ON BLU-RAY, DVD and DIGITAL NOW
RUNNING TIME: 84 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
1985: Enid Blines is a censor working for the British Board of Film Classification. It’s a difficult time, with politicians having found that gory horror movies are a convenient scapegoat for some of society’s ills, leading to the press working people up into a frenzy so they support the banning of such films and imprisonment for anybody selling them. The very scissor-happy Enid believes that her removal of extreme material from videos is totally the right thing to do and is helping society, but she’s very troubled when a newspaper names her as the censor who passed a horror film that inspired a man to kill his family. Then, during a screening of a movie from notorious horror director Frederick North, Enid notices that events depicted parallel her memories of her sister Nina’s disappearance when they were both children. And when she watches another of his bloody exploitationers, the lead Alice Lee resembles Nina….
I was 14 when the ludicrous Video Nasty crisis began in the UK, a thing which was so ludicrous that on one occasion an MP named Graham Bright claimed that extreme horror even affected dogs, while Apocalypse Now was removed from shelves for a while because of the slightly similarly titled Cannibal Apocalypse. I do remember it a little, though was slightly too young to really take it in. And, while I was already a fan of the really old-school horrors that were frequently shown on TV, I didn’t fully get into the more modern stuff until two years later, and immediately became very frustrated because, despite all the cool movies I was discovering in video shops – usually ran and staffed by folk who didn’t seem to give a damn what my age was – many of the most exciting-seeming films were either banned or heavily censored so that some of these incredible scenes and images described and even shown in the likes of Fangoria magazine I was unable to see. Well, for a while. I didn’t experience any under the counter jobs but a certain magazine that had the two words ‘Video’ and ‘World’ in the title had loads of advertisements in the back pages with headings like RARE UNCUT HORROR MOVIES FOR SALE. Needless to say, I soon built up a pretty solid collection even though picture quality was often awful, but I didn’t care, just owning Cannibal Holocaust or I Spit On Your Grave was enough, though quality did improve and I even double dipped on some titles. Of course most of the entries on the Banned list were eventually re-released but were usually cut, while if you were also a fan of martial arts movies you had to put up with a ban on nunchuku [chain sticks], removing some of Bruce Lee’s best moments. For goodness sake, the video of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers had to have the word ‘chainsaw’ represented by a picture of a chainsaw because the word was deemed unsuitable for people’s eyes.
Thank goodness then that this nonsense is largely a thing of the past, though the advent of political correctness has meant that film censorship of another kind is now an issue, along with an increasingly Victorian puritanism from the likes of Netflix, who’ve recently been showing, for example, a version of the original Clash Of The Titans where two brief shots of boobs in a non-sexual context have been blurred over, even though it’s still fine to show the Medusa’s head being chopped off with blood oozing from the neck. Now some may say that one shouldn’t whinge about something like that because it’s so minor, but here’s the thing; my time as a young horror fan having to fund pornography [well that’s what an announcement on many videos claimed] in order to see widely acknowledged genre classics like The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre caused me to develop an absolute hatred of censorship, a hatred that I still have. And said hatred meant that, for a while, I was finding it hard to like or even sympathise with the heroine of Censor, a rare horror film actually set within the world of censorship – I mean why haven’t there been others, for example a film about the director of a horror films who goes after the censors in order to chop them up just like they chopped up his films? Enid is introduced watching a movie with one of her fellow BBFC video “classifiers” and insisting on loads of cuts, while later on claiming that this is her mission and that it’s improving society. But due to Niamh Algar’s extremely sensitive and deep performance, and the fact that her character is deeply troubled, I got behind her after a while and really wanted her to succeed in her quest and survive to the end.
Censor, being basically two thirds one movie and one third another, doesn’t really hang together, a wry look at an insane time and environment eventually giving way to a depiction of madness and whether what we’re watching is actually happening. Parts of it recall Barberian Sound System and Saint Maud. It stops short of totally demonising the BBFC of the time [something that I would have done if I’d written the screenplay] but still adopts a point of view that most viewers ought to find to be a sane one. Enid clearly has major personal issues from the start and her happiness with the scissors could even be some kind of outlet. Said issues probably stem largely from grief, she being haunted by images of her sister Debbie whom her parents claim is dead but whom Enid still thinks has been kidnapped even after so many years. At work, a coworker asks her how she seems unfazed by the violent content in the films they screen – Enid replies that “you just need to focus on getting it right”. She seems to repress emotion and looks positively horrified when someone asks her out for a drink, though she certainly has reason to feel uneasy when a tabloid storm is created by a murder taking place that’s very much like one in [the real-life] Unhinged, which just her and one other censor were responsible for passing. We see the typical baying mob, though we also hear later on that the killer never even saw Unhinged, a possible reference to cases like the Jamie Bulger murder which caused Child’s Play 3 to be in the firing line for a while. What really startles Enid though is when she’s approached by Doug Smart, a film producer who claims that a veteran horror director named Frederick North has personally requested that she screen one of his films. A few successive events lead her to believe that Debbie is an actress working for North, but what is North’s game and can we trust everything we see considering Enid is becoming increasingly – well – unhinged?
