CAST: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley
RUNNING TIME: 84 mins
BASICALLY…: A film censor (Algar) becomes obsessed with a video nasty, and begins to lose her grip on reality…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The “video nasties” era was, for better or worse, a major cultural milestone for exploitation cinema. Under government regulations set during the mid-1980s, violent or disturbing movies like The Evil Dead, I Spit On Your Grave, The Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were either heavily censored for UK audiences, or banned entirely if they were deemed to be too gruesome. However, this only made people all the more curious about seeking out their full uncensored versions, and even long before the regulations were eventually repealed, those films and plenty more were keenly sought after and quickly turned into the cult favourites they have become today.
Director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond clearly harbours a strong passion for video nasties of an age long since passed, and with her debut feature Censor, she has not just made a rather stunning tribute to the style and imagery of those kinds of classic exploitation movies, but has also made a rather chilling and impressively sleazy horror movie that fits perfectly alongside its many influences.
Set during the mid-1980s, during the height of the video nasties era, our main character is Enid (Niamh Algar), a film censor whose job it is to watch several exploitation films and decide, based on their strong and often violent content, whether or not they qualify for an official release. Enid is perhaps a bit too dedicated to her job, as it somewhat provides an outlet for her own grievances, namely the long-standing disappearance of her younger sister Nina when they were children, something that Enid still feels intense guilt and responsibility for. One day, while viewing some films by noted horror director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), Enid seems to recognise one of his lead actresses Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) as none other than Nina, and becomes so convinced that her sister is not only alive and well but also acting in the very films that Enid has been tasked with censoring for vulnerable audiences, that her perception of reality begins to disintegrate in increasingly dangerous ways.
One of the many ways that you can tell Prano Bailey-Bond has spent an admirable amount of time watching so many of these classic exploitation films over the course of her life, is how closely her film ties itself to their various visual styles. Colours, for example, pop from all corners of the screen like it’s a Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci outing, from blood-tinted reds to faded shades of blue, but done in a way where it clearly matches the lead character’s extremely fragile mental state as she slowly transitions away from the muted greys and character-less wallpaper of her workplace and flat, and more into the creepy palettes of these types of movies that it’s literally her job to watch. Both the cinematography and the editing are also rather excellent at replicating the grainy, low-budget looks of a video nasty flick from that era, whether we’re actually watching one of the fictional movies-within-a-movie, or later on when the film plays around with aspect ratios and frame speeds, to a point where you could watch whole segments of Censor and be entirely within reason for thinking it was actually made at some point during the 70s or 80s.
Bailey-Bond’s film – an extraordinary debut feature in almost every way – doesn’t stop at mere visual homage, for the filmmaker also brings her own brand of horror to the party that can be wildly disturbing and completely chilling at the best of times. Standard horror clichés are neatly avoided in favour of letting mere mood and atmosphere provide the discomfort, with the true scares coming from the horrible things that human beings can do to others, whether they’re sleazy film producers (represented by Michael Smiley as this gross sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen) or the most minor of characters like an intimidating make-up artist or a creepy-looking actor who himself may or may not be covered in prosthetics. The most intimidating presence of all, though, comes from our protagonist; beyond Niamh Algar’s wondrous lead performance (wherein the actress really seems to dig up some unnerving past traumas to get to where her character is mentally), Enid is one of those leads who you’re never certain you can trust, even in scenes where she appears to be perfectly normal. Most of the time you spend with her – which is practically the entire movie – you feel this odd unease about her, like she could snap at any minute if you say or do the wrong thing about her, and as the movie progresses and her state of mind slips further and further away, you’re left feeling both uneasy about some of her behaviour, but oddly sad that her fragile psyche has compelled this grief-stricken woman to commit acts that I wouldn’t dare divulge in this review.
What Censor manages to do so well is allow audiences that might be unfamiliar with video nasties to really get the true feeling of one in this modern day and age, while also keeping the horror momentum strong without entirely relying on its archaic influences. You can watch it even if you’ve never seen a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or I Spit On Your Grave, and completely understand why films like those might not have gone over so well mere decades ago, but at the same time you’re given a rather terrifying psychological situation that carries itself all across its 84-minute running time (which, in a good way, goes by fast), up to and including its incredibly haunting climax that combines the gory sensibilities of your standard exploitation flick with creepy and absolutely scary imagery of its own nature.
What Prano Bailey-Bond has done here is nothing short of fantastic, and it not only announces her as a pure-bred horror storyteller with plenty of influence garnered from years of consuming these kinds of movies, but it also lets her achieve something not possible since the mid-80s: make a video nasty that deserves its label, but also making it a legitimately worthwhile one to seek out, censors be damned.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Censor is a glorious and gorgeous tribute to video nasties, perfectly replicating the look and feel of exploitation movies from that era while also making a legitimately creepy and intimidating horror on its own terms, and announces filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond as a new horror storyteller to take seriously. It’s one of the year’s best films.