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Film Review: Censor

11 August 21 words: Jake Leonard

This uniquely British horror is a vivid and impactful tale of memory and trauma...

Director: Prano Bailey-Bond
Starring: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin
Running time: 84 minutes

Co-written and directed by Welsh up-and-coming director Prano Bailey-Bond, Censor is a vibrant, sinister and emotional film, anchored by an incredible central performance by rising Irish star Niamh Algar.  

Enid (Algar) is a film censor in Eighties Britain. This is a recognisably turbulent time, and the media and politicians are scrutinising the potentially harmful effects of ‘video nasty’ cassettes made  easily available to the public through rental stores and home players. Enid takes her job very  seriously, personally feeling the responsibility of ensuring the safe distribution of challenging  material – much to the amusement, admiration, and frustration of her colleagues. 

While sifting through the latest lurid outputs by European arthouse and indie exploitation shock doctors, Enid comes across a film that awakens an event from her past that she just can’t shake. As the lines between horror and reality blur, she becomes increasingly – and violently – obsessed  with uncovering the truth. 

This is a well put together film that balances character development, atmosphere and earned moments of gore that never feel gratuitous. There are plenty of aesthetic references to the work of  Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci in Annika Summerson’s wonderful 35mm photography, but to say that’s all it is takes away from her more subtle and evocative achievement, as well as the craft of  the production design, costume, and hair & make-up departments. 

Along with their director, what  this group of talented women do is reclaim and reimagine the aggressively masculine history of  this cinema, its fans and creators, and transport it into a period film that feels authentic yet  progressive. Censor has been somewhat fairly compared to Berberian Sound Studio and Saint Maud (a masterpiece), but it has a unique identity and tone.

Creepy rather than scary, it gets under your skin in the most satisfying way

It does a really good job of examining the problematic films caught up in the video nasty whirlwind. Some had artistic and cultural merit, while others were cheaply and cynically made depictions of (often sexualised) cruelty and abuse – for every Scanners or The Evil Dead, there was a Cannibal Holocaust or SS Experiment Camp. The press and campaigners lived for stuff like this, and circulated unverified or exaggerated stories about people being turned into killers because they’d watched one of these films, or harassing filmmakers and censors who made or passed them. It was much easier to invent and attack a physical enemy than it was to deal with the deeper problems at the roots of society. 

What Bailey-Bond manages to do is explore these films honestly – with neither judgement nor celebration – and without making them the central focus of her own project or resorting to a form of parody or homage that includes the shameful extremities they could be guilty of. 

More importantly, though, it’s a story about trauma and how we self-edit ourselves and our  memories. It’s a human tragedy with moments of sincerity, poignancy, and humour that make it a vivid and engaging nightmare, sprinkled with enough heart and truth to earn its more surreal,  cerebral, or meandering sections.  

The cast is on superb form. Michael Smiley has a particularly entertaining role as a slimy producer, while Clare Holman and Andrew Havill are pitch-perfect as Enid’s loving but socially  inept middle-class parents. Also, Clare Perkins, Felicity Montagu, Erin Shanagher, and Adrian Schiller offer some suitably touching, comedic and unsettling support, respectively.  

But it’s Algar that fleshes everything out. You can see her thought processes as she moves on screen and her timing is spot on. You buy her character and her situation, no matter how dream-like or arch it becomes. She grounds the story with an honesty and confidence that makes you forget you’re watching her act.  

Censor is great fun. Creepy rather than scary, it gets under your skin in the most satisfying way. 

Did you know? Bailey-Bond is too young to remember the first wave of the ‘video nasties’ panic first-hand, but relates it to Wales’ Nineties underground rave culture, which was outlawed by the same 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. She told Sight & Sound: “By making something illicit, what you actually do is unite an underground culture. I think there’s something quite beautiful in that idea that the oppression actually creates a community.” 

Censor is in cinemas from Friday 20 August

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