by Greg Carlson
10 June 2021
Horror hounds and those who -- like me -- are attracted to movies about movies will appreciate “Censor,” an intriguing but uneven period piece. The feature debut of director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond, the film is set initially within the drab offices of the group of professionals responsible for assigning film ratings during the 1980s “video nasty” phenomenon in Great Britain. Despite the potential to showcase outrageous practical effects and the onscreen depiction of blunt-force trauma and tool-assisted mayhem in tribute to artifacts like “The Driller Killer” and “I Spit on Your Grave,” Bailey-Bond demonstrates a greater interest in the psychological dimensions of her protagonist’s crucible.
Niamh Algar plays buttoned-up Enid Baines, a smart and thoughtful censor who takes seriously the work of determining what violence and gore might be left in place before any given movie to which she has been assigned can be “passed” and made legally available for public consumption. Beyond the initial act, Bailey-Bond does not explore the British Board of Film Censors (later British Board of Film Classification) and the evolution of low-budget, independent horror and exploitation moviemaking that triggered concern in the first place. “Censor” nods to the video rental store culture of the era but does not indulge it or embrace it.
Instead, the tantalizing possibility of a direct personal connection to Enid -- she starts to wonder whether a performer in a sadistic film under review could be her missing sister -- aligns the movie with tropes concerning the main character’s grip on reality. Enid’s willingness to go down that rabbit hole is reminiscent in a certain way of Harry Caul in “The Conversation.” “Censor” is nowhere near as good or as satisfying as Coppola’s beloved film, but both movies feast on personal second-guessing, paranoia, and the possibility of real danger. They also share an affection for analog technology and the power of interpreting and/or misinterpreting recordings of what we think we see and hear.
Enid might be akin to a Final Girl as she navigates her personal downward spiral and descends deep into the mystery of the film within the film (called “Don’t Go in the Church” with spot-on video nasty authenticity). And Bailey-Bond handles with confidence a number of solid scenes, including a creepy encounter with an odious and sleazy producer played with relish by Michael Smiley. Also effective is the tension between Enid and her grieving parents. The painful decision to get on with their lives by finally taking the step to have their long-departed child declared legally dead is a sobering reality check for the skeptical and frustrated Enid.
There is enough dark humor in “Censor” to avoid arguments that the filmmaker is taking it all too seriously, but Bailey-Bond carefully modulates the tone to achieve her desired outcome, which has led some to complain that there isn’t enough splatter to capitalize on the premise. Had “Censor” managed both Enid’s personal nightmare and wrestled more deliberately with some of the moral questions posed by the title, viewers might have been inclined to initiate conversations about the horror genre’s traditions of transgression.
“Censor” will be in theaters starting June 11 and on-demand beginning June 18.
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