The truth is film censors make totally logical horror movie characters, because they obviously love to cut. Some enterprising shlock-meister ought to turn that play on words into a full-on slasher movie. Writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond goes in the opposite direction, suggesting there really is something dangerous about the images her protagonist seeks to suppress. However, she has to watch the gore before demanding cuts, which forces her to see some pretty disturbing scenes that maybe not so coincidentally hit uncomfortably close to home in Bailey-Bond’s Censor, which screens again today as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Enid Baines really believes in her job as a British film censor. In the mid-1980’s, her work largely involves trimming the notorious “video nasties.” These were low-budget VHS releases that were vilified and even prosecuted for excessive violence. It is worth noting Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead and several Fulci films were on the nasty list, so clearly one man’s nastiness is another man’s art, but we digress.
Baines considers them all nasty, but she tries to be reasonable in the cuts she demands. She thought she was fairly well desensitized to on-screen violence, but she is thrown for a loop when a new nasty appears to re-enact the childhood disappearance of her long-lost sister. The leering producer, Doug Smart, also seemed to know it would strike a chord with her. Her review screening launches her down a rabbit hole, where nasty fiction and grim reality blend together.
The basic Macguffin of Censor has a lot of potential, but Bailey-Bond does not fully exploit the creepy meta-ness of nasty “art” imitating real life and the inevitable inverse, whereby real life killings are possibly committed to create on-screen murders. This is a little counter-intuitive to say, but Bailey-Bond might be a little too concerned with Baines’ inner angsts and traumas, concentrating too much on her head-space, at the expense head-tripping game-playing.
The truth is the boundary between lurid horror-movies-within-horror-movies and their revolted viewers was much more compellingly violated in Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. Astron-6’s The Editor also addresses these themes in a more entertaining way. In contrast, Bailey-Bond and co-screenwriter Anthony Fletcher never fully assemble a hall of mirrors for the viewer to get lost in, so we are always pretty sure where we are, even if Baines isn’t.
Censor still has a few things going for it. Bailey-Bond, production designer Paulina Rzeszowska, and the design team perfectly nail the video nasty aesthetic. Likewise, cinematographer Annika Summerson gives the film a distinctively gritty, grubby look. Visually, it is nearly as striking as Berberian. However, only veteran genre character actor Michael Smiley really rolls up his sleeves and gets down to the business of chewing scenery. He just radiates sleaze as Smart. Granted, Niamh Algar freaks out and melts down pretty convincingly as Baines, but she lacks the necessary visceral punch at the crucial climax (admittedly, that could be more of a directorial, tonal issue).
It is always weird to see a horror movie that hates horror movies. Berberian pulled it off. Censor comes up short. It looks cool, but the pacing is often surprisingly slack. However, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the video nasty phenomenon. Horror fans should be reminded there are probably a number of films they love on the nasty list, like the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Dario Argento’s Tenebrae. You might think it sounds like a good idea to restrict free speech for so-called “hate speech” and “fake news,” but if you do so, you open the door to ban such films too. The truth is the 1st Amendment only applies to that which offends you the most, because that is what needs protecting—from you.
Just say no to censorship, because it is bad policy and to Censor because it fritters away a promising premise. Despite some intriguing moments, Censor just isn’t recommended when it screens again tomorrow (1/30) as part of the largely online 2021 Sundance.