Censor, the feature directorial debut of Prano Bailey-Bond, joins the ranks of Saint Maud, Raw, and The VVitch as a horror feature debut that announces a thrilling new voice in the genre. Like those films, Censor tells a small scale story, with only a handful of major characters, based on a simple premise, with an abundance of style.
The film, set in early 1980s England in the midst of growing public concern over violence in film and the Video Nasty panic, follows censor Enid (Niamh Algar) who in the course of her work comes across a film that reminds her of a seemingly repressed memory, of the day that her younger sister went missing no less. Spurred by this experience and a hope to find her long missing sister, she begins to investigate the makers of the film which leads her on a journey into the world of underground horror creators and connoisseurs, and into the recesses of her own mind.
Enid is a believer in her work as a censor, cutting scenes from films with an almost religious fervor and extreme attention to “getting it right,” which puts her at odds with most of the audience watching an independent horror movie in 2021. But Algar commits to her performance here in a way that makes Enid feel like a real person as opposed to a simple caricature for modern audiences, who consider many of the video nasties to be horror classics, to despise. It also helps that there are a number of scenes with Enid and her parents that humanize her through universal experiences like awkward dinners and being shamed for picking nails.
As the film goes on, Algar’s performance keeps the film emotionally grounded, even as what we are seeing may begin to slip in and out of reality. In fact the groundedness of Algar’s performance allows Bailey-Bond to push the style of the film as far as she does to ambiguously play with the slippage of reality. Bailey-Bond uses aspect ratio changes, extreme neon-lighting, and television static and other visual noise to build uncertainty in the audience about what we are seeing. This uncertainty then lends the film its horror as we become less and less sure of what exactly we are witnessing, and less and less sure of whether or not the violence that we see as the film reaches its climax is merely the stuff of the films that Enid works to censor, or her reality.
The majority of the film plays with a troubling and fascinating confusion of life and art in a way that offers little in the way of explanation and allows for almost metaphysical understandings of the relationship between film and reality in the world of the movie. Sadly though, the finale brings too much certainty about what is real and what is not, without enough explanation of exactly how we arrived there in the course of the story. This leaves the film feeling like it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its potential, either in terms of potent ambiguity or establishing an interesting mythology of the relationship between film and reality.
It’s also a bit disappointing that while the film uses the video nasties as background imagery, and features a wonderful opening montage made up of clips from the nasties, Censor itself never reaches the extremes of these films, opting instead for comic violence and offscreen brutality that the audience only glimpses the aftermath of. This lack of on-screen violence isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does feel somewhat unsatisfying for a horror movie about extreme horror movies to be a bit tame itself.
While Censor ends up being a bit of a let down in its final act, that’s only because everything up to that point is so good. It’s a stylish and unnerving film that explores exciting ideas set during a surprisingly under-explored time for horror, from the perspective of someone very different from the horror audience, and all of that is worth celebrating.
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