Editing is arguably the most valuable tool in a director's arsenal. It's not in the script, or the work put in from a committed cast and crew: it's in the chopping, changing, rearranging, or culling where a story really comes alive. It's not dissimilar to the filtering of thousands of thoughts and memories our minds go through every day. Sometimes, covering your eyes during a scary movie - or trying to forget a traumatic event altogether - is easier than just facing it.
First-time director Prano Bailey-Bond delivers a chilling look at filtering out unpleasant memories in her new film 'Censor.' Working for the British Board of Film Classification at the height of the Video Nasty controversy, our protagonist Enid Baine's (Niamh Algar, 'Wrath of Man') job exposes her to some of the most brutal exploitation and gore put on film, cutting and classifying them for public release. At this point, she's pretty much seen it all, and the constant backlash she receives from panicking Brits over the gore she lets through classification is just part of the job. After a film under Enid's approval for release becomes the centre of a copycat crime media storm, the cracks in her restrained façade begin to show, and a developing fascination with the disturbing work of director Frederick North (Adrian-Schiller, 'A Cure For Wellness') threatens not only to uncover the truth behind Enid's sister's disappearance, but to mentally undo Enid for good.
Utilising 35mm, Super8 and VHS footage to heighten the aesthetic, 'Censor' is incredibly visually effective, the cinematic equivalent of sitting a bit too close to an old, fuzzy television screen in the dead of night. The film's smartest stylistic choices come in the form of adhering to the same VHS aesthetic of the films Enid cuts every day, as she gradually struggles to tell the difference between them and her real life. I'm a huge fan of changing aspect ratios throughout a film when employed for good reason, and the slow move from widescreen 2.39:1 ratio to 4:3 in the film's third act turns the tension up to eleven as Enid's grip on reality closes in on both her and us, the horrified audience. Just as impressive is the 80s production design; if you were not alive during the decade, watching any Hollywood film would convince you everything at the time was bright and neon. While 'Censor' does dip into a more colourful palette for its gripping climax, it's also one of few films I have seen that appreciates just how brown and dull everything actually was at the time, from the costuming to Enid's drab office and flat. It's a joyless prison of her own making, a purgatory for her dormant regret over her sister's disappearance.
For an 84-minute film, 'Censor' surprisingly moves so slowly that, eventually, the tension is painfully seeping through every frame, taking its time to crawl under your skin. I love shorter horror films that do not feel the need to overstay their welcome (see: 'Saint Maud'), but the brief runtime may indicate to some that the film doesn't have that many ideas to work through. To that I ask: does a film like this need to be bursting with thematic content? Truthfully, 'Censor' only scratches the surface on the public's relationship to the more shocking corners of the art we consume, but there's plenty of opportunity for Bailey-Bond to explore that in her future projects. Her handling of 'Censor's' horror elements is so tasteful that I have no doubt in my mind that her pulling back on such social commentary is a deliberate choice, focusing her efforts on scaring the shit out of her viewers rather than overstuffing the narrative. One of my critiques of the new 'Halloween' instalment was its handling of grief and trauma amongst a sea of extra cultural discourse, and by doing away with the latter, 'Censor' is razor-sharp in its execution, offering an uncomfortably extreme close-up of a woman on a wobbly mental tightrope.
'Censor' surprisingly moves so slowly that, eventually, the tension is painfully seeping through every frame, taking its time to crawl under your skin.
We've seen horror movies about horror movies time and again, but 'Censor' spins that homage in a fresh and terrifying new way. It works as an intriguing character study on the types of people who would go into Enid's line of work, especially given her particular history of trauma. Is cutting and augmenting the work of others her way of controlling her narrative? Distracting herself through watching other extreme acts of violence? Protecting other people from the horror she's lived through? Or is Enid drawn to them for reasons far more sinister? Instead of looking at the rules of horror movies and how to abide by them or break them, 'Censor' explores how we digest horror films and how they can stay with us - and it's exactly here where my own gripes with the film lie. It's a strange predicament to grapple with, but simply put, everything I don't like about 'Censor' plays directly into what it's trying to do. As visually dynamic as the film is, its direct copying of the visuals from the films it is inspired by leaves 'Censor' no room to stand out on its own. This makes complete sense within the context of the plot, too; of course Enid's descent into madness would directly mirror the films she watches every day. In any other film, such similarity would take me completely out of the experience, but I can (only just) forgive it here by design.
Prano Bailey-Bond's palpable love of horror films - particularly the grittier nasties of decades past - allows her to knock her debut film out of the park, establishing a striking and unsettling tone. While not without its shortcomings, 'Censor' is the perfect B-horror to catch a midnight screening of at your local cinema - but don't expect to sleep well afterwards.