Before spurious terms such as “cancel culture” entered the mainstream, British censors were hard at work “cancelling” content they deemed inappropriate for genuine consumption. This work became the centre of a media storm in the 1980s with the rise of “video nasties — cheap, sensationalist content that toned down on the plot and dialled up the violence, including gratuitous scenes of rape, torture, cannibalism and dismemberment. Think the chainsaw scene in Scarface, but for an entire movie. And just like arguments regarding GTA in the 00s, right-wing voices were concerned that these videos could lead to copycat violence of its own.
Censor evokes the drabness of the 80s rather than its neon-light sparkle, using clips from Margaret Thatcher and Mary Whitehouse to set the “mother-knows-best” tone of the era. It’s in a dark, smoke-filled room we first encounter Enid Baines (Naimh Algar), who discusses removing a penis shot here, a gouged eye-ball there. She takes pride in her work, trying to make the videos just right so they are suitable for public consumption. But there is a sense that something else is boiling under the surface of this self-controlled, persnickety woman, who might be able to change the tone of difficult movies, but cannot censor the difficulties of her own past.
This is the debut film of Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond (one more of many debut British filmmakers making waves in the horror scene) yet she shows a maturity of composition that shows off a great confidence in form. The video nasties are expertly recreated with excessive blood and gore in an Academy ratio, while the real scenes are shot in widescreen, making use of expressive, two-tone lights to suggest the conflicted nature of Enid. In one impressive flourish, betraying the ways that both reality and movie-making can merge, the widescreen ratio slowly contracts into the smaller frame, the film tightening its grip as the true horrors finally emerge. Along with Saint Maud, Rose: A Love Story and Kindred, it appears horror is becoming the de facto form for Britain’s up-and-coming directors. I would suggest a crossover anthology film!
Nonetheless, while Naimh brings great sensitivity and complexity to the main role, the supporting cast, including her parents and fellow co-workers, feel lightly sketched in, not allowing for much contrast to her fixed mission. The overarching message is that censorship might be needed in some extreme cases, yet can often achieve the exact opposite effect. This is lost somewhat in the final sequence which doesn’t allow the horror to linger, opting instead for an unsatisfying fantasy flourish. Coming at a time where the topic of censorship in art is being rigorously discussed once again, Censor perhaps needed to be bolder in its transgressions. With that said, this is a fascinating debut from Bailey-Bond, who will likely work wonders with a larger budget. Here’s hoping the same backers, Film4 and BFI, give her the necessary investment she needs to become one of Britain’s hottest horror tickets.
Censor played in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival. On Mubi on Sunday, October 31st.