If you’re a horror fan then you’re familiar with the “Video Nasties” movement of the 1980s. If not, let me take you across the pond. In the early ‘80s, VHS exploded. Anything and everything was coming out on videotape, but in the UK there was a loophole in film classification laws. Videos could bypass a review process and be sold regardless of content. Panic ensued.
In response, the British Board of Film Certification (BBFC) set out to not only censor films but outright ban titles. The “Video Nasties” was a list of 72 titles that were banned and deemed the most explicit. This list included some now classics like; The Evil Dead, Possession, Tenebrae, and pretty much any movie by Lucio Fulci or Joe D’Amato. Censor is a film that dives into the phenomenon.
Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) is a censor for the BBFC who screens films to cut out any explicit content. We get a glimpse into Enid’s life as a stern professional but also has a lonely woman who harbors a great deal of trauma. Years ago, Enid’s sister went missing as a child, a detail that constantly comes up through interactions with her parents. Enid holds out hope in her day-to-day life that her sister is alive somewhere, though her parents are far less optimistic.
Enid faces a professional dilemma when a film she doesn’t recall screening reportedly inspires a real-life murder. The murder in question involves face eating—that sounds like a Video Nasty alright. This report leaks Enid’s name and she finds herself being harassed over the phone on a daily basis.
Enid tries to refocus on her work and is given a tape by film producer Doug Smart (the highly underrated Michael Smiley), of a film by veteran horror filmmaker Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). Enid views the film and is taken aback when the opening scene depicts two young sisters in the woods, one of which is brutally killed. This aligns with Enid’s memories and she believes this filmmaker knows what happened to her sister.
Enid goes down the rabbit hole, watching North’s films, asking for more info about him at the video stores, and seeking out his producer. The film is one part character study, another part mystery, with a full-on nightmare horror ending when Enid pretends to be an actress and crashes one of North’s violent film shoots. It’s a stylish and well-paced thriller with sumptuous visuals and a captivating performance from Niamh Algar.
I LOVED the first two-thirds of the film. For a while, I thought this was going to be my favorite horror film of 2021. This is a title that still belongs to Uruguayan slasher The Last Matinee. Which is coincidentally also framed around watching horror movies. Except, that one is about a killer picking off people in a movie theater during a screening (check it out).
I’ve grown weary of what I call “descent into madness” films. Where a film that starts out as efficient and straightforward becomes surreal. The kind of film where you start to ask “Is any of this real?” I find that style of filmmaking to be a cop-out.
Censor is at its best before anything surreal occurs. It reminds me of the 2018 horror movie Cam, about a cam girl whose online account is stolen by a look-alike. Both films are compelling purely based on the occupation they explore. Enid believes she is responsible for protecting audiences and is attacked when the public believes she has failed. I don’t know where that version of the film goes but I love that it feels so new. The idea of framing a film around a censor is truly inspired.
That being said, I believe Censor does a fine job justifying its ending. It makes sense thematically. I could be convinced it was the best direction for the story and that my appreciation of the film could increase with a second viewing. Regardless, Prano Bailey-Bond has given us an excellent debut and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Nothing too nasty I hope. 😉
Happy Shocktober everyone!