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Censor

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/19/21 20:48:25

"Often clever, but to what end?"
3 stars (Just Average)

"Censor" exists right on the border between clever and putting that cleverness to interesting use, and if you've got the same fondness for this material as filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond, there's likely enough overlap to make the film worth the effort of tracking it down or a delightful discovery. That enthusiasm for the 1980s video nasty era unfortunately doesn't entirely translate into a great film about that time, like she's come to know it too well to reduce it to the plot of a horror movie.

Back in the 1980s, there was a moral panic in the UK about so-called "video nasties", as the then newly-popular VHS tapes made it easy for people to get their hands on any sort of filmed material without the gatekeeping of broadcasters or a cinema box office, and the sheer volume of cheap, garish films being produced has the censors at the British Board of Film Classification like Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) working overtime. Enid draws a hard line but approaches the job with professionalism, which is why the reports of a murder seemingly inspuired by a film she passed has her shaken even before her parents inform her that they have filed the paperwork to have the sister who disappeared while they were playing as children twenty years ago declared legally dead. She has never given up, and when an older film resubmitted by producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) seems to echo Nina's disappearance to an uncanny degree, she starts searching for anything that could tie the director to that day.

The relationship between folks who make movies of any stripe, let alone horror, and their country's censor boards are fraught as a baseline and generally adversarial, and that Bailey-Bond generally errs on the side of presenting them as professional people who feel they're doing a necessary job and argue earnestly but not heatedly, a contrast to how filmmakers and audiences usually approach this group. The film quietly gives a sense of the vicious circle involved in this work, where each individual case seems kind of absurd but the weight of every gory nasty piled up can seem hard to deny. The way Niamh Algar plays that is often interesting to watch, as there's this underlying layer of Enid certain that things fit together which isn't quite religious but which isn't far off. They also do the thing where Enid takes her glasses off and the audience and other characters realize she's attractive early, and her lack of interest is interesting - is she aro-ace or just too focused on another sort of connection to make those kinds?

For all that this is interesting material and a good foundation, Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher don't use it for a whole lot. A video nasties-inspired film like this could probably benefit from having either their straightforward plotting to support a little gore or a genuine mystery plot, but Censor doesn't have much of either, ambling atmospherically from point to point but not building anything, and also not using its unique perspective as a way to explore the human desires to experience vicarious sex and violence and to control that. It's a horror movie where the filmmakers are only clever to a point; they get the genre but want to linger on details rather than dig into it.

Still, they know the 1980s milieu and how to reference a style without simply aping it, and it's often a delight to see them work with it. Bailey-Bond and cinematographer Annika Summerson shoot on 35mm film but with a likely awareness that their movie will mostly be seen on smaller screens even beyond how using digital tools influences that. There are impressively portentous scenes where Nina will follow an instinct into an enveloping black tunnel, and a really impressive ability to use the visual language of seventies/eighties British horror without appropriating the cheapness of this specific period until it's time to cross-cut and show how much Enid is, at this point, getting her understanding of these situations from that lurid exploitation.

There's never any doubt that the filmmakers know and adore the brands of horror they're referencing cold; it's a tremendously fun movie in which to spot references and technique. The next level under that surface is seldom quite so fleshed out, and while it's seldom boring, "Censor" never manages the sort of irony or unnerving ending that the filmmakers are clearly going for.

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