There has been plenty of modern horror films that make use of the medium in which they’re told to frame the story and create original scares. The “Found Footage” subgenre may have kicked this off, but recent additions like V/H/S utilises the tape format, making use of grainy footage and tracking issues for verisimilitude and to generate scares – last year’s Host even updated this by using Zoom. Prano Bailey-Bond‘s directorial debut, Censor is not a found footage film. It predominantly follows a traditional narrative with Bond using similar methods to contextualise the film within its setting, and disorient the audience, often to devastating effect.
Set in the mid 80’s, the film follows Enid (Niamh Algar), a straitlaced censor for the certification board with a troubled past. When reviewing one film for cuts,, she seems to recognises one of the actresses and becomes determined to uncover her identity, even as she begins to lose her grip on reality.
I knew I was going to enjoy this film from the very first frame, when the logos appeared in the crackly, dated style of 1980s VHS tapes, with incredible attention to detail. The eighties aesthetic has been run into the ground now, by Stranger Things and It, but Censor isn’t just paying lip service to the era – every detail, from the set design to the use of lighting, feels authentic but in a much less glamorous way. Stylistically, it’s similar to Tilman Singer‘s Luz and Joe Begos‘ Bliss, albeit never hitting the gory heights of these films. That being said, there are more than enough eerie moments to satisfy horror aficionados, with one nightmarish dream sequence a particular stand out, and an especially jarring use of sound design that contributes to one hell of a jump scare.
Technically it’s beautifully made, as Bond uses editing to convey Enid’s increasingly fractured psyche. At a point where reality and fantasy seem to merge, the aspect ratio subtly starts changing from widescreen to 4:3. It’s experimental but not inaccessible, and it happens so gradually that you barely notice, and the effect is impressively disconcerting.
Algar gives a perfectly judged performance as Enid, with her flat delivery and stoic outward appearance masking a huge amount of inner turmoil, reminiscent of Morfydd Clark‘s evangelical turn in Saint Maud and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Geraldine Somerville in Cracker. The little nervous tick she has, of picking the skin around her thumbnail, feels all too relatable, and as such is the most unpleasant thing in the film – a film that also features decapitations, disembowelling and other gruesome deaths.
Bond pays tribute throughout to the video nasties of the era, emulating Dario Argento and Abel Ferrara, and makes a pretty explicit reference to Lucio Fulci‘s Zombie Flesh Eaters in one fun scene, where Enid and her colleague debate the artistic merits of an eyeball getting gouged out. It’s often a wry, ironic film, (especially in the scenes featuring Nicholas Burns as a particularly sardonic censor, and Michael Smiley as a pervy producer) but it’s never overtly comic, instead drawing on the atmosphere to generate a growing sense of unease.
The final moments are beautifully ambiguous, and there’s just enough information onscreen for you to piece together what is real and what’s happening in Enid’s mind – and a few indicators that her backstory isn’t as clearcut as initially suggested. It’s very similar to Saint Maud, where what is presented as an idyllic ending, is at odds with what the audience can infer.
Censor is not only a treat for fans of video nasties and film history buffs, but a great horror film in its own right. At just under 90 minutes it never outstays its welcome, and is an assured debut from Bond in every respect, from the quietly subversive editing to the disorienting sound design. A cross between Berberian Sound Studio and Saint Maud, it manages to accurately depict the hysteria surrounding the video nasties and serve as a faithful homage to the films themselves.