Niamh Algar in CENSOR, a Magnet release. © CPL/SSF. Photo credit: Maria Lax. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

When the Hassle’s own Kyle Amato covered Censor as part of his amazing Sundance coverage, he described it as “so up Oscar Goff’s alley it’s scary.” At the risk of tipping my hand early in my review, let’s just say that my fellow writers know me well. As a child of the video rental store era who was weaned on dogeared VHS copies of the Evil Dead trilogy and Re-Animator (uncut, NEVER R-rated), the story and aesthetic of the UK’s so-called “Video Nasty” era is like catnip to me. So it was probably a foregone conclusion that Censor, the debut feature from British director Prano Bailey-Bond, would keep a big, goofy grin plastered across my face for its entire running time. The fact that it’s a legitimately excellent movie almost feels like gravy.

Niamh Elgar plays Enid, a censor working for the British Board of Film Classification at the height of the video nasty scare. (For the non-horror-obsessives among us, “Video Nasty” refers in this context to the moral outrage in Thatcher-era England surrounding the rental and sale of graphic horror movies on home video, and specifically to the hallowed list of infamous films which were banned outright). Day in and day out, Enid sits in her office screening room, placidly watching staged acts of violence and depravity, keeping notes on which specific scenes are beyond the pale. While some of her coworkers take their mission with a grain of salt (“What about Un Chien Andalou?” one asks), Enid genuinely believes she’s carrying out a public good. However, when one of her subjects (the perfectly titled Don’t Go in the Church) includes a scene remarkably similar to one of Enid’s own past traumas, she becomes obsessed, diving into the world of seedy rental shops and fly-by-night studios. Does the film’s director– the reclusive Frederick North (Adrian Schiller)– hold the key to solving a mystery that’s been haunting Enid since childhood? Or have months of exposure to certified nastiness taken their toll on Enid’s sanity?

The most distinctive thing about Censor is, of course, its aesthetic, which pays loving homage to the grimy horror movies which bridged the gap between the drive-ins and grindhouses of the ‘70s and the VHS boom of the ‘80s. The scenes we see from the movies-within-the-movie are all affectionate send-ups of the over-the-top fright films of the day, filled with garishly bright red stage blood, stretchy latex “skin,” and marquee-screaming titles which are only the slightest of exaggerations from the real thing (I particularly enjoyed the tagline for the fictional The Beast Man: “YOU’RE PROBABLY GOING TO DIE!”). Bailey-Bond is clearly a student of the genre, and gorehounds will delight in picking out the various nods and allusions to the films on the hallowed list.

A scene from CENSOR, a Magnet release. © CPL/SSF. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

But if that was all Censor had going for it, it could have been just another post-Grindhouse straight-to-streaming quickie. The more time we spend with Enid, the more we realize there’s more going on behind her oversized glasses than simple Church Lady puritanism. Enid’s blank facade, we quickly learn, hides a woman wracked with unresolved trauma; her solitary existence and increasingly frayed relationship with her parents have her constantly on the brink of cracking. Taken in this light, Enid seems to have found a strangely perfect job. Perched in the dark, notepad in hand, she can simultaneously sublimate her aggressions through her torrid viewing material, exert some level of control in a world on which she’s losing her grasp, and, at least nominally, do some manner of public good. It’s a tricky role, and Elgar plays it masterfully.

Taking one step further back still, it becomes apparent that Censor is also a surprisingly political film. The Video Nasty era, after all, is a fundamentally political story: it represents a volley in the same neo-conservative culture war as the “Satanic Panic” stateside, a point made crystal clear in a montage of news clips featuring Mary Whitehouse, Margaret Thatcher, and other right-wing figureheads. No one was really going out and butchering people after watching a Lucio Fulci film; the tapes, and the hysteria surrounding them, were ultimately a convenient scapegoat. At the same time, many of the targeted films were genuinely awful, and many were made under flatly unethical circumstances, as exemplified here by the sleazy studio head (played with lascivious glee by Michael Smiley) who tries to lure Enid onto his casting couch. It’s a complicated subject, and Bailey-Bond offers no easy answers.

But by now we’ve drifted from the main point, which is this: Censor is a fucking trip. With its genre excess, elliptical narrative, and swirling, electronic soundtrack (by composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch), it could easily play in a double feature with Peter Strickland’s faux-giallo phantasmagoria Berberian Sound Studio (in a more forgiving world, Enid might be set up on a blind date with Toby Jones’ meek sound designer). It’s the rare horror movie which successfully merges thoughtful “elevated horror” character beats with satisfyingly lurid midnight movie thrills. With its bracing psychological terror and buckets of the red stuff, it would probably receive judicious cuts from the Enids of the world, but unlike the certified Video Nasties of yore, you won’t need an oversized trench coat to rent it.

Censor
2021
dir. Prano Bailey-Bond
84 min.

Opens Friday, 6/11 at Kendall Square Cinema
Available digitally and on demand Friday, 6/18

Even as the world reopens, Boston’s most beloved theaters still need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.

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