Censor splices cut-throat video nasty violence with smart social commentary

The cynical gore of 1980s horror movies seeps into the real world in Prano Bailey-Bond’s razor-sharp debut, starring Niamh Algar.

Niamh Algar as Enid in Censor (2021)

▶︎ Censor is in UK cinemas from 20 August.

Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor is a smart, delirious horror that, beyond its sheer gory playfulness, hits a rather tender nerve.

Niamh Algar plays Enid, a young British woman who, in the 1980s, works as a censor of nasties, aka horror movies with sexually explicit, violent content. The quietly intense, bespectacled Enid, played by Algar with a chilling reserve, looks every bit like a prim, studious librarian. She cuts fragrantly violent scenes or shelves movies entirely, scrupulously following directives such as “eye gouging must go”. Accused of prudishness, Enid rebuffs her wryly patronising male colleague (Nicholas Burns) by saying, “I’ve trimmed but a tiny bit of the genitals.”

To share in Enid’s complete absorption in the movies’ misogynistic violence is enthralling and agonising. “What’s with these guys?” Enid’s perplexed female co-worker asks, referring to male directors’ blithe, sadistic abuse of onscreen heroines.

Bailey-Bond’s premise smartly exploits contemporary viewers’ conundrum. There’s no longer official censorship, not the Enid kind, but the movie industry continues to be plagued by sexual abuse allegations, and the larger question of violence onscreen, particularly against women, remains urgent as ever.

For female horror fans, the dilemma can be stark: even those who like their make-believe hell-raising may ask why the fright comes so often at women’s expense. Yes, victims in horror movies are figures, aka imaginative stand-ins for all human terror, regardless of gender. But they’re also actual, physical bodies, and thus point to the nagging truth that on screen, as in life, women too often bear the brunt (or god forbid, the axe).

This is also Enid’s concern, though for her own special reasons. Enid is haunted by a mysterious female figure that seems to have stepped out of a video nasty directly into her life. Enid’s sister was abducted when very young, when the two were playing in a creepy corner of dark woods. Enid’s parents are ready to declare her sibling dead, but Enid latches onto the slight possibility that a woman she’s recently seen in one of the nasties, who’s about to play her final role, might actually be her sister.

This is all it takes for Enid to embark on a feverish quest to save her loved one. It brings her to the movie set of an elusive male director, Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), whose previous nasty, Don’t Go into the Church, seems to replay her sister’s sinister abduction. Though the question, of course – and the gist of Bailey-Bond’s terror – is whether Enid’s overburdened mind hasn’t just conjured up this maddening coincidence.

Not since Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio has the shadowy world of genre movies looked so starkly beautiful. Censor is so much more than the sum of its parts, and yet each of its distinct elements is its own consummate achievement. Paulina Rzeszowska, who worked previously on Rose Glass’s British indie horror Saint Maud, delivers a production design that’s stylishly lugubrious, with pointed 1980s detail. Annika Summerson’s cinematography carries over the screening room’s claustrophobia into richly chiaroscuro-ed urban corners and home interiors. The editor Mark Towns, also previously of Saint Maud, elides Enid’s hallucinations and routine to dizzying effects. Then there’s the foreboding music by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch (previously of Rocks) that perfectly seals off Enid’s world.

Saint Maud is a fruitful comparison because its horror, similarly to that of Censor’s, stems from an over-zealous young woman (Morfydd Clark as Maud). The two heroines share the same explosive, ultimately dangerous admixture of overbearing and saviour-complex – a kind of dark ideation of spiritual sisterhood. When Enid projects her inner torment onto the pattern of insidiously fraught male behaviour, she becomes a horror subject par excellence.

In this way, Bailey-Bond presciently taps into the fact that violence has been such a deeply entrenched threat in women’s worlds that it permeates and inflects all human interactions. Trauma isn’t just an individual event, it’s a psychosomatic experience on a social scale.

Further reading