Censorship has played a role in film almost ever since the medium was invented. It takes different shapes and goes to varying extremes depending on the country and the time period. In Hollywood, for instance, the Production Code established to regulate content after the advent of the talking picture at the end of the 1920s wasn’t really enforced until midway through 1934. Films made during those few years of the early 1930s were able to get away with depictions of violence and loose morals that are noticeably more explicit than films made during the latter half of the decade, where anything in violation of the Code would have to be altered, or the filmmakers would be subject to a fine. Censorship was used in depictions of race; scenes in movies featuring Black actors would often be cut from films when shown in Southern theaters.
Even today, when it seems like just about anything and everything can be portrayed both in theaters and on television, censorship is a topic of conversation. Networks like Turner Classic Movies pride themselves on airing films from those early Hollywood years “uncut and commercial free,” while streaming services like Disney Plus are doing things like covering Daryl Hannah’s butt in the movie “Splash” with CGI hair so it doesn’t detract from their family friendly brand. Content regulation can be a fascinating subject for cinephiles (it is for me, anyway), and it’s a topic that Prano Bailey-Bond tackles in her directorial debut “Censor,” a horror movie centered around censorship in the U.K. during the era of the video nasties. This time in the early 1980s saw an explosion of direct-to-video horror and exploitation movies whose violent content became a matter of public concern (movies like 1979’s “The Driller Killer,” for example), as the unregulated video market prompted fears that children would be able to get their hands on—and be subsequently negatively impacted by—these films.
“Censor” stars Niamh Algar as Enid, a woman working as a video censor during this time. The film opens with a grainy and gruesome scene set in the woods, before the camera pulls out, the aspect ratio changes, and we realize we are watching a movie within the movie. This is one of the so-called video nasties that Enid is tasked with reviewing, and it’s obvious from the outset that she takes her job seriously, more seriously than her coworkers, analyzing every detail of the scene, determining what is too real and should be cut, and what is laughable enough to remain in. As she later tells her parents over dinner, this isn’t entertainment for her; she’s protecting people. It’s at this same dinner that we learn that as a child, Enid’s little sister Nina disappeared when she was out with her in the woods, and Enid, still traumatized, has never been able to recall the exact events of that day.
In a heightened version of the public outcry that occurred over the video nasties in real life, Enid finds herself at the center of a media frenzy when a film she approved is credited for provoking a man to commit murder. This brings her to the attention of slimy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley), who works with a director named Frederick North and who wants Enid specifically to review one of his movies, titled “Don’t Go in the Church.” When Enid watches the film, the normally focused woman slowly panics as she sees parallels between it and the day Nina vanished. And as Enid investigates North, the film, and its leading lady—whose features look a little familiar—the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly blurred.
Bailey-Bond has a masterful handle on delineating between film and reality, and Enid’s perception and reality. At the start of the film, the difference between the two is clear, but it becomes more difficult to determine as the story approaches its conclusion. The aspect ratio stops changing. Enid looks like a character in a movie, as do her surroundings. She is, in a way, censoring her own reality, ultimately choosing only to see what she wishes to see, painting a picture of her life that is much rosier than what is right in front of her. Algar is compelling throughout and believably conveys Enid’s descent into madness with her flexible features; her smile can be charming, but when it needs to be, it can also be terrifying.
Bailey-Bond’s script, which she wrote with Anthony Fletcher, serves as both an intriguing mystery and a solid overview of the video nasty era, from the aforementioned media frenzy to the thorough work of the censors in monitoring content to the raids that were performed in video stores, confiscating illegal movies and shutting down places that were dealing them. It’s told with such a stunning sense of style and color (this film uses some of the most beautiful red and blue lighting) that it’s easy to forgive some of the more head-scratching moments at the end of the movie. And yet, it’s nice to see that Bailey-Bond clearly doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out for her audience, relying more heavily on mood and tone and visuals (“Censor” isn’t outright scary, but it is unnerving enough to make your skin crawl) to tell a story of a woman desperately seeking closure that is somewhat open to interpretation. Darkly funny and macabre, and as gruesome as the movies it pays tribute to, “Censor” is a remarkably unique horror film that is a movie fan’s dream.
“Censor” is now playing in select theaters and is available to watch on demand. Runtime: 84 minutes.