Censor is a cleverly wrapped thriller that wears the classically turned up London Fog overcoat of a period horror film. However, Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature film steeps the tea strongly, setting the action during the Margaret Thatcher years in a workplace rife with sexism, and a lead actor grappling with memory repression and the ticking time bomb of a loss she carries from childhood. And not only guilt for being the surviving child in her family, but perhaps some insidious involvement in her sister’s vanishing.
Enid (Niamh Algar) is buttoned downed in dress, pursed of lip, hair tightly wound in a bun, and she has a nose for distasteful content. Her job is to review low-budget films with her peers and reject or allow them to be seen by Britons. The early 1980s video nasties she is assigned to police were just so, think low-budget gore and exploitation films that pushed the genre beyond a haunted house or zombie premise in a vivid and cheesy way to shock audiences. The British had their government stepping in to fight the onslaught of such frankly disturbing films that found an audience wanting more. We aren’t talking arthouse masterpieces from the 1970s or 1980s by cinema legends like Dario Argento, but crudely cobbled efforts by the likes of a sleazy English producer who attempts rape in a scene later in the film.
Film censor Enid is, for all appearances, living a joyless life. She is meticulous in her note-taking, and her work ethic is fueled by a duty to protect. However, as we get to know her, we realize her family dynamic is odd. A younger sister, Nina, disappeared without a trace while on a woodsy outing with Enid.
The tension between Enid and her parents, who want closure, is classic British emotional theater (lack thereof) displayed at a dinner where they finally relent and reveal a death certificate to Enid. She believes Nina was abducted and still lives. This false narrative is the grist for Enid’s entire mental collapse we will witness, stoked by a screening of a film that took the news of her sister’s vanishing and dramatized the events. Reality begins to blur with imagination as Enid now believes an actor in this awful film is Nina and becomes obsessed with finding out the answers.
Niamh Algar keeps the reins on Enid until the final cut. Enid’s steady untethering from reality is more frightening than any jump scare you could have fashioned for a film about the nascent grindhouse gore scene that delighted in spurting dayglo blood, gouged eyes, and impaled victims. And with a nod to the times, the Prano Bailey-Bond debut has a grainy VHS appearance, capturing the era reflected by the deeply troubled average Joes and Jills barely making it amidst rising crime and austere policies. Bailey-Bond gives us that historical snapshot in the most revealing and ordinary ways, cementing the bleakness of the times that saw people clamoring for something to jolt them out of their stuporous existences.
Contextually it was a perfect hive to foster the VHS horror phenomenon. And the common ‘descent into madness” horror trope is given a solidly female gaze in Censor, dressed with a taste of gothic, atmospheric turns with Enid. She is a character we are never quite sure of until the end, and even then, questions linger.
The catalyst for Enid’s slow descent is a film, Don’t Go in the Church, which is part abduction, part slasher film made by an odious producer Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). North oversteps his professional boundaries when first meeting Enid. The film triggers an avalanche of repressed memories and convinces Enid her “Nina is still alive” theory is valid.
No more spoilers, other than the delight of this film is where Bailey-Bond takes us regarding Enid, as we try to ferret the truth of what is real and what is a false flag in the story. No neat endings here, but one that gives the viewer a lot of time to reflect on how we compartmentalize trauma and protect our sanity regarding catastrophic or jarring events. Bailey-Bond hits all the notes and achieves the hallmarks of apt storytelling that lingers and disturbs beyond the last frame of the film.