David Cronenberg once said: “Censors tend to do what psychotics only do: they confuse reality with illusion.” Censor takes Dave Deprave’s theory for a creative spin, in doing so sending its lead, a female film examiner with a tragic past, down a rabbit hole of madness.
If you’re expecting a retro pastiche akin to Grindhouse, with digital scratches and reels missing and nods to gory classics of yesteryear, Prano Bailey-Bond’s film is going to disappoint. Massively. Instead, the Welsh director’s psychological horror tale, centred on a female film examiner attempting to solve a mystery, is a fascinating response, no less a rebuke, to the increasing mythologisation of the Video Nasties era. To its credit, the movie isn’t an exercise in cultural nostalgia nor interested in it one iota.
Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) spends her days watching slashers and worrying about protecting people from material perceived as harmful. She’s bought wholesale into the idea of saving people from themselves. The VHS boom in the early 1980s led, initially at least, to all sorts of genre flicks being released in the UK without certification and approval. Her role is to decide what stays in and what gets cut out.
When she was a child, something terrible happened to Enid and her sister. Her role as a censor is both literal (it’s her job) and a metaphor (she’s spent years cutting out bad memories). Twin events send Enid spiralling. Her parents have decided to file a death certificate for the missing daughter/sister. Then, the viewing of a horror title, Don’t Go in the Woods, unleashes all that pent up repression, Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher ironically playing along with the right-wing fear movies have the potential to turn people into axe-wielding psychos.
Set against the backdrop of Thatcher’s destructive Tory government, where she did things like politicise the police force so she could have them beat up union workers, where social service budgets were decimated, where ex-industrial cities were left to fester, where centuries of meddling in Ireland led to the IRA committing atrocities on our soil, Bailey-Bond’s excellent debut feature highlights the utter absurdity in blaming genre pictures for a country’s many ills. But that’s what happened. Horror cinema provided a distraction, a sideshow, a readymade bogeyman.
An ambitious, clever, and inventive psychogenic fugue, Censor is rough around the edges and shot on a shoestring, sure, however Bailey-Bond has compelling and vital comments to make on art, media consumption, politics, and society. Poor Enid’s mind-shattering journey is hinged on a search for redemption and cinema offering a route to catharsis, a form of experimental therapy, a way to right past wrongs. Its denouement is incredibly sad, for we can’t hit rewind on life, but also cocks a snook at right-wingers and their delusions. They believe in suppressing and censoring art, that they alone can make our country clean and wholesome. Censor, too, pertinently reminds us whatever dark impulses lurk in our personalities, they weren’t put there by a film.
Martyn Conterio | @martynconterio