Making a movie about video nasties, it must have been very tempting for Prano Bailey-Bond to just make a video nasty.
Honestly, when I heard about Censor, Bailey-Bond’s latest feature, and the premise therein, I wouldn’t have minded it being just that. As a long-time horror fan, I’ve got the softest of soft spots for the video nasties of the 80s; they’re the junk food of the genre, banned by a finger-wagging Government a-feared of inspiring graphic gore in the general public, and, despite the fact that most of them functionally suck, they hold a certain cultural cache that’s impossible to deny.
But Censor takes a different path, and I’m so glad it does. Following Enid (Niamh Algar), a censor working for the BBFC during the height of the video nasties controversy, it tracks Enid through the apparent discovery of her long-missing sister in one of the films that she’s reviewing, and swiftly draws her into the midst of a stylish, psychedelic nightmare.
The thing about video nasties, as I mentioned above, is that a lot of them are actually pretty awful, raised to legendary status by the sheer intensity of their unpleasantness rather than the quality of their output (aside from a few notable exceptions). Enid, decades later, is still searching for her sister, who went missing when they were both children, and most of the nastiness in Censor comes from the nasties themselves; the film itself, outside of those projected review reels, is starkly cold and depressed, everything doused in an underwater blue except where the nasties break through the fugue. The grief and guilt Enid navigates are offset by the horrible punctuation of the films she reviews, and the use of the nasties for their originally intended purpose – spikes of nastiness through normal life – gives them some real bite.
But as the story starts to unfold, the line between those nasties and the real world starts to thin, as Enid tries to work out just how much of what she’s seeing is real and just how much is fiction. Bailey-Bond juggles the two sides of that coin with masterful skill, giving just enough to avoid frustrating ambiguity but not too much as to ruin the mystery. The way Censor depicts the running-together of time, memory, imagination, interpretation is genuinely superb; it’s style used to add substance, glossy, refined cinematography that blurs the lines between fact and fiction, and Niamh Algar (also brilliant in Pure, should you want to see more of her) treads the line between scream queen and prudish censor to match.
As a film about films, Censor naturally lends itself to a more dramatic and stylised approach to the genre, but it uses that style to advance the story and superb character work with enormous skill. A story about the nastiest stories ever might seem to lean into that unpleasantness too much, but Censor knows when to pull back, and pulls off its brilliant mystery with incredible skill.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via ImDB)