For a roughly 20-year period beginning in the early 1980s, low-budget horror films were considered a primary threat to the safety of the British public. While reliably puritanical Americans were scandalized by the lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” their British counterparts were shocked and appalled by a slate of so-called “video nasties” — generally low-budget exploitation films that ranged from the ripe theatrics of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast to the grim sexual violence of The Last House on the Left and the Nazisploitation cycle that included such prosaic titles as Love Camp 7, Gestapo’s Last Orgy and The Beast in Heat. Following years of pressure from tabloids and special-interest groups who insisted these titles were corrupting the populace, the conservative government began applying stricter censorship standards to video releases, spurring the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to demand that certain scenes be trimmed or eliminated from even adults-only titles (rated “18”) or denying certification altogether. Selling or renting unclassified videos became a criminal offense.
It may be hard for younger cinephiles, who’ve grown up with an Internet-driven media landscape where all kinds of wild perversions and violent spectacles are available at the click of a mouse, to imagine a world where certain movies were considered genuinely dangerous. But that notion is a driving force behind Censor, a mid-1980s period piece that follows exceptionally decorous young BBFC worker Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) as she screens a seemingly never-ending stream of violent horror films for editing and classification. Driven by a belief that the censor’s scissors are a bulwark against copycat crimes, Enid sees herself as a principled expurgator, noting for instance the difference between humor and horror as she decides which frames can stay and which must be trimmed in the interest of the greater good. (At one point she boasts that, although a certain film’s grisly eye-gougings had to go, she managed to salvage the apparently more comical “tug of war” with one unfortunate victim’s intestines.) When a colleague wonders at her professional detachment while dissecting scenes of rape and bloody murder, Enid responds, proudly but maybe a bit too primly, “I’m focused on getting it right.” A grim fairy-tale backstory for Enid helps explain why she positions herself as a moral guardian: once upon a time, Enid and her kid sister were on a walk in the woods, and the younger girl disappeared without a trace. Enid’s memory of the event is imperfect, but she knows that bad things happen to good people and, after grieving for the past 20 years, she’s become convinced that movies can have a pernicious influence. So maybe it’s no wonder that she starts to suspect an obscure slasher-film director knows something about her sister’s fate — or even had something to do with it.
Director Prano Bailey-Bond, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anthony Fletcher, knows she’s onto something with this metatextual yarn — it’s a movie that’s about movies, and specifically about watching movies — but the harder she works to flesh out her subtext, the less threatening it feels. The film’s genre antecedents are numerous, but they include David Cronenberg’s unnerving Videodrome, about a man’s self-destructive attraction to a video signal specifically designed to provoke violent behavior, and Theodore Roszak’s novel Flicker, in which a film professor investigates the mind-altering work of an influential director with ties to a religious cult. The difference is that, while both Cronenberg and Roszak gleefully copped to filmmaking’s power as a destructive force inducing violent revolution or apocalypse, Bailey-Bond comes to the medium’s defense. Most overtly, after Enid’s professional confidence is shaken by tabloid allegations that a real-life murder was inspired by a scene in a film that she allowed to pass uncut, the film later includes a conspicuous line of dialogue exonerating the film. (She seems not to hear it.) There’s also a nod, late in the film, to the reality that people in the movie business are often nothing at all like the personae they project on screen — although producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) is caricatured as a smarmy sex pest.
SPOILER WARNING – PROCEED WITH CAUTION
The work of David Lynch also casts a long shadow here — Enid’s half-remembrance of the last moments she spent with her sister in a dark, fairy-tale forest has big Evil Dead meets Fire Walk with Me energy, complete with a barely seen Killer Bob type stalking the frame. There’s a moment when Enid discovers a low-budget movie shoot deep in the woods where an impassive redhead sizes her up and invites her into the trailer to get made up for her big scene that turns brilliantly woozy, suggesting the story might be about to spin off in a wholly unexpected direction. It’s a great scene, weird and rich with muted terror. (Speaking of terror, when the redhead barks, “Top off!” and Enid, this highly reserved woman who always wears her blouses buttoned up to the neck, obediently whips off her shirt, it’s genuinely startling; you get the sense she’s venturing way outside of her comfort zone.) Alas, Censor goes on to dramatize Enid’s conflation of movie and reality in disappointingly clinical fashion complete with ironic visuals that recall the more ambiguous all-is-well climax of Blue Velvet.
And there’s a problem — Enid’s character may be complex, but she’s not very interesting. If Enid believes that the filmmaker had something to do with her sister’s disappearance, she should be angry at these people. She should have a game plan. There’s a reason why the Final Girl is a popular character type in horror — she is the one who fights back, who rises up against the personification of evil, who refuses to be a victim. Enid, on the other hand, is reduced to fighting a largely imagined enemy and, despite the power she wields against other people’s narratives in the cutting room, she ultimately has little agency in her own story. I understand this is a condition that may afflict those who are traumatized by violence or otherwise haunted by tragic events, but that doesn’t make it particularly compelling drama.
Beyond these issues with the film’s script and pacing — it runs a bare 84 minutes and yet manages to feel draggy in its slow-moving first hour and rushed in its eventful climactic segment — Bailey-Bond acquits herself well as a director, drawing an appropriately intense, sometimes inscrutable performance from Algar and orchestrating lighting, costuming and production design to conjure a dreary manifestation of mid-1980s London, complete with cameo appearances by that dreariest of manifestations herself, Margaret Thatcher. Censor‘s biggest problem is that it dwells on its own discussions of gory and outlandish set pieces in other films, but wants so badly to be an intelligent portrayal of one woman’s struggle with grief that it never reaches the level of nightmarish melodrama that it constantly feints toward.