Censor – Review

Censor Niamh AlgarThe “video nasty” era in the UK was every bit a sociopolitical movement as it was a cinematic one. Emerging from a grimy 1980s, where the country seemed plagued more by strikes and economic uncertainty than hair crimpers and leg warmers, these straight-to-video horror exploitation movies changed the way we rate our films. The likes of Mary Whitehouse appeared on numerous TV and radio shows; wrote countless articles and petitions pleading with the British public to avoid these cinematic horrors. Which, in turn, made securing one of these “nasties” to watch almost as titillating as finding an abandoned copy of Playboy in the park.

And it’s in this remarkably un-nostalgic ‘version’ of the 1980s that write / director Prano Bailey Bond makes her feature-length debut. Censor positively ripples with the unease of the decade; focusing on the character of Enid (Niamh Algar) and her experiences working for a British film certification board. Leaky, lonely underpasses, questionable sexual politics and general unrest permeate this slow burn character study that will get under your skin and leave you with plenty of questions.

Primly coiffured, bespectacled Enid – who dresses more like a woman from the 1040s than the 1980s – is doing her best to protect the public from being exposed to the likes of The Driller Killer and I Spit on Your Grave. She calmly suggests that films should have less eyeball gauging or less rape – usually entirely unmoved by the so-called “nasties” she is exposed to. That is, until she watches a film that is eerily reminiscent of the disappearance of her younger sister; a film that sends her spiraling into mental decline.

The film is so beautifully shot you would almost swear you were watching a classic giallo at times. There are so many elements that will remind you of Dario Argento’s Suspiria ­– namely close ups of beating hearts and slimy neon green and alarming red lighting. There’s even a neat trick with the aspect ratio as the film progresses – it’s so subtle you might not even spot it on first viewing. There are a couple of well-executed (pardon the pun) jump scares, too, however, if you’re expecting plenty of blood and gore, you may be disappointed. This really is more of a character piece – akin to last year’s equally brilliant Saint Maud.

Algar is truly excellent in the lead role. Having been captivated by her in Shane Meadows’ The Virtues, I couldn’t wait to see what she brought to this movie. She unravels Enid slowly – quite literally her neat bun begins to fall out, one strand at a time – and delivers an utterly compelling central performance. You can see the mental trauma positively bubbling under the surface, characterised in the picking of her skin at her thumb and in her glassy-eyed gaze.

Censor Niamh AlgarMichael Smiley (Tyres, to Spaced fans) puts in a suitably sleazy turn as the “video nasty” impresario, Doug Smart. His character is clearly there to raise questions about the dubious sexual politics of the era – and of the “video nasties” themselves, where rape, humiliation and mutilation were a regular fate for the female characters. There is also the question of censorship itself – does repeated exposure to certain images create a more violent, feral society? “People think I create the horror,” director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) snarls, “But I don’t. It’s already out there.”

The decidedly ambiguous ending will raise a lot more questions than it answers, but this is an impressive and ambitious debut from Prano Bailey Bond. It’s perhaps a cerebral horror – designed to make you think as much as chill you – with lots of loving nods to both the “nasties” and the stylings of Italian giallo. Algar continues to deliver interesting and nuanced performances, taking on tricky characters in even trickier settings.

Censor isn’t the slasher “video nasty” tribute that some horror fans may want, but it’s one of the most interesting and well-executed character studies I have watched in a long time.

Censor will be in UK cinemas on August 20.

Mary Munoz
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