Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond.
Starring Niamh Algar, Sophia La Porta, Michael Smiley, Clare Holman, Andrew Havill, Vincent Franklin, Nicholas Burns, Clare Perkins, Danny Lee Wynter and Adrian Schiller.
A movie censor becomes obsessed with the work of one particular video nasty director, believing he might have some connection to the disappearance of her sister decades earlier.
Censor, the best movie of 2021 so far, opens with a routine chat between two work colleagues. “I’ve kept in most of the screwdriver stuff,” says Niamh Algar’s Enid, briefly looking up from the words “eye gouging must go” on her notepad. Normal water cooler stuff. Or at least, it is when you’re working in a dingy Soho basement as a film censor at the height of the video nasties moral panic in the 1980s. “It’s not entertainment,” says Enid during a tense phone call with her mother. “I do it to protect people.”
In the hands of debutant feature director Prano Bailey-Bond – who also co-wrote the script with regular collaborator Anthony Fletcher – the movie erupts as a delicious, poison-pen love letter to the boundary-pushing world of 1980s horror. Through the eyes of a devoted moral arbiter, Bailey-Bond reveals and revels in the intoxicating, seductive power of violent cinema and the ways in which society and individuals shove its round peg into the square hole of blame.
Despite her diligence in classifying films appropriately, Enid finds herself in the crosshairs of her boss Fraser (a neat turn from The Thick of It‘s Vincent Franklin) when a movie she classified is linked to a horrifying murder in the real world. Soon after, a routine viewing of the latest shockfest from prolific director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) triggers long-buried memories of the disappearance of Enid’s sister Nina when they were children. When she tracks down another of North’s flicks and spots a lead actor (Sophia La Porta) with a stark similarity to Nina, her memories transmogrify into an obsession.
The genius of Censor is that it effectively uses the video nasty selling point as a Trojan horse to tell a more complex story of grief and unresolved emotions. When Enid’s obsession seems to drag her into the violent world of the movies she watches – achieved via some eye-catching transitions from video grain to a fantastical twist on reality – it’s not because of the movies at all. Her loss weighs so heavily that fictional mutilations, decapitations and flayed bodies are just another thing to jot down on her notepad. Her trigger is not the nasties, but the demand from her family for her to move on from a situation she is still processing.
All of this is shouldered brilliantly by Niamh Algar, given a meaty lead role to attack with both barrels after stellar work in the likes of Calm With Horses and Shane Meadows’s brilliant TV series The Virtues. It’s a performance of both physical and emotional transformation as Enid unravels from a tightly-wound censor to someone surrounded by very real violence – swinging axes aplenty and a very Cronenbergian body wound – as the movie moves into its chaotic, neon-hued second half.
Bailey-Bond exerts an admirable degree of control over the storytelling, prioritising Enid’s internal struggles over the sort of raucous splatter that viewers might expect from a project so steeped in a very particular era of horror filmmaking. Most of the movie’s violence is confined to the brief flashes of nasties Enid is seen classifying. When the “real world” gore comes – and it does – it’s all the more shocking for its scarcity, as if it has escaped from its natural home on the screen via the transitions of that aforementioned video static.
Transition is at the heart of Censor, whether it’s the escalating hysteria of the tabloids or Enid’s difficulty navigating the stages of grief. Bailey-Bond and cinematographer Annika Summerson expertly control the movie’s use of colour, shifting from the browns and greys of Enid’s basement workplace to the vivid reds and blues of the forest finale. The lurid world of the video nasties soon starts to feel like a comfort for her – a blood-soaked escape from reality where the violence only lasts until the credits roll – as horror does for so many of its most ardent fans.
At a lean 85 minutes or so, Censor crams an extraordinary amount into the sort of brief running time beloved of genre devotees. It’s a vicious, potent debut for Bailey-Bond and a calling card for Algar as a leading lady capable of juggling tones with masterful ease – right up until one of the most chilling final scenes in recent memory. In Censor, horror bleeds from the screen into reality, while raising a middle finger to Mary Whitehouse in the process.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.