The Video Nasties – a hysterical censorship phenomenon in the United Kingdom during the early years of the 1980s video recording industry that saw prosecutors determining the extent of cuts certain graphically violent movies would need to be deemed suitable for home viewing – do not have a one-size-fits-all aesthetic to them, outside of featuring graphic violence (which would often vary in amount still). It was an arbitrary motion made towards an arbitrary selection of films. So when Censor – the debut feature film by Prano Bailey-Bond – hardly resembles the Video Nasties which it takes as its screenplay’s subject matter (co-written by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher), this doesn’t feel as much a failure as it seems certain people would like to pronounce it. No, there is no less of a huge amount of fascination with the movies that were subject to this certainly publicity-boosting act of committee on top of the minutiae regarding that process in itself.
The censor whose process we follow most closely is Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), who takes her job very seriously, spending long hours in a room watching violent grisly material and noting what must be cut before she and her colleagues can determine to allow the film to be exhibited on the streets or if the movie must be banned for the safety of the citizens. She seems mostly stable enough in the first few scenes, if still alarmist, as she argues on decapitations and eye-gougings to be removed from a film and if the introduction of her traumatic past very early on invites doubt, she’s still relatively well-adjusted to receive a bombast of gruesome images of murder and rape and maiming and treat the matter professionally. The traumatic past, as it were, is a young memory of watching her child sister Nina (Amelie Child-Villiers) disappear in the woods and it appears that Enid’s stability about 2 decades later is at risk from three sides.
First, Enid’s parents (Clare Holman & Andrew Havill) approach her with a death certificate finally created for Nina, despite Enid’s objection that she might still be out there. Then there’s a shocking domestic killing that imitates a violent sequence that was passed by Enid in her assessment, bringing a lot of public attention to the censorship office and Enid herself. And finally, while reviewing the latest submission by an elusive and notorious filmmaker Frederick North (Vincent Schiller), she spots the face of the lead actor Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) and is so very sure that she has to be Nina, beginning an personal investigation towards North’s production that only promises an unstoppable spiral down to something beyond the limits of the television screen.
I did very little in that synopsis to hide how Censor slides into psychological thriller territory and if Censor does not resemble a video nasty in any particular way – sure, there is gore and violence in the film but much of it is backloaded or archive footage from infamous banned Video Nasties with ironic cutting at the most visceral moments to “leave it to the imagination” as Enid suggests – it does resemble the unreliable atmosphere of a giallo with its choice of colors and spacing between the office workplace and Enid’s boxy apartment home, in the modern homage fashion of Cattet & Forzani or more closely to fellow British arthouse horror stablemate of Bailey-Bond’s Peter Strickland. And certainly this has extratextual purpose as well in indicting the sort of hang-ups that somebody might have imposing their restrictions on art, even art as disreputable as these violent pictures.
Censor is a movie that’s easy to chop down into three acts that slide well into each other, though I will admit there is a distinct difference in quality or engagement for that middle half interrupting the regularity of Enid and her colleagues staring at dismemberments between notes, researching their filmmakers, and having debates about what could possibly be going out to the public in between slimey producers waltzing into the offices to discuss those results (the producer particularly showing up in pivotal ways being played by resident screen creep Michael Smiley, which is of course an excellent casting choice*). Anyway, everything up until Enid visits a video store trying to solicit a Frederick North picture to clerk’s reluctance despite it being obvious he stocks banned videos is transparently a conduit for Bailey-Bond’s love for the movies, their attached notoriety, and a close interest in the process that brought them that notoriety. But that sequence is far enough into the middle investigation once Enid sees Lee’s face on a work assignment that we’re already beginning to segue into aimless meandering that is brought by slack and less interesting editing and once she leaves that video store, it’s not coming back for a while.
But that’s all fair since editor Mark Towns is saving his best for last and that can be argued for the rest of the crew as that meandering finally leads to the climactic final third where Enid finally finds a direction to take on in finding Alice and finding out if she’s Nina and her tenaciousness starts to affect the visuals in a tremendously exciting way. The frames of the aspect ratio begin to close at a snail’s pace so you can hardly notice the walls closing in on Enid, the colors by Annika Summerson’s camerawork become more saturated than the more grounded hues within the first hour, and video effects slowly corrupt the visuals in a way that disguise the segue between Enid’s perspective on things and the camera’s without particularly telling us what is the truth until the very final minutes. It doesn’t take a deep dive to recognize the events in terms of narrative, but it remains the sort of translation between a subjective perspective and the cinematic form that makes me giddy when encountered in the wild. And it all just brings us back to the interest in that video nasty aesthetic with a moment that particularly seats us as viewers into watching something ostensibly artificial and beastly before Enid finds ways to disrupt it in shocking ways.
So there one has it. Deep in the midnight screenings of Sundance 2021 birthed a cryptic horror yarn on a moment in pop culture that come from a place of deep admiration. Censor, which I have to assume is a continuation of ideas from Bailey-Bond’s earlier short film Nasty (which I haven’t seen), is a fairly confident feature debut that presents the filmmaker’s personality with aplomb and it is very easy to see how Bailey-Bond’s interests and my interests align enough that I’m excited for whatever she comes up with next, genre or otherwise.