Censor (2021)

JUNE 13, 2021


One of my sadly unfinished HMAD projects was to watch all of the "Video Nasties", selecting ones I hadn't seen yet for the day's entry and giving "non canon" reviews to the ones I had. Alas, assuming I tagged them correctly, I only got a little over halfway through the list of 72 films on the "Section 1" and "Section 2" lists (the "Section 3" list was as big as the other two combined and was added later, so it was more of a "Maybe I'll do those once I finish the real ones" project). But the film Censor inspired me to at least make a list of the ones I hadn't got to yet and keep an eye out for them if they appear on Shudder or get added to the extensive/vaunted libraries of companies like Severin or Vinegar Syndrome, so *cross fingers* maybe I will eventually get to them all.

It's one of a few things that made my time with Censor ultimately rewarding overall, despite the film itself stumbled in its final reel. Set during the actual Video Nasties heyday in 1980's UK, the film stars Niamh Algar as Enid, a censor (hey that's the title!) who is tasked with writing up horror films and deciding which parts need to be removed, or if the film can even be passed for a rating at all. Unfortunately, presumably for rights issues, all of the films she watches are fake (not counting a title sequence that gives a few glimpses at real movies), which felt like a missed opportunity given the real world origins of its plot. The lone exception is Deranged, which is never seen but does play a part in the plot, as the film allegedly inspired a man to cut off his wife's face, not unlike an action that film's Ed Gein stand-in committed. Because the film got a rating with only a few cuts (and thus was not one of the banned "Nasties"), she is in hot water from the press and public, taking blame for the man's crimes because she "didn't do her job" and ban the film outright.

This subplot doesn't play much of a part in the grand scheme of things (in fact - minor spoiler - the late reveal that the guy never actually saw the movie anyway is basically tossed offhand) because Enid is far more concerned with the fact that the star of her latest assignment ("Don't Go In The Church", which prompts a pretty funny line about how they're running out of places they shouldn't go into) is a dead ringer for her sister Nina, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances when they were children. Her parents, not wishing to spend their final years hoping for a miracle, have decided to have her declared dead, so this along with the discovery of the actress who may actually be her sends Enid into a spiral. What actually happened that day? Is this actress really her sister? Will "Don't Go In The Church" get banned?

All of these plot threads established by the script by Prano Bailey-Bond (who also directed) and Anthony Fletcher, based on their earlier short titled "Nasty", have the makings of a perfectly good Polanski-type thriller where a woman unravels, but unfortunately everything goes off the rails once Enid's journey takes her to the set of the latest film starring the girl she thinks is her sister. Here, the film's Natural Born Killers-esque penchant for switching film formats and jumping between hallucinations and reality start to get the better of it, and after having me in its pocket for an hour it basically lost me. I couldn't believe how relatively quickly it began clearly heading toward a conclusion; amusingly, I saw it at the Drafthouse, which has a unique way of letting you know when a movie is almost over as they bring you the check for your dine-in service when there are only 30 minutes to go (including the credits). When my server brought the bill, I actually assumed he had it wrong and there was still lots more to go. Nope! It's just the rare film I wished was longer!

(Spoilers in the next paragraph, feel free to skip it!)

We're never given a clear explanation for what happened to her sister; we can suss it out from the little bits of info we're given along the way, but our protagonist never seems to be aware of it, which seems like a missed opportunity. There's also an undeveloped idea stemming from a Wizard of Oz-y type family film she seems to fixate on during a scene at a video store; the film comes into play in the final scene here, but again we kind of have to do a lot of the legwork ourselves (not always a problem, but when a movie is barely over 80 minutes with credits, they certainly could have padded it out with plot clarification instead of, as they do, repeating the entire credit sequence). And I love the idea that these censors are actually acting out of guilt for their own misdeeds and looking to assign blame elsewhere, but we meet at least five of her coworkers - are they all doing the same? If not, then the idea doesn't fully work, because they're just doing a job without any personal traumas informing what they do. Worse, they all just disappear from the story after a certain point, which, again, makes the movie feel incomplete. I assume it's a meta statement on how censors made those older films incomplete by hacking away at them without any regard for creative intent (the film's final shot of a VHS tape of "Censor" being ejected from a VCR points in that deconstructionist direction), but while that's a clever idea, it doesn't quite work when the film's gory murders are seen in full.

Until then, at least, it's an intriguing thriller with a unique (and appealing) backdrop. I was impressed with Algar after seeing her in the Statham vehicle Wrath of Man, and was delighted to see her taking center stage here (except for horror footage presented in full-screen, she is in every scene of the film). Her pulled back hair and matronly wardrobe tells us everything we need to know about how she might feel about the likes of Cannibal Holocaust before she even utters a word, and she handles the character's downward spiral perfectly (more and more of those tightened hairs seem to go out of place as the film continues, a nice little touch). And I hope it was intentional to present the censors' office space as the bleakest and most oppressive one of its type since Joe vs the Volcano, because it made me feel better that these horrible people would at least have to suffer in an equally horrible work environment.

I also loved the throwaway line about a film with "so many" S and F words that they couldn't cut them and just gave the film a "15" rating, because it pointed to the arbitrary nature of these boards when compared to America's MPA/CARA system. A 15 rating means no one under 15 can see the film (even with a parent), but that same rating is given to films that get PG-13s here (i.e. the Quiet Place films) as well as films that get Rs for violence (i.e. the aforementioned Wrath of Man), and even tweens can see the former without parents. So in one country, a 14 year old can't see the pretty much gore/violence free Quiet Place even with his parents, but they can all come here and see the gory/F bomb laden Spiral together. The only rating we have that teens can't see even with a parent is the super rare NC-17, which is pretty much only given to films for excessive violence or nudity (rare would-be exceptions, like The Aristocrats, end up going unrated because the NC-17 is a kiss of death).

So it's frustrating that I ended up being so cold on the film's final reel, because there was so much to like (enough that I'd still recommend seeing it, to be clear) but with a conclusion as good as the rest it'd be in that "Possibly in my top 5 for the year" kind of territory. I didn't even know it was based on a short beforehand, but it makes sense now; short filmmakers tend to have terrific ideas but fumble the endings when they make something longform, because their skill at hooking us early doesn't easily translate into a traditional three act structure. But even if the whole thing stunk, it might inspire those who have never heard of the Video Nasties to look into what is one of the more fascinating topics in horror history, so on that level I'd still call it a win anyway.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brian

    Thanks for the heads-up, that's an excellent review which gave me a clear indication that 'Censor' should be right up my alley.

    Did you notice the similarities to 'The Berberian Sound Studio' (2012), another sort of meta-approach of a film about horror filmmaking (albeit this time in 70's Italy), which employed skilled actors, expert lighting and camerawork, but also bungled its ending - care to discuss?



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