios. In a key sequence that defines the third act, she very slowly transitions from a wide frame to the boxy constraints and aesthetics of videotape. It’s a risky move that could have prompted a disconnect from the material. Instead it furthers our connection to Enid in this sequence as she rabbit-holes into a blurred world where she cannot trust her own senses or deeds. Many films shoot for sequences that seem hallucinatory, few achieve it with such finesse.
Key to all of this working, also, is the performance given by Algar as Enid. She has truly sunk her teeth into the psychological mine shafts that pit Enid’s interior landscape, presenting us a person whose urge to control and perfect belies a panicked and shaking grip on her own sense of self. That’s a long way of saying that she is, very convincingly, a mess.
The cast around Algar are uniformly excellent. Nathan Barley star Nicholas Burns scoffs and smarms as Enid’s more lenient colleague Sanderson, while the ever-dependable Michael Smiley plays chauvinistic video nasty director Doug Smart with just the right amount of grease and largess.
There’s a quintessential Britishness to Censor that affords it a favourable position in the current horror landscape, alongside works by the likes of Ben Wheatley (check the Blanck Mass music cue also favoured in the Smiley-starring A Field in England) and the aforementioned Peter Strickland. It also places Bailey-Bond comfortably alongside the likes of Rose Glass in terms of new voices whose work have become immediately essential, keenly tapping into decidedly feminine perspectives in a genre that has too-often been the province of men assuming the same role. Horror hounds will appreciate the references to a decidedly niche subsection of the genre’s spotted history, but Censor more than adequately stands up on its own as a garishly-realised descent into the frailties of the human mind.
Censor will be released in the UK later this year.