Most horror fans are familiar with the video nasty era. In the 1980s, commentators, politicians, and religious organizations in the UK blamed rising crime rates on exploitation movies, leading to an outright ban and the forced shutdowns of movie stores across the country. Censor uses this era as the backdrop to explore the grief of Enid (Niamh Algar), a video censor haunted by the disappearance of her sister when they were kids. As her quest to find her sister ramps up, the line between fiction and reality blurs.
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond and written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher, the film includes some historical footage from the mids-1980s to put the video nasty era into greater context. Those on the right blamed video nasties for lapsed moral standards and the nation’s woes. The opening features Enid in a small viewing space, deciding what to cut in a B movie to allow its release. The film then shifts to commentators debating whether these films should be outlawed. There is even a clip of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher talking about “law and order.” No contemporary historical figure better represents right-wing British politics than she.
Enid, meanwhile, takes her job seriously. At one point, she tells her mother, “It’s not entertainment…I do this to protect people.” Should an eyeball gouging remain or stay in a film? Enid is tasked with such decisions. She’s as strait-laced as they come, a conservative do-gooder who believes she’s benefiting society by deciding what entertainment the public should consume. Not all agree with her views on censorship, however. Enid’s co-worker, Sanderson (Nicholas Burns), points out that violence has always been a part of art. He points to Shakespeare and Homer, specifically Odysseus’ spearing of the Cyclops’ eye in The Odyssey as examples. It’s a good point, positioned well against Enid’s stalwart conservatism.
Enid and Sanderson’s back and forth is a nice supplement to the spliced commentary of people arguing for and against censorship. In fact, for a film named Censor, there isn’t much additional debate about the impact of the crackdown of exploitation films and whether censorship should ever be warranted. There is a very small subplot about a killer who blames a B movie for his crimes, but the subplot is ditched about halfway through the film. Much more could have been done with this important era in horror history, and in that regard, the film falls a bit short.
Instead, Censor is a film about trauma, loss, and Enid’s obsession with finding her disappeared sister. She becomes convinced that her sister is now a B movie star, Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), featured in disturbing films directed by Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). The more this obsession of Enid’s grows, the more she breaks from reality. All of this leads to a conclusion that shows just how cracked Enid’s psyche has become. She undergoes some rather remarkable changes, considering how buttoned-up and proper she is during the beginning of the film, taking pages of notes and deciding what to cut and ban from horror movies, while refusing social events with colleagues to work late instead. What’s especially fun about this film is that as Enid changes, so too does the tone of the movie, becoming gory and bloody, a video nasty within a video nasty.
As reality and fiction blur, Baily-Bond washes the film in red tones and lighting to create a surreal effect. It works quite well in establishing the mood and underscoring Enid’s shaky grip on reality. In fact, the more she tries to control, the less she’s able to. Algar really carries much of the film and becomes a one-woman show. Without her performance, the film would falter.
Censor used an important decade in horror history to explore the grief of a female protagonist who would do anything to get her sister back. While the film doesn’t necessarily take a clear stand on censorship, and though it never quite reaches its full potential, it does tell a compelling story with a strong performance by Algar at its center.
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