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Hannah Strong

@thethirdhan

Censor – first-look review

A film censor becomes obsessed with unlocking the secrets of her sister’s disappearance in this stylish horror throwback.

Mention the name Mary Whitehouse to any Brit who was of an age from the 1960s onwards (or just knows their social history of the UK) and you’ll probably get a chuckle or deep sigh by way of response. For the best part of three decades Whitehouse railed against what she perceived as ‘indecency’ in the British media, from the use of the word ‘bloody’ on sitcom Til Death Do Us Part to just about everything that happened on Doctor Who.

After the Conservatives won the 1979 election she found an ally in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and together they clutched their pearls about the idea of Britain’s moral standing being decimated by the advent of home video. With this came the advent of the British Board of Film Censorship (since renamed Classification), which admittedly doesn’t sound like a particularly scintillating topic for a horror film, but British filmmakers have a way of turning the most mundane-sounding topics into fodder for freakouts; caravan holidays, butterfly collecting, wicker furniture… etcetera, etcetera.

Prano Bailey-Bond is an accomplished editor and short filmmaker, but her feature debut seems certain to take her to the next level. Squirrelled away in a dark screening room, diligent censor Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) watches countless hours of gore and decides what’s fit for public consumption. Her uptight attitude draws the ire of her colleagues, but out of the office she’s still trying to come to terms with the loss of her sister some years earlier, much to the chagrin of her shifty parents, who encourage her to drop the matter entirely.

After a shocking murder brings the censorship team’s work under public scrutiny, shy, slightly awkward Enid bares the brunt of the backlash, receiving disturbing phone calls and hounded by reporters. At the same time she encounters the lecherous film producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) who drops by with his latest offering: a Video Nasty from infamous director Frederick North. Enid is struck by the lead actress’ shocking resemblance to her missing sister, and becomes obsessed with the idea that Smart and North hold the key to unlocking her past.

The retro styling is reminiscent of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio while the gore and overt weirdness evokes the early work of Ben Wheatley, but Censor has enough personality of its own to avoid slipping too much into pastiche territory. Although it’s more of a mood piece than a narrative one, Niamh Algar is excellent in the lead role (having already proved herself one to watch with her supporting turn in Calm with Horses) and there’s yet to be a film not improved by an appearance from Michael Smiley.

Although it’s a fitting and gleefully gory tribute to the golden age of the video nasty, Censor also feels like a reclamation of the genre, traditionally dominated by female nudity and suffering. Effortlessly stylish and particularly assured for a debut feature, it’s only a shame that its premiere was on a laptop screen rather than loud and chaotic at a midnight screening. Still, if this is the future of British filmmaking, it’s looking brighter than ever, and not just because of all the fake blood.

Published 30 Jan 2021

Tags: Censor Prano Bailey-Bond Sundance Film Festival

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