In writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature Censor (2021), we meet Enid (Niamh Algar), a pleasant young woman with a not-so-pleasant job: gutting the good parts of bad movies. Enid is a censor. She clearly loves her work though, or at least believes in its value, and if she looks like the stereotype of a sexless bluenose killjoy–reading glasses on a chain, hair crammed into a bun, fully buttoned-up in drab colors–she’s still not the repressed scold you’d expect, as she jousts good-naturedly with her colleagues about the artistic merits of “video nasties” with titles like Cannibal Carnage and Extreme Coda. Censor, you see, takes place during the height of the Thatcherite moral panic over hardcore horror films making their way into unsuspecting homes via the new ubiquity of VHS. Won’t someone think of the children? Have no fear; Enid will think of the children, and to that end, she spends long workdays analyzing mutilation and rape with calipers. “I just want to get it right” is her lodestar and her refrain, professional, but not dispassionate, her clinical caretaking like a surgical oncologist seeking the margins of a tumor.
There are some things you cannot get right or make right though, particularly if you’re looking in the wrong place. Every scrap of celluloid Enid would have chopped in the 1980s can be safely and anonymously torrented now, even by children, and yet society has not broken down. As the Iron Lady decries a miners’ strike as an assault on law and order from the pulpit of Enid’s TV–echoing Nixon and Reagan, not to mention forecasting Trump–we can dismiss such partisan hyperbole in hindsight. By the same token, it’s not really the horror films inspiring social unrest, and it’s not the films haunting the dim corridors of Enid’s thin excuse for a home life either. The real horror is what people are capable of off-camera, where deft scissors in the editing room can’t repair unfair fates and every cut makes it to the final cut.
We meet Enid comfortably in control at work, but our first real inkling of lurking trouble comes at a tense late dinner with her parents at a fancy restaurant. For whatever reason–do they anticipate an outburst and want to do this in a public, neutral place?–her parents choose this dinner to present her with a death certificate for her little sister Nina, missing since a murky incident in the girls’ childhood saw Enid apparently abandon her in the woods. We learn that while Enid’s parents desire the closure of finally declaring their lost daughter dead, Enid still hopes for a happy ending. All these years later, she’s still stopping random red-haired strangers, hoping that when they turn around, she’ll see her sister again. She just wants to get it right.
Home life off its track, her career quickly follows as a journalist links a film Enid allowed to be released–with significant cuts, but still–to a man’s appalling murder of his family, including eating his wife’s face as depicted in the movie. The murderer, dubbed The Amnesiac Killer, claims to remember nothing of the murders, and public outrage quickly relocates to the ones responsible for the film’s release. Somehow–it’s never explained, and that might be more significant than it seems–the journalist is able to name the censors who unleashed the film on an unwary public, and meticulous Enid finds herself the subject of professional humiliation and a campaign of harassment, complete with angry mobs and profane, threatening phone calls.
Soon after, she has an ominous encounter with a lecherous producer of horror films at the office, where she learns she’ll be reviewing a reissue of one of his films, Don’t Go in the Church, and that is where Enid’s story changes genres, from drama to full-on video nasty. While the movie itself is tame compared to films we’ve seen Enid absorb with unflickering professionalism, the substance of Don’t Go in the Church is disturbingly similar to the circumstances of her sister’s disappearance. The film, however, poses a definitive ending that Enid’s story lacks, with the older sister ax murdering the younger one.
After the viewing, Enid is badly shaken, and it sends her on a quest to learn as much as possible about the director, Frederick North. She then discovers the lead actress in many of North’s films, Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), resembles police sketches of what her sister might have grown to look like. When she attempts to convince her parents, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the first time Enid has found her sister, just as it becomes obvious that nothing will keep her from hunting Alice Lee down. Through our friend the leering producer, Enid learns that Frederick North not only specifically wanted her to view Don’t Go in the Church–”he wanted a woman’s eye on it”–but he’s filming a sequel, starring Alice Lee in her final performance. And Enid, consumed by guilt and love for her sister, is terribly certain she knows how this movie is going to end.
If this were another film, I might warn you of spoilers. Censor is a little impervious to spoilers though, as so much remains intentionally–indeed explicitly–ambiguous. Which is not to say you can’t make clear inferences assembling the parts. Amnesiac Killer, you say? Enid was the last one to see her sister? Her job is literally editing out the gory parts? Don’t Go in the Church–a reissue of an older film, mind–recalls almost exactly what Enid does remember about Nina’s disappearance, up to the murder? And now they’re filming a sequel with an actress who is a ringer for Enid’s sister as an adult? What a poetic sequence of unrelated facts! And just to double underline the point, when Enid’s coworker tries to comfort her about the Amnesiac Killer scandal, he draws on his background in psychology to speculate why the murderer can’t recall his horrific crimes. “You’d be surprised what the human brain can edit out when it can’t handle the truth.”
