For strange period of time in the 1980s, the British government and censors waged war on horror movies. When conservative activist Mary Whitehouse took offense to the graphic violence in certain horror and exploitations movies, she lobbied British Parliament. What followed was the introduction of the Video Recordings Act. As censors picked through hours of film content, they placed a total of 72 movies on what was popularly referred to as The Video Nasties List. Today, most of these movies are widely available. In fact, Hollywood has even produced remakes of a few of these titles. And now British horror movie Censor looks to re-visit this most strange moral panic. To date, critics have been impressed with first-time director Prano Bailey-Bond’s stylish psychological horror.
In 1985 England, conservative and mousy Enid works as a film censor. Her days are spent watching hours and hours of graphic violence, cutting footage deemed too offensive for the public. Outside of her job, Enid lives a solitary life. She’s still secretly traumatized by the childhood disappearance of her sister. But Enid’s life quickly goes off the rails. First, her parents finally have her sister officially declared dead. And a movie passed by Enid has prompted a copycat killer, enraging the public. When Enid sees a movie with an actress baring a striking resemblance to her sister, she embarks on a increasingly dangerous obsession. Her efforts to prove her sister is still alive take her into the very dark corners she has so dutifully censored in her job.
Censor a Giallo-Inspired Psychological Descent Into Madness
Perhaps it’s easier to start with what Censor is not. Don’t go into this one expected a homage to the video nasties it references. And Censor is also not a slasher movie. Instead director Prano Bailey-Bond (who also shares writer credits) has crafted a more psychological horror that blends Giallo aesthetics and mystery. As Enid’s grip on reality loosens, Censor replaces staid. conservative colours with neon-drenched camera shots. Just as the story becomes increasingly ambiguous, Bailey-Bond follows suit and introduces a more surrealist style that further blurs lines between what is and what is not real. While there’s an abundance of style, Censor isn’t a case of style over substance. Bailey-Bond meticulously paces her movie at a trim 84 minutes.
As Enid’s grip on reality loosens, Censor replaces staid conservative colours with neon-drenched camera shots.
And in spite of its subject matter, Censor largely steers away from explicit gore. Much of movie aims to immerse you into Enid’s confused psychological state. As such, Bailey-Bond keeps the movie under a nearly constant state of uneasiness as you wonder how far Enid will go to discover the truth. Since Censor clearly establishes that Enid may not be a reliable narrator early in the movie, you become more uncertain about what you’re seeing as her mental state deteriorates. When Censor does put violence up on the screen, its impact is much greater than if the movie had opted to overindulge. As for its ending, it’s the one time Censor truly captures that discomforting, offbeat vibe of late 70s and early 80s exploitation movies.
Censor’s Ambiguous Storytelling Defies Simple Classification
If Bailey-Bond displays an impressive grasp on her movie’s style and tone, her and Anthony Fletcher’s screenplay may be too murky. Arguably, the writers intended Censor to be something of a Rorschach test for audiences. Much like its title and subject, Censor casts a mirror on those who seek to determine what’s morally acceptable for the masses. Our best guess as to the movie’s deeper meaning is Enid herself. On the surface, Enid is stereotypically conservative, her hair pulled into a tight bun, and quietly efficient. But she’s also traumatized by her sister’s disappearance. Then there’s her strange attraction to the very violence she dutifully censors. And as she falls down the rabbit hole, Enid’s schoolmarm veneer peels away. Maybe Censor, like a classic Giallo, sees its subject as a psychoanalytic portrait of repression. However, Censor’s connection to the Video Nasty panic is never clear.
Arguably, the writers intended Censor to be something of a Rorschach test for audiences.
Nonetheless, Niahm Algar’s performance as Enid captivates and, ultimately, compensates for some of the movie’s limitations. Anyone can overemote to signal madness. But Algar’s performance is far more subtle. That is, Algar uses little facial tics and expressions, shifts in the tone of her voice, to really convey how loose her grasp is early in the movie. As the movie progresses, Algar channels a palpable desperation completely in contrast to the image she depicts in Censor’s first frames. By the movie’s conclusion, Algar gives Enid a pitiful sadness that lends this thriller a bit of tragedy.
Censor an Ambiguous, Unsettling Piece of Giallo Psychological Horror
All told, Censor works slightly better as psychological, surrealist horror. Whether its explicit connection to the video nasty moral panic holds deeper meaning will likely depend on the viewer. Arguably, Censor’s themes may prove to be a little too ambiguous. As the movie’s horror elements increasingly take over, the subtext recedes. But the movie’s exploration of Enid’s lingering grief, guilt, and obsession proves to be haunting. Her descent into full-fledged madness alongside Bailey-Bond’s striking visuals makes for atmospheric horror. If it doesn’t ultimately take the expected direction, Censor still proves to be one of the more affecting horror movies in recent memory.