The “video nasty” era in Britain peaked after the Video Recording Act of 1984. This new legislation required that all cinematic and at-home releases be screened and censored. Many people feared that the low-budget horror movies that showed copious amounts of blood and guts would influence citizens, especially children, to imitate the heinous acts.
This fear created a public hysteria, which is the backdrop of Prano Bailey-Bond‘s feature directorial debut, Censor. But the film has little to do with the historical facts, focusing instead on the inner anxieties of its titular main character, Enid (Niamh Algar). Her job is to figure out which of the eye-gouging scenes have to be sacrificed in order to protect the general public. That means sitting around watching horror movie after horror movie and getting paid for it.
That might sound like a dream gig for fans of the macabre, but Enid is numb to what she sees. As her coworkers react to nightmarish rape scenes and excessive displays of mutilation during screenings, Enid’s face stays clear of any emotion. Her disconnect is not only obvious, but it’s what allows her to be good at her work. During a dinner scene with her parents, however, the camera captures a flicker of sadness in her face, showing that there is pain buried deep within.
Details of a traumatic event from her childhood are revealed, giving further insight into Enid’s cold demeanor, which serves as her own censor for her memories. Enid and a co-worker sit and prepare for whatever gory depiction awaits them. It is understood they have been here in similar situations for similar screenings many times before. As the film introduces the two young characters, presumably sisters, running through a mysterious forest, Enid starts to quietly panic. She begins to see herself and her own missing sister instead of the on-screen characters. Is this a memory of the events from when she was a girl, or is it something darker, sinister even?
Bailey-Bond’s detailed direction creates a brilliant tension between the camera and the audience. The lack of emotion on her face is shown through close-ups before cutting to a shot of her hands. Several times this combination of shots and what it is showing contrasts her expression with her true discomfort — the evidence being her unconscious picking at her cuticles. After that screening with the two girls in the woods, the anxiety is not only shown by the discretion of her nail beds but by the all-consuming obsession that can no longer be hidden beneath the surface.
This transition is when Censor becomes jagged, disconnecting the first half with the second. While the beginning works so hard to fully develop the motivation of Enid as a real person with flaws, the second part just doesn’t match. The pace changes and the character’s actions feel wrong. For example, she randomly visits the house of a man she met once in the office. This visit is unnecessary and breaks trust with the viewer as they no longer can understand the motivation behind her actions. Honestly, the desperation and outrageous actions that come from a person who has been refusing to accept a traumatic event for twenty or more years would be even more than what the end of the film gives us.
Towards the beginning of Censor, it is obvious that Enid is haunted by something more than the everyday world around her. Despite this, she is doing the best she can to maintain a decent job, make small talk with her family, and live an average life. When those shallow fronts are broken into pieces, all hell should break loose allowing the audience to cathartically experience what it is like to no longer have to maintain some sort of human disguise or censorship. Instead, we are given an ending that falls flat and does not result in enough of the blood and guts that is so customary to the nasties that inspire Censor.
Even with the lackluster result, the film’s writing cannot be completely discounted. The parallels to common existential questions are laid out, ready to be analyzed and contemplated. For instance: is the societal fear that surrounds cinematic acts of extreme violence a way to avoid the everyday acts of evil, like the one Enid has experienced? What about memory? Can a voyeuristic attitude towards on-screen trauma really ignite ungodly urges or memories our brain has purposely forgotten?
Most importantly, Censor asks the uncomfortable question of what is really inside all of us, commenting on the everyday censorship that occurs in hopes to cover the ugliness that comes with being human. In fact, most of the time the truth about the most damaged parts of our inner self is the hardest thing for us to accept. It is not just an homage to the video nasty era but something rich and unique with multiple layers. Despite its flaws, Censor shows us that Bailey-Bond is an inquisitive filmmaker who is willing to take risks.