Censor (2021), Cutting to the Heart

Let me set the scene for you. 

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher is elected to office in the UK on a platform of evisceration of the power of trade unions and privatisation of the UK’s many nationalised industries. As a result industrialised areas of the UK are left victims of predatory corporate interest without recourse to organise effectively and lobby for their interests and rights. Her popularity as the first female prime minister is bolstered by an image as a staunch representation of old fashioned British values and someone who is willing to quash dissent from those who would bring dangerous socialist ideals into politics. Through bridging the gap between  pop-feminism and a particularly British brand of authoritarianism she allows those who resent progress to compromise with conservative feminists and maintains a strong hold on politics until she resigns in 1990 after her first challenge since her first election by a then little known backbench politician demonstrates how significantly she’d bled support in her own party. Her situation wasn’t helped by inflation pushing dangerous levels after she built her platform upon controlling it. Thatcher had also led the UK into a series of increasingly unpopular wars and foreign policy disputes with mainland Europe. Despite landslide victories in the interim, there were created huge swathes of Britain that would barely ever vote Conservative again and arguably set the groundwork for contemporary independence movements in the UK for nations other than England. 

In America similarly conservative Governments were fuelling an increasingly anti-authoritarian and provocative movement in art. The UK and America’s leaders represented a very repressed, old school version of living where buttoning up was the only way to express your ideas and empathy seemed like a moral failing. As a result, merely showing anything transgressive in your art seemed like an act of quite extreme hipness. This, and decreased censorship laws in the 60s, (which Reagan was trying his best to plug the holes in), were leading to an influx of cheaply made exploitation films on cheaply made VHS tapes from America, the UK, and Italy, some of which had already played in grindhouse cinemas. They were provided profitable distribution by the booming industry of local, independent, video rental stores. In May 1982, the Sunday Times in the UK ran a headline “How High Street Horror is Invading the Home” about such video rental stores. The Daily Mail, the UK’s resident home of Conservative moral panics about nothing, (in years since raised about innocent targets such as pop punk bands like My Chemical Romance and Green Day, video games, and Liverpool FC fans), leaps on this bandwagon, launching a campaign against transgressive cinema that would last until at least 2008 with a headline “Seize These Video Nasties”. The name stuck. This would result in a series of films that were banned from distribution by the UK Government in the 80s, using 1959’s already existing Obscene Publications Act, giving the Government license to censor titles that it considered potentially morally corrupting, i.e., you could become a bad person by watching one of these movies. This informed a lot of the backdrop for the substance of Videodrome, a movie that depicts what that reality might look like. There were various degrees of censorship but titles from the trashy likes of Gestapo’s Last Orgy, Love Camp 7, and Axe, to horror staples like The Evil Dead and Tenebrae, to arthouse classics like Possession, The Driller Killer, and The Witch Who Came From The Sea, could reliably land video distributors jail time if they were stocked. The problem here is that in publishing a list of the most morally depraved films on the market, it gave rebellious youths, exactly the people they wanted to keep these videos out of the hands of, a shopping list of videos to track down. 

So this is the world that Prano Bailey-Bond’s directorial debut takes place in. She is the latest in a series of incredibly strong voices to come out of the UK’s thriving horror scene of formally transgressive, ambitious, low budget horror movies that’s produced the likes of Ben Wheatley, Alice Low, and Peter Strickland, to name but a few. Censor stars Niamh Algar as Enid Baines, an emotionally repressed, shy, retiring censor at the BBFC, (and frankly, a fashion icon). Her problem is she has a lot of repressed memories over the disappearance of her sister in her care when they were both children, she has nightmares where flashes come back to her, when her parents present her with her sister’s death certificate. Quite reasonably, after such a long period of their daughter being missing, they want to put it behind them, knowing she will statistically most likely never be found. This unmoors Edith before a new tape from a cult filmmaker that she has to censor eerily reminds her of the dreams she has. 

Before we get into the really meaty stuff about the themes this movie presents, we should really talk about its many delightful and delectable surface pleasures. For a start, it looks gorgeous.  The film evokes the 80s with a loving period detail that has enough things to evoke the era in the set dressing without feeling the need to make it look like an alien era. It is definitely the 80s but also definitely recognisable Britain. It feels like a world I know as a Brit; underpasses I’ve walked down, video stores I’ve been in. It just looks like a version of Britain that resembles with acute verisimilitude documents of the Thatcher era. This is aided by some brilliant costume design by Saffron Cullane. Whilst still serving absolute looks, the costumes for Enid really capture, with their baggy suit trousers, mock-silk blouses, and chained eye glasses, a real sense of girl boss 80s feminism that matches the dichotomy of wanting to sacrifice as much femininity as is allowed in a patriarchal workplace in order to make the statement that you are inserting yourself into a male dominated workplace and making the statement that that is a political thing to do, a political protest in and of itself. 

The production design, by Paulina Rzeszowska who did such great work evoking a sense of the alien through social realism in Saint Maude seems to be channeling the retro stylings of Beyond The Black Rainbow’s strange matt shades and surfaces when introducing us to the censor’s office building. It feels like the kind of strange science lab that we see in films like Stage IV or The Andromeda Strain or 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which strange goings on happen, in which the scientific process is rendered surreal and dreamlike and somehow slightly sinister but also beguiling in its alien nature, in how outside of the conception of a layman it is. Through this, censorship is included in the realm of the sciences as something poetic but unobtainable. A process done through romance but sinister in the fact it is carried out by an elite few who’s green curtain we are being shown behind in whatever movie we are watching that reveals science in this way. 

