Enid is a censor. She works at the BBFC where she watches crappy movies for a living and dispenses judgment as to what’s excessive and what is not. She is in control. She’s trying to do what’s right; not only because this is what her job demands, but because she is subconsciously compensating for letting her little sister go missing when they were kids. One day, Enid receives a movie for certification that strikes a familiar tone. It is as though someone turned the memory of her past into a work of cinematic exploitation. This sends her down a path of intrigue into the seedy underbelly of clandestine arthouse film production where she thinks she will find some answers, but little does she know that she might lose her grip on reality in the process.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You wouldn’t be too far off if you thought you might have heard such a plot description somewhere. In fact, if you’re old enough, you might have read something in this spirit on the back of many a VHS cover at your local video rental place. The entire film is simply teeming with references, some more subtle than others. The music cues in the beginning are supposed to evoke the spirit of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. If the scene in the tunnel is giving you Possession vibes, it’s also probably not coincidental. The title of that film which sends Enid on her quest? Also a wink towards a genuine video nasty. In all honesty, between the tone, structure, the nature of the intrigue and where the film eventually goes, it’s hard not to see Censor as a kaleidoscopic love letter to giallo and other 70s and 80s exploitation movies. With a twist.
What makes Censor stand out is found beneath the primary layer of the narrative, which shouldn’t be all that surprising to anyone even vaguely versed in the history of cinema. After all, quite a lot of superficially exploitative pieces of gory and violent horror movies carried some form of easily accessible commentary or have been reappraised as such as time went on. Night of the Living Dead is easily decoded as a commentary on racial tensions, Dawn of the Dead is an indictment of consumerism, The Last House on the Left reflects the generational anxieties of the hippie movement, The Hills Have Eyes comments on fears of the Cold War leading to a nuclear holocaust, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a treaty on the cultural divides found in the American society of its time. Naturally, this trend continues unabated with films like Get Out, The Babadook, Us or It Follows to name a few, which all survive in the zeitgeist more on the merit of their social commentary and the depth of their thematic interpretation than on the superficial strengths of being successful and entertaining genre pieces.
Therefore, to find that Censor makes quite a handful of comments on the responsibility of the artist towards the audience, the vicious circle of art drawing from real events which may themselves be prodded or influenced by art, and how it all impacts on the society at large is not exactly unexpected. In all actuality, this meta-conversation found within Bailey-Bond’s film (in her feature debut no less!) elevates it well beyond the echelon of forgettable genre schlock to stand side by side with some of the titles I mentioned in the paragraph above. In terms of the conversation surrounding violence in movies, the place (if any) of censorship between the artist and the viewer and the idea of cinema and real life meshing and influencing each other is more than enough to deem Censor a stunning success that is sure to not only survive in the discourse surrounding genre cinema, but perhaps might become a noticeable node sticking out of the ocean of competitors and a useful discussion point for film historians of the future aiming to understand how cinema views itself.
But the fat lady ain’t singing yet, if you know what I mean. There’s more to find within this film within the sphere of its primary narrative as well. In a similar vein to the recent Saint Maud as well as classic works of cinema that inspired it (like Taxi Driver for example), Censor also succeeds effortlessly on the basis of its story, structured around the tried-and-true concept of following a character who slowly but surely loses her grip on reality. Thanks to the absolutely riveting performance from Niamh Algar, the entire film becomes a cinematic Venus flytrap that lures the viewer into its clutches with stylized imagery, a promise of a compelling intrigue and a readily accessible conversation about the grinding interface between art and real life, only to slowly close in on them and begin digesting their cerebral capabilities as they impotently struggle for their sanity unable to take their eyes off the screen.
In all fairness, it doesn’t really take a genius to figure out where the story is headed nor how it might go about doing so, especially to someone who might be familiar with Berberian Sound Studio or Videodrome. However, despite the fact Censor dabbles in familiar material using visual cues pointing the viewer towards highly specific genre tropes or pointed references to works of cinema it also uses to fuel its thematic conversation, the film has absolutely no problems keeping the viewer invested while the narrative slowly unravels, Enid’s perspective becomes distorted and the entire film folds in on itself like a Möbius strip and stages an exhilarating finale that is sure to leave the audience profoundly affected, if not completely discombobulated, but nonetheless roiling with thoughts and emotions.
Suffice it to say, it is now an established fact the genre of horror has grown a brain in the last ten years, and we are living through a creative renaissance of this form of cinematic expression. Censor certainly adds to this trend with bold bravado and the filmmakers’ passion for reaching back and using other people’s work as building blocks to assemble a collage of meta-giallo that is just as familiar as it is refreshing.