Mark Anthony Ayling reviews Censor by Prano Bailey-Bond, an ‘art-horror classic-in-the-making’...
In recent years an extremely talented and subversive group of female filmmakers, including Julia Ducournau (Raw, Titane), Jennifer Kent (The Babadook), Alice Lowe (Prevenge) and Rose Glass (Saint Maud), have come to the fore, seeking to redress the gender imbalance in horror and improve upon female representation on-screen, minus the objectification, sexualisation and victimisation that, traditionally, has been associated with the male-dominated genre.
In August 2021, Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond added her voice to the chorus with the release of her debut feature, Censor, described by Mark Kermode in his review for the Guardian as ‘a brilliantly adventurous first feature.’
The film, co-executive produced by legendary genre critic and author Kim Newman and scripted by Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher, garnered innumerable plaudits on its release, and has continued to do so in the wake of ample critical success. In October 2021, the film won the prestigious Méliès d’Or, awarded by the Méliès International Festivals Federation. Prior to that, the film had been well received at a number of festivals, gathering numerous nominations and wins along the way.
Essentially the film’s plot is as follows: in a gloomy, oppressive and threatening Britain during the 1980’s, Enid Baines, the film’s principal protagonist, works as a censor, reviewing explicit and exploitative films during the era of the video nasty for the BBFC.
Enid spends her days wading through reel after reel of grim horror and atrocity, recommending cuts and classifying films for release. Enid is rigorous and seemingly dispassionate, considering her work a form of public protection. She works long hours and takes her job extremely seriously, despite the low pay, seedy work environment and intensive media and public scrutiny involved.
However, when she encounters a video nasty which is eerily reminiscent of the disappearance of her own sister a number of years ago, Enid’s fragile mental state starts to fissure. As she identifies parallels between the fictional world of mysterious filmmaker Frederick North and her own suppressed memories, she becomes convinced that her sister is alive and well and working as a scream queen in the lower echelons of trash horror videoland.
As she revisits the trauma of her childhood through the medium of film, Enid finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with the brutal world of the video nasty, embarking on a lurid and outlandish investigation to uncover whether her missing sister has indeed resurfaced as a B movie horror actress, or whether the film’s similarity to her own experience is purely coincidental.
As the film progresses, Enid’s mental state starts to buckle under the strain. Before long, the real world and the grainy, aesthetically eccentric realm of the films she has become obsessed with start to merge. Subsequently, she becomes a player in her own garishly lit grindhouse fantasy. Fiction and reality become entwined, culminating in a decidedly ambiguous denouement shot through with the nightmare logic of a David Lynch film.
On the one hand, then, Censor is a daring psychological art horror, in the classic vein of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, that unflinchingly and remorselessly tracks the mental disintegration of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. On the other, it is an insightful, darkly humorous and impeccably researched period movie that documents a specific sociological waypoint in British genre film during the mid 80’s when the changing nature of production and distribution as a result of home video meant increasingly exploitative, low budget releases were more widely available to the film viewing public.
The film perfectly captures the hysterically indignant authoritarian mood of the times, touching on the misplaced outrage of Thatcher’s Britain during the era of the video nasty, which followed in the wake of a morality campaign from Conservative curtain twitcher Mary Whitehouse. Whitehouse’s campaign quickly escalated into a froth-at-the-mouth public panic as right-wing media outlets, intent on scapegoating extreme cinema releases for any number of societal ills, whipped the public into an anxiety fuelled frenzy.
As meticulous meditations on the nature of censorship go, Bond’s film is a low-key triumph. Packed to bursting with dread and psychological uncertainty, the film queries why censorship is important and touches on the perils of a subjective approach to film classification. It also poses some serious questions about what is acceptable in film and what isn’t. Where do we draw the line? Is the experience of watching a horror film cathartic, or does the experience lead to the normalisation of untold depravities and their ultimate perpetuation in a society gone to the dogs?
Throughout the film the reasons for Enid’s mental collapse come under scrutiny. Is it a direct result of over exposure to numerous onscreen outrages or is it simply that the films she is watching are reflective of her own trauma, and the wider problems of a society struggling under the yoke of an oppressive government prone to black and white thinking?
Whilst the film does not provide any easy answers to the questions it poses, it does highlight the fact that reactionary responses to film violence are not unduly helpful and that a more balanced discussion is needed when considering the social impact of on-screen violence.
Niamh Algar is utterly convincing as the film’s psychologically traumatised, repressed protagonist Enid. Played with a straight face initially before the cracks appear, Algar is entirely engaging throughout, so much so that the audience remains sympathetic and supportive of her plight, even as the wheels come off and events take a turn for the chaotic and homicidal.
Michael Smiley provides able support as a sleazy film producer during the limited number of scenes in which he features. However, Censor is Algar’s stage and she make every second count, delivering the sort of nuanced, empathetic performance that will likely serve as a job application calling card for many years to come.
Annika Summerson, on director of photography duties, conjures up a stylised colour palate that adds genuine texture and atmosphere to the film’s many claustrophobic interiors. As the film progresses and the hallucinogenic artifice of the red, green and blue lighting arrangement, reminiscent of Dario Argento’s Suspiria, becomes more vivid, so does the fantastic element of Enid’s experience. Visually the film’s final third has the look and feel of a Twin Peaks episode, albeit one in which the twilight, supernatural components are dialled all the way up.
Atmosphere is key to the success of Censor and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch on scoring duties does an impeccable job of servicing the narrative and Summerson’s photography with a haunted, ominous and increasingly disparate soundscape composed of moody, sinister electronic components. The score is never intrusive, though it certainly lingers in the subconscious long after the film’s horrifying climax and final credits.
Overall, then, Censor is an articulate, layered art-horror classic-in-the-making that excels in all departments. Intelligent, daring and distressing, the film will appeal to horror nerds well versed in the history of the genre and casual fans alike.
You can watch a trailer for Censor below.