The Video Nasties hysteria of the 80’s was an era in British cinema history that I’ve always found fascinating in a terrifying way. A child during the first wave (and an avid horror fan of horror during it’s worrying resurgence in the early 90’s) it was a time that saw police carry out raids on video shops on the hunt for uncut Lucio Fulci movies and other such stuff and and newspaper headlines screaming hysterical warnings about this “sick filth” corrupting the minds of the entire population. It was some draconian shit and despite Jake West’s pair of superlative documentaries, it’s stunning that a movie hasn’t been made about this phenomenon before now.
Enter Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor, a clench-jawed ode to the perils of playing moral gatekeeper to a gullible population that asks the question: what kind of person actively takes an interest in controlling what people see for their own good?
Enid Baines is a censor toiling away in the shadow of Thatcher’s Britain, exorcising sloppy gore and over-long rape scenes from a seemingly endless slew of grotty low budget movies the media is convinced are singled handedly causing the crime rate to rise. Enid has somewhat of a saviour complex, pushing herself to be perfect at her job as so to protect the population from these so-called Video Nasties, which leaves her seeming somewhat cold and aloof to her fellow workers. On top of the steadily mounting pressure of work, Enid has never gotten over the vanishing of her younger sister while the two were little girls and the fact that her parents have finally accepted that she’s never coming back and have gotten an official death certificate for her is only adding to her unbearable stress.
The final act that edges her to breaking point is that the press has broken a story about a man who’s murdered his family seemingly because he was prompted to do it by a violent scene in a movie she herself deemed safe not to edit and ehe seems to be the most convenient scapegoat in the absence of any common sense.
It’s here where, when characteristically throwing herself deeper into her work, Enid sits herself down in front of sleazy slasher “Don’t Go In The Church” and prepares to take notes when she notices that the opening scene is horribly similar to the events that led up to her sister’s disappearance. Triggering her spectacularly, this causes Enid to hurl herself down the rabbit hole when she sees that another movie by the same director includes an actress who looks suspiciously like her sibling would appear when fully grown.
Kicking that saviour complex into high gear, Enid’s paranoia leads her to desperately find out more which inexorably leads to death and full blown psychosis – but can the human brain really edit reality as well as Enid can to the running time of a trashy movie?
To really get the most of Prano Bailey-Bond’s legitimately intriguing debut, it helps to have more than a passing acquaintance with the history of the video nasty phenomenon, not to mention the wobbly style of the movies themselves that had their splattery butchery, butchered by government butchers. Those unfamiliar with this part of horror history may find the set up horribly far fetched as the media blames almost the entirety of the country’s problems on the psychological dangers of watching a ropey Italian chunk blowers, but take it from someone who never actually got to legally own an uncut copy of The Evil Dead until the year 2000, things actually were that bad.
Similarly, the tone and style may confuse people unfamiliar with the glorious, snowy grain of watching a film on rapidly degrading videotape as the director manages to find an impressive balance between adapting a similar kind of grittiness to indicate how shitty things are.
Hugely reminiscent of Saint Maud, another film where an emotionally unstable woman is put under an immense amount of stress that proceeds to relentlessly strip her grip of reality down to the bone, Censor also stands or falls on the efforts of its female director and star. If having my arm twisted I would probably have to say the team of Rose Glass and Morfydd Clark is slightly superior to the powerhouse duo of Prano Bailey-Bond and her leading lady, Niamh Algar, but that’s not to take anything away from what they achieve.
Algar, a woman who naturally looks like her strong jawline is forever clenched with unfathomable anxiety, carries the film ably as the psyche gradually starts springing reality leaks as her pathological need to control things is taken from her by a chance viewing of an old horror movie. Watching her sanity degrade through the journey of her uber-tight hair bun gradually disintegrating and leaving crazy strands of her fringe dangling over her face is a gripping one, both subtle and large at the same time. From the imperceptible dismay at her parents for finally declaring her sister officially dead meaning they’ve finally reached a level of acceptance Enid can only dream of – to the final third where she seemingly enters the very world she’s desperately been trying to prune out of the movies she views.
It’s a masterfully confident performance in a confidently directed debut that may be somewhat reminiscent of a number of films that’s come before, but its trawl through the world of editing rooms choked with cigarette smoke and movie locations soaked in Mandy-style red or blue lighting manages to keep things feeling fresh.
The secondary cast is good too, with Enid’s work associates also providing a cross section of the kind of people assigned to keep us “safe” from rubbery decapitations and pig intestines and we even get a cameo from Michael Smiley as a slimy movie producer with questionable dentures.
Those expecting a blood soaked love letter to the wonky gore epics of decades past might feel short-changed, especially if you’re expecting a pastiche of nasties in the same style as Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place or the fake trailers in Grindhouse, but Bailey-Bond has far too much respect for the genre (or her characters) to take unnecessary cheap shots that would only dilute the tension.
While admittedly more intriguing than it is entertaining, Censor’s setting and approach makes all involved talents to definately keep an eye on in the future.
Until then, this movie provides a nice, deep cut that thankfully doesn’t edit out the violence…