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Censor

Censor

Forty whacks with that axe should sort everything out

dir: Prano Bailey-Bond

2021

Fucking hell. Whatever the Welsh is for “fucking hell”, kindly insert phrase here.

It’s one thing to be obsessed with the “video nasty” era of horror and of under-the-counter, brown paper bag stuff; it’s another thing entirely to try to replicate it successfully.

Censor is clearly made by people who remember that seedy era. I mean, I’m making a lot of assumptions, but they at the very least seem to get the aesthetics right, and the paranoid feel. There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not a thousand per cent sure I got it all, but it’s mostly successful in creating a nasty horror flick about the era in Britain where moral scolds and tut-tutting twats were pointing to movies on video as the reason why everything was terrible, instead of laying blame where it belonged, being Thatcher and her goons.

This time of moral panic is emphasized by having much of the film set in the dull, nauseating confines of the British Film Censors office, where officious and studious nerds decide what classifications films will have, or whether they’re going to be released at all or refused classification entirely. One of these censors is called Enid (Niamh Algar). She dresses like a Mormon sisterwife, and has those awesome square framed glasses with little chains on them. She’s always awkwardly pushing them back up the bridge of her nose, in a way that indicates the actor herself doesn’t wear glasses.

She takes her work very seriously. Deathly seriously. Day in day out is spent watching horrific simulated violence on screen, and taking notes. Such a job, it could lead to burnout, to numbness, to trauma through overexposure.

Well, if that’s an argument that can be made, it doesn’t seem to be applicable to Enid. She seems to be thoroughly repressed and thoroughly unhinged before the film even started.

Her trauma, her confusion seems to stem from the childhood disappearance of her younger sister, which has never been explained. All that is known is that Nina has not been seen since some fateful day many years ago.

That’s all we know too, and that’s all we are ever going to know, because this flick isn’t about answers. It isn’t about its plot. It’s about a person whose bread and butter is censoring horror flicks, who somehow and for some reason finds herself as both the victim in a horror flick and probably the villain as well.

It’s hard to tell, it’s even harder to say. I’ve seen the flick twice and I am none the wiser, but that doesn’t detract from my “enjoyment” of it. I would put that in quotes because calling horror flicks enjoyable is kinda problematic, as this film points out. The lurid history of these video nasties is a clear lineage of mainly women being terrorised and assaulted and murdered on screen mostly for the delectation, if not outright masturbation, of the predominately male audience.

That this flick is directed by a woman is no coincidence, or a surprise, although I’m not sure the film specifically makes any feminist arguments about the horror genre itself currently or historically. It mostly seems to come from having a fascination with the era itself, the public and political hysteria at the time, and wanting to make something that fits neatly into the look and the feel of that hallowed time.

It entirely succeeds, but, and I fully admit this is a pointless argument, it’s not going to resonate with anyone other than people old enough to remember the era. Other kinds of “period pieces” don’t rely on people actually being old enough to remember the Regency era or the Glorious Revolution or, I dunno, the massacre of Byzantine Christians in Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, but this has a very specific era-appropriate quality to it.

Or maybe I’m just personalising it a bit too much. I don’t have memories of watching the actual films that would have fallen until this title or which would have been refused classification either in Britain or Australia at that time in the 70s or 80s. But I have the strong memory, after the advent of video players and cassettes for hire, like at the local milk bar, of the posters. The fucking posters! I was terrified of the posters as a kid. They held a unique fascination for me. My parents were immensely strict about that kind of stuff when I was young, and there was no way I got to watch Cannibal Apocalypse, or Tenebrae, or I Spit on Your Grave or Texas Chainsaw Massacre that young. But I remember the posters, and I remember the other kids at school gleefully talking about these films, or, especially in my case, two lovely female slightly older relatives who lived for horror films and loved telling young, naïve me about the plots of these macabre masterpieces.

When I finally got to see these flicks as an adult, well, their shoddiness stood out in stark detail, and their promise of horrific delights kinda fell away. And the ones that were truly disturbing just disgusted me, and didn’t make me want to delve further into the back catalogues of hacks whose flicks were so poorly put together that you imagine even they forgot much of what they did even while they were doing it.

The few that stood out, well, the ones that weren’t too racist or misogynist, or at least only a little bit misogynist (like being a little bit pregnant or little bit dead) stood out not always because of their plots or the acting, but because of how they looked, and how they sounded, and how scared they made me feel.

In the bits that aren’t a kill crazy rampage, the lighting, the feel of Censor is dead on. Enid, for the film’s entire length, doesn’t seem to understand what is happening to her, what happened in the past, or what she’s going to be doing from moment to moment, and that makes for a confusing and mysterious journey. In contrast with many of the flicks from the genre and time that had a mystery that is eventually explained in painstaking detail right at the end, this flick isn’t about that.

No-one’s going to pop up and explain what happened to Nina, though we are given a possible explanation, a pretty obvious one, I guess.

But I can’t be sure if that’s Enid’s memories, what she’s imagined, what she fears, what she saw in a horror film called Don’t Go In The Church, which is great advice at the best of times, or a combination of everything. There’s also the multiple spectres lurking over Enid, of what happened to Nina, of whether seeing too many movies has warped her mind, whether she’s not remembering because of trauma, of actual mysterious Beast Men and such, of a sleazy as fuck movie producer who maybe had something to do with it, or the director that Enid is convinced must have some knowledge.

And there’s Thatcher looming over everything, and Mary Whitehouse, the perpetual scold and loather of all things modern and progressive, even The Goodies, who devoted an entire episode to her, and the so-called Amnesiac Killer – someone who at first it’s claimed killed someone because they’d seen a film Enid didn’t refuse classification to, and the media, hounding Enid for her mistakes.

But then when Enid somehow finds herself within a movie, a sequel to the movie that she thinks was about her sister, everyone else is comfortable with the fact that they’re making a movie, but Enid, around whom people now seem to be dying “accidentally” all the time, is the one convinced that everything is real. Everything is so real that she’s determined to save her poor sister, so that they can all go back to the perfect life they should have been promised when they were kids.

Glitches in the “video tape”, deliberate aesthetic choices of degraded video image stock, shows us that the other people around Enid are seeing something very, heartbreakingly different.

Heartbreaking for them, if they get to survive.

All of the “good” horror flicks that are coming out lately from Britain are directed by women, and this is one of the best of the new batch. This is far more successful, for me, than Saint Maud was, though they’re linked only in that they’re contemporary horror flicks directed by female directors with dangerously delusional protagonists. This more successfully links its subject and its aesthetics to the time and place, and also doesn’t feel like a disconcerting wallow in the mental illness of a protagonist for whom you wish there was more support.

This leans in to the relish with which it blurs the lines between Enid’s repressed emotions and memories, and the horror flick tropes that Enid finally embraces in order to achieve her Peak Enidness.

So, yeah, Censor has an empowering message for all of us.

8 times I am joking about that last bit out of 10

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“I have been waiting for you, for so long.” - Censor

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