Before I say anything, let’s get one thing straight: censorship is the worst thing to happen to film, ever, and the reasoning behind it could not be a larger load of horseshit than it is…
…Films are not life-destroying drugs. They are not murder weapons. They are films, plain and simple. Yet throughout history, film has been attacked, largely by conservative politicians and media, as a scapegoat to lay violence at the feet of. Having just had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, director Prano Bailey-Bond has made her feature debut with the psychological horror film Censor, and it is the most provocative exploration of censorship that I have ever seen.
Written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher, Censor is set in the UK during the Video Nasty era of the 1980s, when a mass hysteria had developed around the idea of violence in film leading to real-life violence, which resulted in extensive censorship and even banning of films deemed too hardcore for a fragile public. Niamh Algar stars as Enid, a censor who takes her job far too seriously, believing she is actually saving lives through cutting excessive violence from movies. But when Enid happens across a new project and believes she may have the answer to her sister’s long ago disappearance, she sets out to find her, all while reality and fiction blend together into one long, bloody nightmare.
And Bailey-Bond does it all with the ease and grace of a seasoned pro. The fact that Censor is her first feature film is mind-blowing.
Opening on a sequence of grainy, violent scenes from video nasties ranging from gory head chops to eye gouging and every bit of slimy nastiness in-between, Bailey-Bond drops us right into the madness, coupling the imagery with hysterical decries from media broadcasters as they rage about violence in film driving people to heinous crimes. A decry which Enid believes in entirely.
“We can’t afford to make mistakes,” says Enid during an early meeting with co-workers. We’ve all had that co-worker that takes their job a little too seriously, but Enid is on another level. Censorship isn’t just a job to her. It’s a mission. Suffering from her own disturbed past wrought with guilt over the atrocities she imagines her vanished sister has suffered, Enid genuinely believes that she is somehow helping to save the world. “I do it to protect people,” she says of her work. Needless to say, you and I would not get along very well with Enid.
Bailey-Bond and cinematographer Annika Summerson paint the world in the cold darkness which Enid sees it as. There is hardly an ounce of light in Censor. We spend most of our time with Enid in smoky editing rooms, softly lit spaces, and alleyways engulfed by unforgivable darkness. The world is an ugly place for Enid, and Algar gives a performance deserving of a standing ovation, bringing to life the pain and loneliness of Enid with a subdued portrayal that is calm and calculated, right up until the moment(s) it’s not.
Censor plays out like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death by way of Berberian Sound Studio with a dash of Videodrome. At a certain point, it is impossible to know what is real and what is not in this absolute mind-melt. The deeper Enid falls down the rabbit hole around her sister’s disappearance, the more her reality and the world of the video nasties collide. Bailey-Bond seamlessly blends harsh reality and eerie fantasy with a confidence that she earns all throughout. Censor takes the typically cold world of psychological dramas and mixes in neon shades of purples, reds, and blues that recall the work of Argento, with a dose of Fulci-inspired atmosphere. This is the sort of film that is impossible to define. The madness of it all cannot be contained. It defies explanation.
But the value of Censor goes beyond acting as a sharp commentary that cuts through the video nasty era with a blood-soaked knife. It’s also a fierce reaction to the censorship and mistreatment of women themselves. Through Enid, we’re taken through the underbelly of exploitation cinema, witnessing the atrocities women face on screen and off. The uncomfortable stare of the male gaze. Rape. Blatant misogyny. Censor exposes the sexism women encounter in the film world, and whether directly or indirectly, also tackles another issue: the myth that women make “softer” horror.
Censor is a vicious trek through the dark corridors of sleaze cinema. True to the nature of video nasties, Bailey-Bond rips through the flesh of the screen and makes it bleed. On-screen or off, Censor never strays too far from downright nasty imagery. Whether part of the footage which Enid is watching (and which perfectly captures the grainy, synth-score imbued era), or the violence which overtakes her reality, gore is part of the DNA of this film, and all of it is deliciously gratuitous. Thankfully, Bailey-Bond spares us from some of the more heinous moments, while still allowing the sounds of screams and squishy bloodshed to fill our ears. “Someone like you doesn’t want to watch a film like that,” says one videostore guy to Enid. My dude, it’s women that are making “films like that”! Anyone who still has the ignorance to say that women don’t make hardcore horror movies needs to be shown Censor and shut the hell up.
Censor is not a scary film. But goddamn, is it disturbing.
With just her first feature, Bailey-Bond has entered the scene with a ferocious scream, holding the head of male toxicity in one hand and the rotten heart of censorship in the other. A love letter to gore cinema, and an indictment on the way the general public perceives it, Censor is an astounding debut that does the opposite of censoring itself; it opens the bloody floodgates.
Those who prefer straight-forward narratives probably won’t appreciate the utter lack of explanation inherent in this fantastical nightmare, but for those who enjoy films which refuse to be held down by logic, Censor is a masterful shredding of the mind that is guaranteed to haunt you for weeks.
By Matt Konopka