The idea that horror films breed violence in their viewers has long been an explored narrative in the media, especially when they want to blame something for whatever heinous act has recently been committed. And so, Censor asks the question, if horror films are so violent and can enable us to give way to some base instinct we all have, then why does this not happen to the people whose job it is to censor such films?
The question itself is fairly redundant by now, but back in 1980’s Britain, Margaret Thatcher and her cronies would encourage such talk, as if banning any sort of grotesque violence seen in films of that kind would somehow stop the escalating crime rate. This, obviously, was bollocks – and that is where Censor plants its flag. Do horror films corrupt, and if so to what degree are those who make them and those who censor them responsible?
It would seem somewhat laughable now, but the likes of Evil Dead (1981) were once seen as the darkest depths that films could go. Upon the dawn of VHS tapes, film fans could suddenly rent a film and watch it as many times as they wish. Again, the idea seems novel now in the world of constant online streaming services and same day cinema releases. But that is where we find Enid (Niamh Algar), who works for the British Board of Film Classification. Here, Enid pours of several “video nasties” and it is her job – along with her colleagues – to determine whether a film is deemed suitable viewing by the British public. Armed with her huge glasses, a stiff fashion sense and her trusty notebook, Enid pours over each film with military precision. She even informs her mother that her role is to protect the public, somewhat aggrandising herself in the process. Her colleagues aren’t keen, and her stoic professionalism cuts her out from the crowd and isolates her from friends or family. Haunted by the disappearance of her sister when they were both young, Enid hopes to one day be reunited with her, but her parents are now trying to move on – even going as far to provide Enid with her sisters freshly signed death certificate, in the hope of bringing closure to the matter. Enid agrees, until her latest assignment pushes her toward another film, in which she believes the red-headed actress is indeed her missing sister – and sparks Enid to well and truly fall down the rabbit hole.
The unpleasant nature of what it would have been like living in Thatcher-era Great Britain is only alluded to briefly here. This is perhaps for the best, as the one scene where Censor does get political seems thrown in for good measure, as the censorship board argue over the new government guidelines put in place which will only inevitably make their job harder. The point of Censor though, is not to be overly political. It could be argued that Censor’s main prerogative is to shock audiences, much like the horror films on show here would have done so at the time. Sadly Censor don’t do this either. Yes, the film starts well and entertains by the end, but the ending is predictable and can be seen coming early on. As Enid delves deeper into the mystery surrounding her missing sister, her life begins to feel more like some abstract nightmare. Director, Prano Bailey-Bond has a keen eye, and her attention to detail is admirable. Early scenes evoke the same sense of creeping dread that accompanied John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness or The Thing, and Censor sits well as a continuation of Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy – where the protagonists begin to lose their minds as much as anything else. Steeped in horror culture, Bailey-Bond doesn’t go as far as paying homage to the greats but her knowledge of the genre and appreciation for it is clear.
What irks though, is the films inability to grasp at any of its particular branches. The threads are there. It’s moodily shot Annika Summerson, and the offices of the censorship board or the subways Enid takes to get home become their own claustrophobic nightmare. As the film moves forward, we finally see some of the gore which was ripe in 1980’s horror. But, it does become flat by its final act. Tension is removed as the story develops, and any shocking reveal is muddied in its self-serious tone, and the reveal that I alluded to earlier is about as visible as a Boeing 747 landing on the M4. Censor still manages to be effective in other ways. Niamh Algar puts in a powerhouse performance, and further proves that psychological horror is best served on the shoulders of a strong female lead. The cinematography and changing of aspect ratios provide an almost otherworldly feel, while the score by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch is simply haunting. If only the rest of the film could have been as effective.
Censor is available in U.K. and Irish cinemas now.