For non British audiences and younger generations, video nasties and the moral hysteria around those might not mean much but it is this interesting and not so proud part of the British film industry history that Prano Bailey-Bond has picked for the background of Censor. Opening with a montage of these infamous films, including some prominent footage of Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer, we are reminded how opportunistic politicians and moral crusaders whipped up a frenzy at the time, their target a list of films they seldom bothered to watch yet were subsequently banned.
In Censor, Enid (Niamh Algar), is, well, a censor who becomes convinced that there is a connection between a past tragedy in her family and a film she watches in the course of her work. She sets out to investigate and find its elusive director as real life and fiction collide.
While it is obviously inspired by many of the video nasties, Censor is no hollow pastiche. Its scope is wider and the director's erudite knowledge of the horror genre is very much in evidence. The film might bring back memories of Berberian Film Studio but when Peter Strickland opted for an near fetishist and faithful celebration of vintage exploitation cinema, Censor opts for a loser approach, heavily borrowing from the aesthetics of the seedier side of genre cinema but also weaving in some stylish touches that discretely reference gialli, with a balance of violence and elegance that indeed only Italian genre cinema in its heydays ever seems able to achieve. The film's sumptuous and eerie third act also indirectly references the work of Jean Rollin that invariably featured duos of nubile young women dressed in white, with a sprinkle of British salaciousness as the final touch.
Censor tackles this age old question: does art push people to do bad things? Or more accurately, eat someone's face as is the case here. Indeed exploitation films were also called out as being an influence on one of Britain's most heinous crime, the murder of James Bulger. Prano Bailey-Bond does not deliver a straight forward and expected answer but instead cultivates a certain ambiguity. That Enid's work and the images she is exposed to have an effect on her is very obvious and the way these trigger an unresolved trauma to resurface is the driving force behind the narrative. Early on, she has a conversation with a female colleague about the less salubrious motivations behind some of the outrageous acts of abuse on women that male directors conjure up on films. Later on, Michael Smiley pops up as a vile horror producer who lives up to the stereotype of the industry. There is certainly no moral lesson in here but that the film is willing to explore both sides of the debate gives it more depth.
Skillfully and patiently progressing from a realistic beginning with a perfectly recreated period setting to a cinephile phantasmagoria, there is more to Censor than just another "is it real or imaginary?" psychological thriller, it is more thought provoking and enigmatic in its message. Niamh Algar's understated yet captivating performance as a guarded woman going through an emotional turmoil as her grip on reality loosens is particularly impressive. Censor is an assured feature debut and a treat for genre fans.
Star rating: ★★★★☆
Censor. UK 2021. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond. Starring Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley...