‘Male inadequacy revenge catharsis’ is how the central character in Censor explains away the phenomenon of the 80’s video nasty in the UK; the phrase sounds very modern, but it very much fits the character of Enid Baines (Niamh Algar). She’s working for the British Board of Film Classification in 1985, but her exposure to a relentless stream of horror films seems to have caused her to be a little unhinged, and may be provoking memories connected to her sister’s disappearance. Can Enid figure out what’s real and what’s a celluloid nightmare?
So Censor is a horror film, but one that derives much of its interest from looking behind the curtain at the inner workings of our moral guardians. Enid Baines feels guilt and pain about her sister’s plight, and when she spots a lookalike in the murky films of fictitious film-maker Frederick North, she turns detective, Nancy Drew-style, and attempts to track down his next production. But Enid is alone, unsupported by staff or parents, and crosses the wires when she ends up playing a role for North. Writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond is keen to mix things up as Enid’s obsession merges her daily reality with the bloody carnage she watches so dispassionately; the later stages are something of a guddle, but not before the film has set out an aggressive stall in terms of confronting the darker side of the male gaze.
Context is everything here; I wasn’t 18 when the 80’s kerfuffle about moral censorship dominated the news, but observed what we’d now call the Streisand effect in action. The 50+ films deemed unsuitable for viewing by anyone by the BBFC became required viewing for any teenager, and we’d come back from school to watch such outré fare as The Burning or Cannibal Ferox; it took longer to track down the good ones like Tenebre or Possession. Did viewing these films destroy my moral compass and leave me a hopeless, steaming deviant? Regular readers will have their own opinions, but viewing these films certainly gave me the fear in terms of poor production levels, misogyny, poor scripting and dreadful acting. These films were a rite of passage, but are more to be laughed at than feared or taken seriously as anything other than a cultural phenomenon caused by a ridiculous act of nanny-state thinking.
This kind of subject has been tackled in films like Sinister or books like Theodore Roszak’s memorable Flicker, and for once, the background is well caught; Enid’s job is under threat because one of the films she’s passed has been mentioned as a catalyst for a real-life murder by the ‘Amnesiac killer’, and the film probes Enid’s own lack of concrete memories. If Censor starts to falter around the midway mark, it’s because there’s two films here; one a witty takedown of censorship, the other an earnest horror film, and the two sides never quite gel to a consistent tone. But with horror guru Kim Newman amongst the executive producers, Censor is certainly of interest to horror fans, even if the jump scares never quite land when the key element of dread is missing.