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‘Censor’ Review: Dive into horror history becomes a waking nightmare

The grimy history of mania targeting violent art lays the foundations for this adequate movie, but its most interesting ideas are left at the door.
Credit: Magnolia

Grainy fantasies of lo-fi genre movies past and lingering paranoias over the merits of blood-soaked art collide in “Censor,” the feature-length debut for Welsh filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond hitting theaters Friday after premiering at Sundance earlier this year. By turns hypnotic and frustrating, though never more firmly in the territory of both than in its closing moments, “Censor” is an adequate and adequately mesmerizing example of using a medium to reckon with that very medium.

Here the framework places us in the time and location of the “video nasty,” a term deployed liberally enough in “Censor” that it’s worth mentioning the movie is contextually rooted in the rocky sociopolitical landscape of early-1980s Britain, when conservative leaders were keen on forging connections between mindless entertainment and deteriorating social conditions. A newspaper headline framed early on with as little subtlety as the exploitation flicks it’s targeting nicely sums up the conditions of Bailey-Bond’s setting: “Crime on the rise, video nasties to blame.” An age-old fallacy, yes, but one nonetheless echoed in the present day whenever politicians feign Twitter outrage at the latest “Grand Theft Auto” poisoning the minds of American’s youth.

All the mania doesn’t appear to be much of a thorn in the side of Enid (Niamh Algar), a censor who spends her days watching the latest splattercore movies and fine-tuning said splatter so that their distribution by legal means remains, well, bloodless. (In case you’re wondering how particular they get, a colleague remarks early on about how realistic a certain depiction of eye-gouging is.) Whether you think her job is bliss or hellish, Enid views it as a public service. Or at least the perspective is suggested when she says, “I do it to protect people,” though we don’t get much insight to judge for ourselves either way.

Is this ambiguity the result of a screenplay that’s unsure how to synchronize its humanistic touches with its fantastical ones, or is misdirection the point? It’s never really clear, but whatever the case, it’s merely in fits and starts that the more-suspenseful-than-scary “Censor” justifies its focus on Enid and not the sublimely staged horror entertainment whose contours she increasingly finds herself trapped in after a real-world killing is blamed on an overly grotesque movie she’s discovered to have approved. The news is like a taste of blood to a predatory English society looking for any reason to verbally abuse the institutions approving video nasties, and they act on it.

To be fair, though, we never really glimpse who among “nasty” fans Enid thinks she’s protecting in the first place; the general population in “Censor” is mostly faceless and shapeless to the point of nonexistance. Enid’s parents represent the only characters fully outside the world of the films their daughter watches every day, though they too will deliver troubling news that should, in theory, add a jolt of urgency to an increasingly overwhelming situation.

Instead, whatever point “Censor” is trying to make remains rather elusive within low-lit, moody environments and the gauzy aesthetics of its movie-within-a-movie moments (of which there are arguably far too few). It’s crafted with gross-out commitment but narratively imbalanced to the point that we’re often worried we missed a key revelation, which won’t do for an ostensibly straightforward story otherwise draped in an aura of moment-to-moment ambiguity. A disconnect between spare plot particulars and the barely-there emotional logic propelling Enid forward become increasingly glaring flaws the more this becomes a pseudo-detective story about confronting buried trauma (or something to that effect) after she’s particularly shellshocked by a new film she watches.

There’s some deliciously nasty novelty in this film’s foundations, to be sure, but the attempts by Bailey-Bond and fellow screenwriter Anthony Fletcher to twist conflict out of it lacks the same prickly confidence. As a result, the story ends up feeling dismembered, with dual intentions that struggle to locate a grisly harmony even as the blood starts flowing at Enid’s feet instead of on her TV screen.

For all the unrewarded emphasis “Censor” puts on itself as a sort-of character study of Enid and her spiraling state, it’s the movie’s historically informed angle of hysteria over fictional carnage which proves to be the most interesting, even if it barely transcends narrative fodder. Indeed, the hairs on the back of my neck stood most at attention not during one of the movie’s gruesome slayings or phantasmagoric visions, but in the sea of TV cameras which nearly engulf Enid as she’s increasingly drawn into the public spotlight. Various moments peppering the movie’s first half suggest it might have been more effective as a full-blooded commentary on the journalistic overinsistence to draw connections where they don’t exist, but that implied war between different media arenas is snuffed out as another device to perpetuate Enid’s volatile state of mind.

As Enid, Algar makes captivating use of a restrained blank-facedness that recalls Evan Rachel Wood, but the performance is a bit too labyrinthian for the movie’s own good early on. The closer the character spirals to full-on delirium, however, the more comfortably Algar slips into her shoes. If we have trouble buying into the more psychedelic pivots the movie takes in its final 15 minutes – a homestretch that suggests we shouldn’t have been concerned with where the borders of logic are in the first place – the supernova-level breakdown we witness leaves us enticingly unsure about what plane of reality we’ve been roped into, to say nothing of how long we and Enid have been there in the first place.

"Censor" is not rated. It's screening at some San Antonio-area theaters Friday, and will be available on VOD June 18. 

Starring: Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta

Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

2021

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