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Non-Review Review: Censor

Censor is a love letter to the era of so-called “video nasties” and an exploration of the moral panic that tends to encompass discussions of the genre.

Niamh Algar plays Enid, the eponymous moral guardian with a traumatic back story who has committed herself to protecting the nation’s sanity by watching and rating the low-rent horrors flooding the market. Over dinner conversation, Enid takes offense when her mother asks if she has seen any good movies recently. “It’s not entertainment, Mam,” Enid snaps. “I’m protecting people.” It’s very clear that Enid believes this, taking meticulous notes and engaging in rigorous debates about exactly how much eye-gouging the public can tolerate.

The Green Night.

On the surface, Censor is a movie with a plot that loosely suggests something akin to Hardcore or 8mm. Throughout the film, hints are dropped about Enid’s traumatic past, including the mysterious disappearance of her younger sister while the two girls were playing together. When the latest film from a provocative auteur named Frederick North crosses her desk, Enid seems to recognise one of the on-screen victims. Is her sister still alive? Has she been swallowed by this world of exploitation horror cinema? More to the point, can Enid finally rescue her and bring her home?

The beauty of Censor lies in how co-writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond plays with this familiar set-up, building a movie around the idea that horror movies are a form of escapism for moral guardians as much as the intended audience, a space into which these people can project their own nightmares and anxieties without ever having to confront the reality of the world around them.

Signalling concern.

Censor is set during the eighties, against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and in the midst of the “video nasties” scare. Censor does a decent job outlining this historical context, understanding that a lot of the moral panic around these movies was tied to the popularity and success of home media. For the first time, audiences at home could watch these movies in private, could rewind and replay particular sequences, and could even go through the movie frame-by-frame.

As a result, various movies were banned – tapes could be confiscated by the authorities and people holding them could be fined or even imprisoned. It’s important to stress that these movies weren’t generally pornography or snuff films. While there were films included on the list like the infamous Faces of Death, most of the banned movies were just standard horror movies. Many of the movies included in these lists are considered genre classics today: Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, David Cronenberg’s Scanners and so many more.

Cabin in the Woods.

Many of the movies identified as “video nasties” would be approved by the British Board of Film Classification in the decades that followed. Many would pass uncut. Some would even pass uncut with surprisingly moderate ratings – “15” rather than “18.” As such, the benefit of hindsight, this moral panic over horror movies is often correctly understood as a weird cultural overreaction. It is notable that one of the masterminds of this panic, Mary Whitehouse, was responsible for orchestrating a similar campaign against Doctor Who, describing it as “teatime brutality for tots.”

So Censor is very much positioned in that social context. Indeed, Bailey-Bond populates the movie with loving shoutouts and homages to the horror films caught up in this web. Frederick North’s film is ominously titled Don’t Go in the Church, in what feels like an allusion to the banned “video nasty” Don’t Go in the Woods. The film;s production leans into these types of horror movies. Notably, most of the movie’s interiors – including the classification office itself – look like old-fashioned horror movie sets. Cinematographer Annika Summerson floods scenes with strong purples and greens, evoking older heightened horrors.

Who watches the watchmen?
(The audience.)

Censor is very much a love letter to these old fashioned horrors, which sets up an interesting tension within the film. For all that Enid is concerned about the dangers posed by these movies, and for how seriously she takes her obligation to “protect” people from these nightmares, it is clear that the films exert a clear pull on Enid. She acts calm and detached, carefully notating her viewing experience, but there is obviously something in the genre that calls out to her and draw her in.

This is one of the most interesting aspects of Censor, and something that Bailey-Bond skillfully explores. The film touches on the sensationalism of the debate around these horror movies, particularly when one of these horror movies is implicated in a particularly gruesome tabloid crime involving the so-called “Amnesia Killer.” When it’s revealed that Enid passed the film that the killer allegedly watched, she finds herself targeted for harassment – she’s confronted with obscene phone calls and grim threats that are far more serious than any blood splatter on screen.

Bloody unsettling.

Naturally, Censor understands that the reaction to these movies is much more revealing than the films themselves. It is eventually revealed that the killer never actually watched the movie in question, it was just a link that was blown up in press coverage. Sleazy film producer Doug Smart has to aggressively lobby the classification board to take his films seriously, even as he boasts about the stylish trophies that he received from American fans who enjoyed his work.

Censor suggests that the brutality playing out on screen is ultimately an escape from the horrors of the real world. Early on, one staff member at the classification office muses that increasing social funding would probably be a much more effective way of protecting the nation than stirring up a public frenzy over a few graphic horror movies. Production designer Paulina Rzeszowska neatly delineates between the clean and smooth artificiality of the offices in which Enid works and more grounded sorts of horrors that she passes on her way home every night.

Class acts.

In some ways, Censor is as much a love-letter to the cynical counter-culture punk sensibility of eighties British pop art as it is to horror movies themselves. It speaks to the anger and frustration of a generation of artists who grew up under Margaret Thatcher, as a government gutted social protections and securities, and then proceeded to blame the ensuing social decay on artists. In the world of Censor, those horror movies serve as a convenient scapegoat on to which all of those fears about a collapsing society might be projected.

After all, one of the big tensions within Censor is the extent to which Enid’s fixation on these horror movies allows the character to avoid introspection or interrogation. These horror movies are an external threat, an outside force that can be blamed for anything. After all, what is cinema but the art of projection? “You did this!” Enid screams at one point, angrily. “This is all your fault!” It spoils very little to reveal that Enid’s accusation is ambiguous and unconvincing.

Getting a Cense of it.

One of the big questions about art and society is the extent to which art can be seen to exist entirely independent of context. Do these horror movies potentially make the world a darker place, or do they simply serve as something of a pressure valve reflecting a darkness that already exists in the larger world? More to the point, do these horror movies upset and unsettle Enid because they acknowledge things that she knows to be true, but has repressed inside herself?

There’s an argument to be made that Censor is covering familiar ground, and that the film is built around existential questions that have already been explored and discussed over decades of similar movies. “People think that I create the horror, but I don’t,” explains Frederick North towards the end of the movie, a grim thesis statement. “Horror is already out there, in all of us. It’s in you.” It’s easy to be cynical about this, to wryly observe that Censor is a horror movie about how the real horror exists outside the frame.

The harshest cut of all.

However, Censor is executed with enough skill and enough wit that these sorts of heavy-handed meditations on the role of horror cinema, and the escape that it provides from a world that can be even more horrific, largely work. They don’t feel indulgent or pretentious, but they feel earned. A large part of this is down to Bailey-Bond’s confident direction and Algar’s compelling performance, but it helps that the movie’s climax is genuinely impressive and unsettling, largely due to the work of editor Mark Towns and cinematographer Annika Summerson.

Censor is a well-crafted and unsettling exploration of horror cinema, and in particular the relationship that larger culture has to horror. It’s an affectionate love letter to and celebration of a particular era, but one that isn’t afraid to dig underneath the skin.

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