Censor may seem at first to have a plot hung together with these coincidences, which you could always read as an homage to the conventions of the video nasties Enid is working on. The movie is full of visual cues and references. Its own violence is nearly as implausible as what we glimpse from those period films, and while Censor never names Don’t Go in the Woods (1981) or Don’t Go in the House (1979), Enid obliquely jokes about them as she sits down to Don’t Go in the Church. “Soon we won’t be able to go anywhere.” The movie assumes you get it. But more important than the meta commentary, in the mind of a character like Enid, there are no coincidences, and that is much of the point. When we first meet her, she is scrupulously rewinding a murder scene to determine if there’s a fleeting glimpse of who dragged the female victim off. “Does it matter?” her colleague asks. “It would be nice if there was a clear sense of retribution–” Enid begins, before her coworker dismisses her as overweening, but this is key to Enid’s character and everything that comes after. Enid is unsatisfied with the ending and she will keep rewinding, rewinding, rewinding until she gets it right.
Add to this Bailey-Bond’s ridiculously gorgeous, Argento-esque use of light and color, insertion of stuttering frame skips, and manipulation of the aspect ratio to saturate Enid’s search for her sister with vivid surreality, and even before we know Enid is hallucinating events, we’re given subliminal clues that reveal themselves on subsequent viewings. And once you understand how questionable Enid’s reality is by the end, when ax wounds speak, you’re freed to start questioning everything you know up to that point. How did the journalist divine which of the anonymous government censors let that face-eating film pass? What if she invented that, too, or at least magnified it in her mind? How would we know? Even before the final act, we’ve seen her hallucinate one of those harassing phone calls. When Enid sees a tabloid photo of her splashed on a newspaper front page, is that really what would be on a newspaper front page, even in this era? And why do her parents meet her for dinner at 9pm to pass her Nina’s death certificate like they’re serving divorce papers? That’s what really gets this terror train rolling, isn’t it, the crisis of being asked to accept her parents’ wishes and let Nina rest in peace. Whose reality is this anyway?
Censor is, in its heart and soul, as much an earnest, inebriated species of sensational fiction as the video nasties it references, but it’s simultaneously a meticulously layered piece about grief, about the function of censorship in society as opposed to unhealthy repression in a person’s head, about trauma. That’s why, for all its evocation of Argento and Bava, the film Censor reminded me most of was actually another debut feature I’ve recently written about: Saint Maud. Both center a traumatized woman effectively making up stories to cope with tragedy and guilt. Both films watch that woman’s deferred trauma take the shape of an obsession with another woman they’re determined to save, a woman who does not need saving. Both films get playful with the edges of their own reality, eventually distorting their heroine’s perspective to the extent that you can’t be certain of anything you’re seeing. Two contemporary films don’t spell a trend, but thinking of other recent highlights–Midsommar, The Invisible Man, The Other Lamb, Us–it makes me wonder whether the movie monster of this era might not be a woman whose deferred pain finally becomes lethal.
Censor is, for what it’s worth, my favorite film of the year so far. I love it. Algar is pitch perfect as Enid, making her curiously likeable even as we follow her down a very wrong path. The visuals are sublime. It’s one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen and deserves a second look just to soak it all in. I think it’s tempting to watch once and dismiss it, as events start to fragment into hallucinatory gore, as a broad allegory with a well-trodden twist, but Bailey-Bond’s eye and intention is as exacting as her protagonist’s. She has effectively made two films, a psychological double feature: the one we’re watching and the one Enid thinks she is in. Even after you know Enid is the monster, she still feels like the heroine, and that is a shrill, off-key note that stays with you, particularly as there’s no way to romanticize what Enid has become as a kind of justice or destiny, as in Us or Midsommar. And fittingly, unlike Saint Maud, we don’t know how this story ends either. In making Censor work, Bailey-Bond has also achieved something really remarkable and ironic, given the subject: she’s made a film where what you don’t know or see is fully as disturbing as what you do.
Censor is available on VOD at all your favorite retailers for such things. Meanwhile, Don’t Go in the Woods and Don’t Go in the House are both currently streaming on Tubi.
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