Things become almost surreal in the final third and the aspect ratio shrinks from the standard 2.35:1 widescreen format to a 1.33:1 full frame format, reflecting I guess Enid’s deteriorating state of mind. We don’t know exactly what is happening – or indeed if it’s happening at all. It’s fairly clear that the real world and the world of a film are mixing together, but at one point it seems like we’re even getting one fantasy on top of another. The BBFC’s main argument for banning movies was the suggestion that the public couldn’t distinguish pretend from reality, but ironically Enid seems to be the one who can’t make such a distinction. And then we get an ending which may reveal a surprise [or not] but which leaves several strands hanging. Though it’s been out for some time and can be viewed at home, I still opted to see Censor in a cinema because my lounge is still no substitute in my view. I got the impression that the surprisingly full audience were really enjoying Censor until an hour in, after which there was still enjoyment but not as much, while a feeling of being unsatisfied dominated as we left our seats. And that mirrors my own views, even though I often have no problem with films going weird and refusing to explain stuff. Perhaps one reason is that we end up with something that has seemingly been far more interested in context than content, something that hasn’t really followed through in what it promised. But I don’t want to be too critical, because I also wish to praise things like the direction of Prano Bailey-Bond, whose short Nasty is a sort of prequel. The music video look of some sequences means that one isn’t surprised to find out she cut her teeth on music videos, but what the hell, I tend to like such a look in movies. Bailey-Bond’s experience means that she’s able to craft strong, almost poetic images [many of them featuring children], smooth montages and a good atmosphere. Oh, and there’s a terrific jump scare, sure proof that less is more when those are concerned.
There’s one graphic killing in ‘the real world’ which has a strange effect; it’s amusing, but we don’t particularly like ourselves for finding it to be that way because of the film that we’re watching. However, apart from a title sequence which shows clips from the likes of Driller Killer and Nightmares In A Damaged Brain, Censor tends to hold back on showing the supposedly disgusting material that our heroic butchers are subjected to, though Bailey-Bond and her co-writer Anthony Fletcher have put in some fun little things for us knowledgeable about the subject to pick up on. The film initially being viewed is called Don’t Go Into The Church [“we soon won’t be able to go anywhere” says one film hacker to another], clearly a play on Don’t Go Into The House. It looks rather too stylishly photographed with lots of that blue and red that’s almost become a cliche even though not many filmmakers of the ’70s and ’80s actually employed it; even Dario Argento and Mario Bava only used it sometimes. But we can still enjoy the reference. The ‘Beast’ of one of North’s cinematic gems [and maybe two since he’s shooting a sequel] looks very much like George Eastman/Luigi Montefiore of The Anthropophagous Beast and Absurd fame. When Enid descends into an ugly underground station, we’re probably being asked to think of Isabelle Adjani and that scene in Possession – or is it just that our brains automatically make the connection? The bits in the BBFC office almost have a sitcom feel, cue a load of annoying boomer stand-up jokes about answering machines, archives clerks, call recognition not being a thing yet, etc, while the acting of some of Enid’s colleagues is a bit ropey. Thankfully we have the great and terribly underappreciated Michael Smiley on great form as the sleazy, slimy Smart. Some anachronism grates. There may indeed have been one censor who had some common sense, but I seriously doubt that black people were hired as censors in this era, PC again trumping reality. From what I’ve read, the organisation was a clique of old middle class white men.
Censor isn’t hard enough on the BBFC for me. For example it ignores the classism which caused them to be far more lenient with arthouse fare because it was seen as the domain of the middle class who were apparently able to distinguish reality from fiction in a way the working class couldn’t, and were therefore less prone to being turned into psychopathic murderers or rapists by seeing strong material on screen, and which therefore clearly influenced the Video Nasties nonsense. I also sometimes wonder if a probably unconscious racism was also at work here seeing as most of the films on the list were from European; considering the current obsession with race, I’d have expected this to have been mentioned. There could have also been more discussion on the merits or not of these films, many of which are actually, the hopefully more mature film lover that I am now admits, pretty crap. I expected more depth from Censor, yet it still comes off as a decent commentary, even a strange kind of strange tribute, to this bizarre period in film history in the UK, and it doesn’t keep screaming the ’80s either like most recent films set in that decade; this may have been dictated for budgetary reasons, but it’s rather refreshing not to have the sights and sounds of the era thrown at you. And it gets what is perhaps its central point totally right. Enid is driven mad by movies, and we’re certainly asked to consider how a vulnerable mind can be affected by seeing chainsaws slicing people up or women being graphically raped. But that’s the thing; Enid clearly wasn’t ‘all there’ to begin with. She could have had a totally different job and still been driven into insanity. You can’t blame the films. As Peter Neal, a writer blamed for murders that copy ones that are carried out in his novels, says in Argento’s Tenebrae which made the Video Nasty list, “Let me ask you something? If someone is killed with a Smith & Wesson revolver, do you go and interview the president of Smith & Wesson?”