Newsflash: All your favourite slashers are weaker than the censor. It matters not if you’re the next Jason, Freddy or Pinhead, or if you are them, with just one strike the censor can shorten, curb, alter or altogether eliminate their killing spree. And they can do all this without having to leave their station.
Our lead Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) is aware of, and takes pride in, her power. “What masterpiece are we dissecting today?” she says at one point, her enunciation of “masterpiece” alone capable of directly sending the descriptor’s recipient to the guillotine. Why the disdain? Censor is set when the UK is besieged by video nasties, a colloquial term for low-budget VHS films full of blood, violence and other potentially mind-scarring atrocities. And this is no Gondry-ism or Tati-esque idea at work — during the 80s these titles sparked panic among the public and policies to protect morality. In a commendable move, Prano Bailey-Bond has her direction and co-scripting capitalise on the power of suggestion. When Enid and her fellow censors have to watch a nasty, she lets the sense-souring content unfold primarily through sound design and the actors’ subtly contorted faces. You will never see the nastiness, but via the mind’s eye, you by default visualise the worst possible version. You will devote more attention to Algar’s effortless command of the screen. You will put stock in Enid’s muted belief that she is society’s heroine whose role is to shield the masses from sicknesses captured on videotape.
With that mindset, a villain will surface. One day, Enid receives another video nasty to censor, and its lost-sister plot is familiar. Its forest setting, too. The slasher ending as well. How did said film’s director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) and producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) know of the tragic past Enid has forgotten, or purposely buried? He must have been behind the death of, nay — disappearance of, her sister? And is there a chance that the lead actress Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) is her sister? Although the mystery has the frame alternating between the dreamy and the investigative, under Bailey-Bond’s direction, Censor never loses sight of it being a nightmare. A waking nightmare that grows. Visually, the valentine-to-giallo colours from Paulina Rzeszowska’s sets become more vivid, disorienting. Cinematographer Annika Summerson and editor Mark Towns (who, with Rzeszowska, renders Censor a Saint Maud reunion of sorts) join forces to show an increasing difficulty to capture the world, the deeper Enid dives. There is even a fitting aspect-ratio change much like It Comes at Night. Algar also modifies her performance of Enid in a way that puts her ‘paragon of morality’ persona in jeopardy, without going for showiness. She takes it even further by retaining the long-held sternness in her voice, while showing uneasiness in her body language. It’s a splendid showcase of what happens when all of your badness-censoring resources are futile against a nasty of the memory.
That said, unshakable is the feeling that Censor has missed something through its hyper-focus on Enid. An extra layer in the form of commentary on today’s debate on censorship and the boundaries of interpretation, perhaps. As recognised as Mary Whitehouse and the Conservative Party’s era of video nasties may be, it seems to be under-discussed in the film. It could have provided some form of an answer for at what point censorship becomes less about protection and more about wielding power and control (worth noting: the video nasties in Censor tend to heighten femicidal tendencies, not unlike the horror genre’s debatable trait to regularly design more prolonged and terrible demises for women than men). Still, even with the missed opportunity to be omnirelevant, Bailey-Bond’s Censor is simultaneously a complete descent into madness and a debut you won’t want to slash any of its stylish, compelling minutes away.