Gary Raymond reviews Censor, the feature-length horror debut of writer-director Prano Bailey Bond, set during the apex of the Video Nasty controversy.
There was a moment when watching Censor, the directorial feature debut of Prano Bailey Bond, when I realised I was watching a preview copy of a movie about a woman who watches preview copies of movies for a living, and it became immediately clear this particular movie would be indulging in a little playful interactive fun with its viewer. Few people watching would be doing so with a pirate-proofing disclaimer emblazoned across the bottom of the screen, of course, but in this instance, it got me thinking. It got me thinking that a critic and a censor might man the same battlements for a filmmaker, the one that needs to be navigated for the artistic vision of the director (in this case writer-director) to finally reach the public. Would it be that the critic’s interjection was half so influential, but the censor, particularly in the golden age of the early eighties, when Censor is set, when video nasties meant the job of censor was headline news, really did hold some power. A snip here, a snip there. It seems from the first five minutes or so that this will be the canvass on which Bailey Bond will explore this idea of creative control, and who gets to decide what is and isn’t available for public consumption. The censor has a say in the relationship between artist and consumer, artist and fan. The censors walk a delicate step across a thin blood red line. On the one side you have the libertarian horror fan, glutinous for gore and the power of the shock, and on the other side, represented here in flashes of audio and visual, the puritanical naysayers like Mary Whitehouse and Margaret Thatcher. In between, you have a host of interesting characters, including the tabloid press and the auteurs who believe the graphic rape of a female character on screen is some bold artistic statement. Censor flashes a swift lens across all these facets with a smart eye and an intelligent, lean script, but also does well to remember that this is a film about a woman losing her mind.
There’s some fun to be had with the subject of the debates around video nasties at the time. Early on, some truly disgusting scenes, some cut, some passed through, are described in delicious throwaway detail by the beige bureaucrats of the BBFC. It’s a shame this smart comedic strand doesn’t stick it out. Censor is a well-made, clever piece of work, but it could have done with some lightness of touch as the world carefully constructed by Baily Bond unravels for her protagonist. It loses its sense of humour the deeper it gets into the darkness of its psychological horror. And the deeper into that it gets, the less convincing it is as a horror movie. Hats off to its homages – Driller Killer is the standard bearer for the video nasty with a lingering clip, but there’s a nod at Fulci here, a fleshy wink at Cronenberg over there, of course a bit of Argento, James Bryan, and the Italian cannibal directors – but Censor is a better movie on the politics than it is on the shocks. (There is one particular death scene involving an award statue that doesn’t quite pack the punch it might have done). That it delivers a wild and axe-y ending is satisfying to an extent, but it’s perhaps a little too roughly cut (the ultimate homage?) to totally make sense. But there’s nothing wrong with a movie that demands repeat viewings, and Censor is undoubtedly one of them.
That Niamh Algar’s Enid will find herself in a maddening, grizzly climactic scenario is never in doubt (Algar is utterly excellent throughout – chilling and completely sympathetic). You don’t need to be versed in the lore of the horror movie to know where this is going. Enid is focussed, emotionally isolated, never having got over the mysterious disappearance of her sister when they were kids. Just as her parents inform Enid that they are officially declaring Nina dead, she is scheduled in to evaluate a shocker from an enigmatic and prolific director which appears, at least at first, to have recreated the circumstances of Nina’s demise in the form of a cheap video nasty. Enid becomes convinced the actress screaming and flinging herself through the movie is in fact her sister, now all grown up and beckoning Enid through the screen to come reclaim her from whatever her fate may have been all those years ago. And so, Enid’s life, and hair, begins to unravel.
That Censor doesn’t head where you might expect it is a good thing, but also feels like something of a missed opportunity for a resounding note of cinematic resolution. But the journey, the slide, is worth the ticket price. The breaking of the fourth wall is more than just a tease, and the shifting aspect ratio never oversteps into the eyeline enough to spoil the effect it has on shifting from a third person perspective to, presumably, Enid’s own deranged mind’s view.
Censor is an extremely well-crafted piece of work, made by someone who at least knows their eggs when it comes to video nasties, even if the film doesn’t necessarily scream a love for this admittedly hard-to-love genre. Bailey Bond has a good hold of the component parts, and it’s so easy to see how this could have all come up as an unholy mess. But the direction is confident, and Algar’s central performance is a much needed and wisely deployed steady hand, so that by the end, if you’re not entirely sure where you’ve landed, you can be sure those who made the film know exactly where they’ve dropped you off.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.