Debut movies can be a frightening thing for directors. There’s pressure to do well, to show the world straight out the gate what you’re capable of, and to get things right. We’ve all heard of those first time directors who arrive on the scene and blow critics and audiences away, and we’ve all heard of those disaster movies where the director failed to repair the damage done with their first release. Some of the best-known directors out there – Quentin Tarantino, Neil Marshall, James Cameron – wowed the world with their first feature film. And whilst it can be daunting to try and compete with that, Prano Bailey-Bond has created a wonderfully interesting and visually engaging debut that makes her a name to keep an eye on.
Censor takes audiences back in time to the mid 1980s – a pretty dark time for Britain. The Thatcher government was in full swing, there were strikes, protests, and civil unrest, and for those working in the film industry, or even just those into film, it was a difficult time as the ‘Video Nasties‘ reigned supreme. This was the time of a culture war led by the despicable Mary Whitehouse, where people tried to censor creative work, banned films, and dictated who could watch what, as they tried to impose their morals onto society in a last, desperate bid for control over ‘decency’.
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Enid (Niamh Algar) is in the centre of this moral panic, working for what’s clearly supposed to be the BBFC, though it’s never named directly. Made to sit down and watch several films a day to assign a rating, it’s her job to tell film companies what to cut, what to change, or even if their film ends up banned and added to the Video Nasties list. However, when a horror film is linked to a gruesome murder in the press, Enid becomes the centre of a controversy as she receives death threats and is villainised in the media for allowing the film’s release.
With the stress of the public backlash against her, she receives news from her parents that her younger sister, Nina, has been officially declared dead, after having gone missing decades before when she and Enid were playing in the woods. With her sister now on her mind, Enid is shocked when reviewing a new film when she comes to believe that the lead actress, Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) is her sister Nina grown up. Determined to find out more, and track down her lost sister, Enid’s carefully structured life starts to spiral out of control.
Censor is a very personal tale, one that centres on the character of Enid, and sticks with her throughout the film, with every scene being told from her point of view. We follow her exclusively throughout, watching as her carefully ordered life begins to unwind around her in ways that she never expected, and because we see everything through her point of view it becomes harder to know what is and isn’t real.
There are times in the film where you begin to suspect that what you’re seeing might not be lining up quite right, where there seem to be sudden changes in reality that don’t really make sense. A fairly dark, emotional conversation in a restaurant suddenly ends with Enid’s parents acting chipper and having changed the subject; is this because they wanted to end the conversation and move on, or did we miss something because Enid’s mind was elsewhere. There’s another moment later in the film where she’s arguing with someone and we hear them yell at her out of shot, but when the camera goes back to their face they don’t look angry. There are small hints throughout that perhaps Enid might not be the most stable and reliable of narrators, and it makes the film feel a lot more uncomfortable as you’re never sure if you should be buying into her theory that the actress on her screen is her lost sister or not.
And the film seems to revel with staying in the odd middle-ground, where it keeps the viewer off kilter. There are parts of the film that begin to feel eerily surreal, where a regular place and a normal moment starts to feel like it’s building towards something sinister and terrible. Bailey-Bond seems to be an expert at making the mundane into something that should be feared, and paints a frighteningly bleak vision of the 80s that’s so wonderfully at odds with all of the bright, cheery, nostalgia-driven projects that try to make the decade into a wonderful period.
Equally, Niamh Algar is mesmerising in the lead role, and delivers a stunning performance. She plays a character who, on the surface, shouldn’t really be that likeable. She seems to have a dislike for horror films, being quick to impose forced changes and high ratings on films her colleagues are willing to let slide. She sees her position as a moral imperative, a mission to protect people. She’s the kind of person I’d personally dislike, but manages to make you empathise with her numerous times. It becomes clear that she’s carrying trauma around inside her, and you often see the complexities beneath the surface in even the most simple scenes.
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Censor isn’t just a great movie, though, as this Blu-ray release comes absolutely packed with extras that makes it a phenomenally good purchase. There are three separate audio commentaries for the film, one with the director Prano Bailey-Bond and producer Kim Newman, and the other two split between the production team, and horror critics and lecturers. There are a number of interviews with the cast and crew, as well as behind the scenes making-of features. Deleted scenes, Q&A panel recordings, the director’s previous short films, and feature length documentaries about 80’s horror and the Video Nasties. It’s easy to come to this new release just for the film, but you’ll quickly get lost in the extras that fill the two disc set.
Censor is a great film all on its own, it has an interesting story that tackles a subject and era that often gets overlooked. It doesn’t rely on 80’s nostalgia, nor does it try to make the period look better or nicer than it was. It takes a fairly honest look at a troubled time in British film history, and does so whilst telling a well crafted story centred around a powerful performance. And all of this comes with so many extra features and special additions that makes this one of the best horror home releases to hit the market for a while.