Movies: Censor (2021)

Those who grew up in the UK in the early-to-mid 1980s no doubt remember the whole “video nasties” kerfuffle. Though I grew up in the United States, I was a kid during that same era, and as I was a total Anglophile as well as a horror fan, I was fairly aware of what was going on in the video rental market across the pond at that time, with conservative figures like Mary Whitehouse blaming all the country’s ills on a handful of gory splatter flicks, and a number of horror films being severely cut or even banned outright. It might seem ridiculous to younger people nowadays, but there was a time in Britain where you could literally be arrested just for running a video store and stocking illicit titles, like The Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, or I Spit on Your Grave, under the counter.

Welsh writer/director Prano Bailey-Bond chose to set her first feature film, Censor, during this time of profound cultural upheaval in the UK, and it’s actually a great setting, ripe with possibilities. The film premiered at 2021’s Sundance Film Festival, and won the Méliès d’Or for Best European Fantastic Film; well-known British film critic Mark Kermode was also a big fan of it, and I’m gonna have to side with him on this one, because it’s a bold and pretty brilliant debut feature.

The movie centers on Enid, played by Niamh Algar. She’s a young but very prim woman, all buttoned-up blouses and sensible shoes, hair pulled back in a tight bun. She works for the British Board of Film Classification (the BBFC), watching grisly horror films all the live-long day and typing up recommendations about what scenes should be cut out, and what rating the subsequent censored film should receive. The content of the films doesn’t seem to bother her as much as it does some of her co-workers, mostly because she is absolutely focused on “getting it right,” and she seems to wholeheartedly believe that simply trimming out a bloody eye gouging here and a brutal rape scene there is all that’s staving off a complete societal breakdown. She’s protecting the population, in her eyes, by preventing them from watching manufactured violence.

Despite Enid’s priggishness, though, she’s still a sympathetic character, mostly because the audience can tell that her prissy attitudes likely stem from some past trauma and emotional repression. A little way into the film, she meets her parents for a very awkward dinner, and they present her with a death certificate. See, Enid’s sister Nina went missing many years before, when she was seven years old; Enid was there with her when it happened, playing in the woods, but seems to have blocked out most of the memory of what exactly occurred on that day. Enid, who blames herself for the tragedy to a large degree, has chosen to believe that Nina is still alive somewhere, but her parents are convinced that their daughter is dead, and thus had a death certificate issued so that the whole family could move on with their lives. Enid considers this a slap in the face, and her already strained relationship with her parents becomes tenser still.

It also doesn’t help that she’s run into some problems at work. Though she is acknowledged as being very good and thorough at her job, her co-workers find that she takes things a bit too seriously, and call her Little Miss Perfect behind her back. But it turns out that she and one of her more easygoing co-workers passed a film called Deranged—which may or may not be referring to the real 1974 film starring Roberts Blossom that was loosely based on murderer and grave robber Ed Gein—with only minimal cuts. One of the scenes that was left intact showed a man eating someone’s face, and it turns out that a real crime has just occurred in Britain in which a man killed his wife, ate her face, then drove to his kids’ school and shot both of his children. The perpetrator claims he doesn’t remember committing the horrific act, but does helpfully tell police that he watched Deranged shortly before doing so. A media circus ensues, and because someone leaked the information that Enid was one of the censors that passed the film, she begins receiving threatening phone calls and unwanted tabloid attention.

In the midst of all this stress, Enid and another co-worker receive their latest film for review, an older movie called Don’t Go in the Church, directed by a shadowy cult filmmaker named Frederick North. The first scene of the film bears an uncomfortable resemblance to what Enid remembers about the day her sister disappeared, and Enid becomes convinced that the filmmaker must know something about where her missing sister is. She then manages to get her hands on one of Frederick North’s newer films called Asunder, which features an actress named Alice Lee, who Enid is certain must be her sister Nina. From there, Enid spirals further and further downward as her obsession with rescuing her sister from the supposedly exploitative filmmaker becomes all-consuming.

Censor is a great, entertaining film that starts out almost as buttoned-up as Enid herself, but gets more and more wild as the character’s tenuous hold on sanity starts to slip. I especially like how the film is a sly satire of the video nasty phenomenon; to wit, one of the things that always bothered me about the whole business was the hypocrisy of having a group of censors sitting in rooms watching the “sickest” horror movies day in and day out, and believing that some random person in the public doing the same thing would cause the random person to suddenly become violent, even though none of the censors ever went on a murderous rampage, as far as I’m aware. This film finds a bit of dark humor in that situation, and I was there for it.

The movie also has something to say about our own memories and past traumas, how our brains tend to “edit” events to remember things the way we want to remember them, rather than how they really were. The final sequence of Censor really drives this point home, as Enid has fully embraced the idea that she can simply trim out the bits she finds inconvenient, dangerous, or unsavory, and all the problems in the world will be solved.

With an outstanding lead performance by Niamh Algar, and some great supporting turns by Michael Smiley (of Kill List and A Field in England fame) and Nicholas Burns (from The World’s End), Censor is a clever and ambitious horror about a tumultuous time in history that addresses the dangers of repression and the importance of having a healthy outlet in which to explore our dark sides.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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