Waking nightmare

The Plot: England, the 1980s. Film censor Enid (Niamh Algar) spends day after day trudging through trashy horror films, making cuts to anything she deems harmful to public morals. Out go the eye gougings, along with more dubious content like face eating. It’s starting to wear her down, to the concern of her more liberal male colleagues. Enid is not a well woman. She remains deeply troubled by the disappearance of her sister, who has now been declared legally dead. Could it have something to do with sleazy producer Doug (Michael Smiley), whose latest horror film might hold the key to the mystery?

The Verdict: In the early 1980s, the UK was gripped by mass hysteria over so-called video nasties as they became tabloid fodder. These were horror films that pushed the boundaries of decency and taste, potentially putting the public at harm through copycat crimes. Although many of them have now been rehabilitated and acknowledged as revered horror classics like The Evil Dead (prosecuted for obscenity!), at that time they were common enough due to the explosion of uncertified videos in rental stores. This lead to the Video Recordings Act 1984 to control the flow of this content to impressionable young minds who could watch them over and over again. This is the narrative backdrop for Censor, the feature debut of Prano Bailey-Bond. Like last year’s Saint Maud, it’s an impressive horror debut with its own distinctive style and soaked in an unnerving atmosphere of constant dread.

Bailey-Bond’s script with Anthony Fletcher focuses on Enid, a young film censor working for a Government classification authority. Although not directly referenced as such, it’s clearly modelled on the British Board Of Film Classification which in the 1980s became notorious for cutting and banning films left, right and centre (not much different to our own bunch then). She cuts what she views as disturbing content in horror films to protect people, but she’s not immune to making mistakes either. Not swayed by public pressure and the tabloids, she gets on with her job even though it’s affecting her mental health. One film in particular strikes a chord and she seeks out potential answers to the disappearance of her long-lost sister. That premise alone makes for an intriguing blend of fiction, reality and horror which compresses itself into an intense finale – even the widescreen frame gradually shrinks to the boxy Academy ratio.

Bailey-Bond conjures up a drab, oppressive regime during the Thatcher era. The classification offices are dull office floors with no windows and are male-dominated. The staff wear clothes with muted earth tones. Enid herself comes across as severe and repressed, not just on the films but on herself and her colleagues. There’s not much colour or excitement in her life, leaving it to our own Niamh Algar to flesh her out and make her a complex woman haunted by a past tragedy. Going from strength to strength following a slew of nominations and a recent IFTA for her heart-breaking performance in Calm With Horses, she infuses Enid with vulnerability and determination. As Enid’s mind frays and wanders into her own video nasty, she remains a credible presence throughout. This is where the film really moves into its own.

After an hour of deliberate drabness, Bailey-Bond moves towards a nightmarish conclusion which blurs the line between fiction and reality, cinematic dreams and real-life. She floods the film with blood-red lighting and a fantastical woodland setting not unlike a key British film from that era – Neil Jordan’s The Company Of Wolves. Bailey-Bond obviously knows her video nasties and her contemporary film history well, but it’s what she does with it and where she takes her story that really impresses. After all, film censors are people too and their minds are just as susceptible to being warped than anyone else’s. Just how warped Enid’s mind becomes, not by the films she watches but by her own corrosive fears, is something that audiences will have to discover for themselves. Censor is a waking cinematic nightmare that will linger in the mind long after the credits roll. Just like the former video nasties themselves.

Rating: 4 / 5

Review by Gareth O’Connor

Censor (UK / TBC / 84 mins)

In short: Waking nightmare

Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond.

Starring Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin.

Waking nightmare