Performances are stellar. Niamh Algar is, of course, stand out in the lead role, deftly weaving paranoia, with a very British stiff-upper-lip repression, eventually handling the desperation and confusion of the film’s climax deftly. Micheal Smiley is one of two actors and needle drop the film shares with Ben Wheatley’s masterful psychedelic folk horror A Field In England. He’s given a new dimension to show in this film, playing a sleazy film producer who gives Enid the way into the murder mystery at the heart of the film. He’s clearly enjoying chewing the scenery as this lascivious sleaze ball, whilst also representing perfectly the kind of workplace, institutional sexism that people like Enid had and still to a large degree have to face every day. The film also has great supporting performances from, among many stellar turns, Nicholas Burns, Sophia La Porta, and chillingly, Adrian Schiller. 

Something else interesting is how unconventionally the film is structured. Throughout the whole film I was never quite sure how far along the story it was. The film has a dreamlike flow to it, like a river, and thusly it feels like it could really take any possible turn and it might work. When violence eventually comes, it doesn’t come in neat or clean kills. The kills come in ebbs and flows where every stab feels like something brutal to the audience. As opposed to how someone like Brian de Palma might handle the same material, the scenes of violence feel messy and awkward in a way that brings home the visceral reality of death and murder. This feels thematically appropriate when we get into how the film feels about people who don’t want to think about the reality of violence. 

The psychological make up of Enid is complicated and has political implications as well as commentary on British society. The fact that she has amnesia around what happens of course ties into the fact that she cuts explicit content out of movies. Her sublimated memories show how her brain is repressing any responsibility she may or may not have in the event out of a sense of guilt. In fact, the plot of the film shows her trying to find any possible answer that isn’t, “it was your fault”. This is contrasted by the way her parents are dealing with her sister’s disappearance. They are at peace, as much as possible, with what happened and want to put it in the past. They have looked inside themselves and are moving on. Enid is able to see herself as the moral arbiter for society because she refuses to acknowledge the darkness inside her, which really demonstrates how ill equipped she is to dispense moral judgement. Her dogged attempts to get her censorship “just right” then become a desperate attempt to outrun her moral responsibility for other people and how she may have let people down or hurt others through her actions. One could reasonably make parallels to Margaret Thatcher’s policies on individualism and the non-existence of society and collective responsibility.

Following through on this idea, we then see the whole video nasty moral panic as representative of a general view of Conservatism and Thatcherism. Why is this? Well, my mind goes back to a particular George A. Romero quote. I don’t remember it exactly but it essentially boiled down to there being something inherently political about someone on screen ripping someone’s guts out. In saying what refuses to be said, in breaking taboo. We acknowledge the fragility of people, we recognise mortality, and we recognise that we have the power to help, but are rendered powerless by the barrier of the screen. This pertains to something I’ve always loved about horror that Censor actually does really well. It confronts us with feelings we maybe don’t understand and forces us to reckon with them. In Alien, you may not understand exactly why the xenomorph is so scary, but when you’re forced to reckon with it you learn about yourself and things inside you that you were previously unaware of. Horror forces you to see things inside yourself and learn about yourself; your prejudices, your own darkness, and your potential for hate. The reason Enid is so effective as a censor is that she refuses to look at that side of herself. That’s why the tapes effect her less than her other colleagues, she is just not in touch with that side of herself, and that is ultimately her downfall. 

Through this lens, we see the video nasty censorship moral panic as collectively, a government that has assumed the mantle of the UK’s moral arbiter reacting out of an inability to understand and a fear about what in themselves might be illuminated, what about the way they are constantly hurting a nation through their callous disregard for empathy, just wanting the thing challenging them in this way to go away. It would be easy then to draw comparisons to the hateful policy Thatcher institutes of Section 28, which reached out with censorship to prevent the promotion of the idea that being gay could lead to you still being happy. 

Another way Enid illuminates the Thatcherian government for us is in the way she represents a very corrupted, distorted, corporate feminism. Where as opposed to feminism’s roots in collective action and upset to the established order, this worldview seeks to say “fuck you, got mine”, pulling the ladder up behind those still struggling as long as you have adequately slotted yourself within the system. 

The film devolves into a quite jaw dropping climax that shouldn’t be spoiled but should be mentioned because it is absolutely, goddamn brilliant, and a huge attraction to the movie. It takes some of the soundtrack from A Field In England and it functions in much the same way as the climax to that movie. While it definitely doesn’t make absolute linear sense, it moves into the world of impressionism as it captures the mental environment of Enid, as the film moves beyond the need for clear structure or narrative closure. Fans of Mulholland Drive will appreciate what this picture is doing. 

Censor is yet another addition to a growing collection of new cannon British horror with the likes of Kill List and In Fabric. It’s an incredibly exciting process to watch unfold, and these films channel unique aspects of British culture in a way that feels both re-appropriative and distanced enough to make sly social commentary and insight. This is all done whilst being scary as anything any other country is producing. Censor is a beguiling, chilling, head scrambling piece of social satire that I just absolutely loved. It lit my neural cortex on fire.

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