Color, 2021, 83 mins. 39 secs.
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond
Starring Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
The ghost of the video nasty hysteria that gripped the U.K. in the '80s has drifted through many horror films over the years, but never so directly as in this divisive but rewarding debut feature from Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond. Perhaps best known beforehand for her short film festival favorite from 2015, Nasty (a twisted tale of family harmony filtered through the gory lens of Evil Dead-style video nasty viewing), Censor builds on some of the themes from that short (including an identical visual punchline at the end) but turns into a very different beast as it touches on the various facets of U.K. video censorship from the staff mandating the cuts (while presuming themselves impervious to watching far more hours of extreme violent content in a row than the average horror fan) to the unfounded public frenzies tied to real crimes and the paranoia of video shop owners. At its heart though the film is a study of an unraveling psyche in direct lineage to films like Repulsion, Symptoms, The Perfume of the Woman in Black, Images, et al, an approach that can ruffle the feathers of some viewers who want something more straightforward and slasherific. Whatever you think of the result here, it's bound to provoke some interesting discussions and eke out any number of different interpretations-- and the magnificent central performance by Niamh Algar is really something to behold.
The most uptight and rigid of the censors in her office, Enid (Algar) is distraught by her parents' aggressive steps to have her sister declared dead after disappearing in the woods years earlier, an event Enid can't seem to remember. Already scorned behind her back by coworkers, Enid becomes the central target when a film she passed called Deranged becomes an instigating factor in a murder rampage by the so-called Amnesiac Killer. When she's assigned to screen a film called Don't Go in the Church, Enid is alarmed by an opening sequence that seems to mirror her own childhood trauma with an ax-swimging twist. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, she traces the work of its director, Frederick North, to an under-the-counter tape of another film starring a dead ringer for the police composite of the missing sister aged up to adulthood. Learning that another film is now about to start shooting, Enid digs deeper into a hole from which she may never climb out.
Beautifully shot on film (for the most part), Censor starts off as a bit misleadingly with a rapid-fire snapshot of the era complete with gory clips from the likes of Nightmare and Driller Killer including aesthetic nods to the current VHS fetishizing going on today. The film itself isn't really a throwback wallow at all though, instead taking a broader look at a character and a society at large unable to parse out reality from fiction (which in turn makes it hard to figure out where danger truly lies). The film tends to get lumped in the "elevated horror" category (a condescending term if there ever was one) and tends to get name checked alongside Peter Strickland, which is fine as far as it goes given the bare similarities to Berberian Sound Studio and the rigid but fractured formalism of In Fabric. However, watching the film through that lens won't get you very far and might account for some being frustrated by the ending that doesn't provide a neat, clear explanation for its central mysteries. The film does actually work on a narrative level though if you watch it more in the mindset of David Lynch; Bailey-Bond has cited Blue Velvet among her many influences alongside the likes of Black Swan and Videodrome, but (and this might be a vague spoiler) this story really functions well in the same wheelhouse as Lost Highway or Mulholland Dr. in which the protagonists are so traumatized and unable to face their own darkness that they manifest an entire media-centric existence to keep their minds from completely fracturing. Whether these planes of existence conjured though sheer force of will actually exist isn't really the point -- if it seems real to you, then it might as well be.
Given a modest theatrical release and on-demand streaming option from Magnet in 2021 during the pandemic, Censor comes to Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome in a very dense special edition package featuring a pristine presentation of the film itself that makes for great home theater viewing. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 English track (with optional English SDH subtitles) sounds great as well, though for the most part it's very front driven and only immersive in a few select spots. The film also comes with two audio commentaries, the first featuring Bailey-Bond with cinematographer Annika Summerson. They have a great time recalling the production process including the creation of the VHS aesthetic for some choice bits, the expensive nature of shooting on film in the present day, the various found locations in the film, some of the footage cameos from Nasty, and the happy accident that led to a great sound mixing choice in the final scene. The second track features author Kat Ellinger really getting to chew on a lot of material, given that she came of age during the video nasty era and is also well versed in tropes like the Gothic madwoman. She starts off tackling the whole '80s nostalgia factor (often glossing over the far less idealistic reality of living through it in the U.K., complete with a wonderfully fiery takedown of Margaret Thatcher), then going into the perceptions of violent cinema and how it can be used to process trauma, the ties to films cited as sources like Let's Scare Jessica to Death (and the fact that this would fit perfectly in Kier-La Janisse's essential House of Psychotic Women), and tons more. It's a terrific track and very much worth a listen.
The aforementioned Nasty short (15m48s) comes next, followed by five video interviews conducted via Zoom: "Bits the Censor Cut Out" (5m14s) with editor Mark Towns, "What Protects the Censor from Losing Control?" (20m24s) with Prano Bailey-Bond and Algar together, "Precision on 35mm" (8m54s) with Summerson, and "Sense of Panic" (5m39s) with composer Emilie Levienaise-Farroch, with topics including what attracted them to the project, the advantages of shooting on film even if it gets scanned in for editing, the choices of movie clips, the creation of the music soundscape while trying to avoid pastiche, and tons more. Following that are the original trailer and "Freedom of the Image" (32m22s), a video essay by Chris O'Neill covering the most notorious and controversial films (from a narrative standpoint long in the future) with clips from Cannibal Holocaust, The Evil Dead, House by the Cemetery, Last House on the Left, The Burning, and others used to illustrate the ridiculous "plague" people feared during the video nasty era as home video became a sudden game changer. Logically enough that one is followed by the 2005 Blue Underground production Ban the Sadist Videos!, previously seen as a two-parter on Severin's House on Straw Hill (and included on their Night of the Demon) but here joined into one 91m33s whole. Severin's David Gregory who directed the doc pops up in "My Nasty Moments" (33m2s), chatting about his own coming of age during a very drab time in England when the VHS invasion led to a vitriolic controversy that upended popular culture for much of the decade where Hollywood films were suddenly mingling on the shelves with Italian cannibal films. Also included is an insert booklet with an essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas laying out the milestone films and events of the video nasty era tied to various elements of the film at hand.
Reviewed on November 25, 2021.