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censor review
A film censor becomes convinced a horror star is her long lost sister.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Prano Bailey-Bond

Starring: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley

censor poster

How lucky are we to live at a time when the censorship of movies is pretty much a thing of the past (well, in the western world at least)? Back in the '80s, the UK and Ireland were as censorious as any Middle Eastern nation, with anything containing the merest drop of blood (or the use of nunchuks) banned in the former and anything with an exposed nipple or hint of blasphemy denied in the latter. I recall the thrill of arriving into film school one morning to find my lecturer had sourced a dodgy pirate VHS of Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls, banned at the time in Ireland. Now you can rent the movie on VOD at the click of a button.

The heyday of film censorship in the British Isles was the mid 1980s, when the tabloids decided that horror movies were the cause of all of society's ills. Politicians quickly joined the crusade against the "video nasties", spouting nonsensical ideas about the negative effects of horror movies on the average Brit's brain. Tory twat Graham Bright even claimed that video nasties "affect dogs as well." Any time a violent crime was committed, tabloid hacks would attempt to link it to a specific movie, though no evidence was ever found that any violent crimes of the period were spurred by watching a movie. Despite this, a lot of video stores had their businesses ruined, and some even served jail time for daring to rent out a copy of Night of the Bloody Apes.

censor review

With her feature debut Censor, Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond takes us back to the height of the Video Nasties furore. For her protagonist she's chosen that mortal enemy of the horror movie fan – a film censor. Enid (Niamh Algar) is a censor for the British Board of Film Classification. Her job is to watch movies and decide whether they require cuts or sometimes outright banning. Enid believes she's "protecting" the British people from what she considers harmful content, and at one point she even spouts something close to that age old rallying cry of the fascist, "Think of the children."

While viewing a low-budget British horror movie called 'Don't Go in the Church' ("We soon won’t be able to go anywhere," Enid jokes with a colleague), Enid becomes unsettled. A scene in the movie in which a young girl is murdered by a Luigi Montefiori lookalike skews suspiciously close to the event that led to the disappearance of Enid's younger sister Nina as a child. Enid looks into the work of the film's director, Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), and finds that he regularly works with an actress called Alice Lee (Sophia La Port). Convinced that Alice is actually Nina, Enid decides to track down North. Meanwhile she's contending with the guilt of having passed a movie that the tabloids are claiming inspired a man to murder his family.

Much like Paul Schrader's Hardcore, which similarly sees a conservative anti-hero descend into a world that sickens them, Censor is essentially a reworking of John Ford's The Searchers. Enid is the film's Ethan Edwards, convinced that her sister needs saving from what she has decided is the greatest threat to her society. Enid hates horror movies, and the men who make them (in reality women filmmakers like Roberta Findlay and Nettie Pena also fell foul of the UK censor), as much as Edwards hates the Comanche. She shares a lineage with the protagonists of David Mamet's Homicide and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut in seeing evil where it doesn't really exist. Perhaps Enid has to believe that the people who make horror movies are evil because if not, then she's ruined lives for nothing with her actions.

censor review

As Enid continues her descent, the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur. The censor's main argument for banning movies was the suggestion that the public couldn't distinguish pantomime from reality, but ironically Enid seems to be the one who can't make such a distinction. In the film's bloody climax, the edges of the widescreen aspect ratio begin to subliminally close in like the walls of the Death Star's trash compactor, as though Enid is morphing into the heroine of her own horror movie. By the end we're unsure ourselves if what we're watching is real or not. Is this happening? Is it occurring only in Enid's mind? Is it a scene from the latest Frederick North movie?

Irish actress Algar is outstanding in the lead role. Believe me when I say it takes a lot for me to empathise with a film censor, but while I never agreed with Enid's views I always felt sorry and a little scared of what might happen to her, or what she might do to others. Enid spends much of the movie staring at screens through a clunky pair of spectacles, and Algar's eyes are asked to do a lot of the movie's emotional heavy lifting, betraying her psychological state as she outwardly pretends her damaging job is merely water off a duck's back.

Bailey-Bond and her crew use their relatively tight budget cleverly to suggest the mood of the 1980s rather than ram the decade down our throat like many recent movies. The director doesn't ape the look of '80s movies – visually Censor has more in common with recent horrors like It Follows and The Neon Demon – but rather recreates the time with ugly fashions, horrific domestic décor and a wonderfully convincing recreation of the carriage of a period tube train.

censor review

It's in the workings of the BBFC that the film seems anachronistic. Censor gives the BBFC far more credit than the institution likely deserves. One of Enid's coworkers constantly argues the case for horror movies in a liberal manner that I doubt would have been put forth at the time. I also find it hard to swallow that Black people were hired as censors by the BBFC in this era (as portrayed here), as everything I've read about the organisation of the period suggests it was a clique of middle class white men.

Similarly, the film ignores the classism and xenophobia that were motivating factors behind the Video Nasties furore. The censors would regularly give a pass to arthouse fare as it was seen as the domain of the middle class, who they condescendingly believed could distinguish reality from fiction in a way the working class couldn't. The character of Frederick North seems incongruous as it was overwhelmingly American and Latin filmmakers who fell foul of the censors, who had no issues with the gory product of Britain's Hammer and Amicus, which would play on BBC on Saturday nights during this period. As a British horror movie with lashings of gore and arthouse stylings, Censor would likely have caused much confusion for the BBFC of the 1980s.

Censor is on MUBI UK now.

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