Tuesday 25 January 2022

On demand: "Censor"

I'd been briefed going in that
Censor was a film steeped in modern movie lore. I don't think I'd realised just how much it would be steeped in modern movie lore. Prano Bailey-Bond's debut opens with an early variant of the Film4 logo, before its credits offer a potted history of the "video nasty" debate that gripped Britain in the early 1980s. (Those same credits list Kim Newman as an executive producer, so rest assured the film's reach is encyclopaedic.) The main feature forms the latest iteration of the cursed or snuff film subgenre that has yielded items as varying as Theodore Roszak's cult novel Flicker and the Nic Cage vehicle 8MM. The novelty is that said film is here chanced upon by a figure of some official standing: Enid (Niamh Algar), the youngest of the censors milling around a subterranean rabbit warren that looks like the horror-flick version of the BBFC's Soho Square offices. More conservative and buttoned-down than her colleagues, Enid will also prove more susceptible than the hardened gorehounds whose eyes she aims to spare in her day job cutting the likes of (the wholly fictional) "Cannibal Carnage" and "Rat Brothel". Her Achilles heel - a childhood trauma involving a sister who went missing in the woods - is exposed once a sleazy producer (Michael Smiley) shows up with a back-catalogue item from the director of "Asphyxiate" and "Blood Red Summer". Around Enid, Bailey-Bond fills in the dank detail of a Britain left to rot under Tory rule; on a square telly, we see the party's iron-willed then-leader at conference, deflecting accusations of decadence, pointing the finger of blame elsewhere. As a vision, it's grimly familiar, to say the least.

Elsewhere, though, Bailey-Bond works her way towards something relatively original. For starters, Censor is a very specific, non-dressy period movie, allowing itself a measure of fetishistic fun with flickering tube TVs, VCRs (ask your parents) and lurid VHS cover art. Meanwhile, the script - penned by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher - explores the unusual, sometimes outright perilous position the censor once occupied in British society, as both a moral arbiter deciding what was fit for the populace to see and a tabloid whipping boy whenever real-world atrocities were traced back - almost always tenuously, as Censor acknowledges - to a contentious horror movie. (There hasn't been any real censorial fuss since the Daily Mail's failed campaigns to halt the release of Crash and Lolita at the tail-end of the Nineties; even the New Extreme Cinema of the early Noughties, whose whole deal was pushing at the boundaries of what was acceptable to depict on screen, landed a free pass on these shores, possibly as so much of it was in another language.) Context is key here: the movie works because Bailey-Bond gives Enid reason to crack up long before the cursed film ("Don't Go in the Church") triggers memories of that missing sibling. 

Algar, a standout of recent Channel 4 productions (Pure, The Bisexual, The Virtues), visibly relishes the opportunity to do something altogether nervier than her self-assured small-screen roles; one of very few young performers with a palpable inner life, she's a boon to any scene that simply observes her face bathed in the light coming off a screen. Lots of that here, and Bailey-Bond enhances Enid's inner turmoil with her own imaginative dreamscapes, smartly designed and lit to chime with the censor's daily viewing material. In the second half, images and reality are comprehensively blurred; no sooner has Enid imagined the worst than it starts to unfold before our eyes, allowing Bailey-Bond and Fletcher to pull a nifty last-reel bait-and-switch. Such stealthiness benefits from the film's propulsive narrative economy: at 84 minutes, Censor cuts to the chase before we have time to notice we're anywhere in the vicinity. Bearings are skilfully scattered. "She's losing the plot!," chuckles Enid's debonair colleague Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) as our heroine flees the office and fatefully ventures into the woods for herself. Censor immediately elevates itself over the bulk of the video nasties to which it tips its bloodstained cap by having a plot to lose.

Censor is available to stream via MUBI UK, Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player; the DVD is released through Second Sight this coming Monday. 

1 comment:

  1. For me, this lacked a James Ferman, or James Ferman stand-in, the patrician, daddy-knows-best head of the BBFC who was their public face for about twenty years, and never let anyone else get a look in. This made the film a fantasy, or more of a fantasy than it was anyway: I hope younger film fans don't mistake it for the real thing back in the 80s and 90s. The first hour, at least!