REVIEW: Censor (2021)

Enid Baines (Niamh Elgar) has a job reviewing films before they are released to the public, and recommending cuts of any material she deems unsuitable. At the same time she battles her grieving parents. They want to declare Enid’s sister dead and move on with their lives, while she wants to continue searching for her. One day Enid thinks she sees her sister in the last place imaginable: inside one of the violent horror films she has been assigned to review.

Censor is a smart horror film. It is the feature debut of Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Fletcher. While there is a fair argument that its ambitions exceed its execution, there is much here to celebrate. There are effective scares, strong performances, interesting themes, and good ideas.

When video cassettes became a mainstream medium in the 1980s, they came with a flood of violent thrillers and horror films. They were often cheaply made, or imported from Europe, and offered viewers a chance to experience the frisson of graphic imagery in the comfortable anonymity of their own home. In the United Kingdom, these gory movies walked right into the hands of cultural conservatives. The National Viewers and Listener’s Association (NVLA), which had campaigned for some years against sex and violence in British television, went hard after what they called ‘video nasties’. These transgressive works had bypassed the UK’s film classification system, leading the Department of Public Prosecutions to not only close that loophole but actively ban many films from release, and only allow the release of other following sometimes extensive cuts.

It is a sensational idea of Bailey-Bonds to base her horror film around British film censorship. For one thing, it links her narrative up to a rich history of British interactions with violent cinema. For another, it surrounds her protagonist with the genre. Enid’s every working day is soaked in a miasma of spurting blood and brutal violence against women. When she thinks she sees her sister Alice in one of the films, it forces her immerse herself ever further into the mire. As she gets closer to discovering the truth, her life becomes more and more like the bloody confrontations she spends her life watching. It makes for a very effective feature.

The censorship office setting is nicely realised, with a seedy sort of underground feel. It’s dark, and oppressive, and so evocative of nicotine stains you can almost smell it. As the film progresses, Bailey-Bonds begins to experiment a little with format and media. It is a nice touch.

Niamh Algar dominates the film from beginning to end, and delivers a sharp, powerful performance that balances personal drive and brittle fragility. Michael Smiley is in typically strong form as horror film producer Doug Smart. This is a refreshingly tight film – it runs 80 minutes in total – and expresses some brilliant ideas.

Censor is currently streaming in Australia on Stan.

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