A few thoughts on Censor (2021)

As this post is dealing with a brand new film, it’s not technically a Late Review – which means there won’t be any spoilers to worry about!

Tonight, I visited the cinema for the first time since March 2020, for a screening of Censor (2021) – a film I knew virtually nothing about.

I’ve deliberately avoided trailers, articles and interviews about the movie, and knew only that it dealt in some way with the Video Nasty era and could be considered a horror movie.

It’s difficult to say too much about the plot without giving anything away. Not that it’s a constant domino effect of trickery and surprises, I just think it’s better to go into this film as cold as possible and let the atmosphere pull you in.

And it’ll do that.

From the opening, flickery VHS-style logos to the drab, dingy, smoke-filled censor’s offices, we’re immersed in 1980s Britain even before we get background news items featuring Margaret Thatcher and Mary Whitehouse. In case it’s not clear enough, the opening credits include a brutal montage of imagery from some of the Video Nasties themselves, with special attention seemingly given to Abel Ferrera’s The Driller Killer.

The plot revolves around film censor Enid, and we join her as she spends her days in dull, dim rooms watching horrific uncut shlock and slasher movies and determining how much should be cut to make them palatable to the public.

We find out quickly that Enid lost a sister in mysterious circumstances many years earlier, and Niamh Algar does brilliant work portraying her internal anguish and, as the film progresses, a steely but still unsure determination. It’s a layered performance that changes irrevocably as the runtime plays out, and I’m keen to see more of Algar’s work.

While we’re noting performers, lovers of British comedy will be happy to see Nathan Barley’s Nicholas Burns (giving snooty and pretentious as Enid’s colleague), Spaced’s Michael Smiley (as a sleazeball film producer), and I’m Alan Partridge’s Felicity Montagu (as an annoyed archivist). They’re all brilliant, but Smiley in particular was outstanding.

Director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond clearly has a huge affection for horror films from this era, and the dreamlike terror and vivid colours of Dario Argento and the canted angles and hysteria of Sam Raimi were clear enough for me to spot as a common or garden film geek – I’m certain anyone with a deeper love of 1970s and 1980s horror and the Video Nasty era in particular will be able to spot far more references than I could.

For me, this was a great looking, brilliantly shot and performed film with a brilliant soundtrack and some truly surreal and nightmarish imagery. One sequence in particular, as Enid hears a cry in an underground walkway and the camera follows her into darkness, is currently on constant reply in my mind right now, as are some of the moments from later in the film. Censor also asks some interesting questions about identity, memory, reality and responsibility, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Bailey-Bond has up her sleeve next.

The film offers a sleazy, woozy journey between the real world, dreams, memories and film itself, and builds to an ending which – a couple of hours after leaving the screening – I’m still mulling over. I reckon it will definitely bear repeat viewings, and while I’m not completely certain every element of it worked for me tonight, I honestly think there’ll be more to see and interpret with every watch and I’d be happy to spend another 84 minutes in the company of the Censor.

Also…

Tonight’s screening was preceded by a short film called The Call Centre, written, directed by and starring Louisa Connolly-Burnham.

The Call Centre is a (roughly), 15-minute short about Paige (Connolly-Burnham) – a shy young woman who spends her days setting up life insurance policies for strangers but longs for something more. She makes an instant connection with one customer over the phone, and her life changes forever in immeasurable ways.

Connolly-Burnham has given herself a lot to do in this, but she’s created a memorable, tense and thrilling short. Behind and in front of the camera, she is brilliant, and the use of sound especially in this was amazing.

You might think you know where this one’s going, and you might be right – but it’s quite a ride to get there. Seek it out.

The screening was followed by a brief Q&A session with Prano Bailey-Bond and Jed Sherpherd, one of the writers of pandemic smash-hit horror Host (2020).

Fun (and spoiler-free), facts from the Q&A include:

  • Bailey-Bond got the idea from a 2012 article about censorship of the Hammer horror movies, and started writing the script in 2016.
  • She name checked Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento as inspirations for the style, as well as the photography of Martin Parr and Paul Graham for the bleak, real look of 1980s Britain.
  • Some of Bailey-Bond’s favourite films which were touchstones for Censor included: Blood On Satan’s Claw, Axe (otherwise known as Lisa, Lisa), The Beyond, The Driller Killer, Nightmare In A Damaged Brain and The Witch Who Came From The Sea.
  • She’s currently working a few new projects, including an adaptation of short story Things We Lost In The Fire by Mariana Enriquez, and another collaboration with Film Four which she described as “sci-fi adjacent”.

So there we have it – my first visit to the big screen since March 2020, and quite a ride.

Thanks for reading!

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