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Review: Complex horror film ‘Censor’ dives deep into the ‘video nasty’

A young woman peers ominously out a window in the movie "Censor."
Niamh Algar in the movie “Censor.”
(Maria Lax / Magnet Releasing)

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In her daring feature debut “Censor,” writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond crafts a multilayered and meta piece of filmmaking that uses cheapie exploitation films, or “video nasties” as they were dubbed in the early 1980s in Britain, as a vehicle to explore the ways in which humans process trauma, violence, memory and collective moral panic. Anchored by a transformative lead performance by Niamh Algar, Bailey-Bond’s complex film is at once an inquiry into mediated violence and an assertion of its cathartic possibilities.

Cowritten with Anthony Fletcher, “Censor” follows Enid (Algar), a young woman who works at the censor board in England, screening gory straight-to-video horror flicks and debating with her colleagues how many eye-gougings, maimings and other bodily injuries and intimate debasements are suitable for public consumption. Enid is on the conservative side when it comes to what she’s willing to pass; she wants to get it right, and her fears are substantiated when a local man murders his family and a journalist connects it to a film that passed through her office, setting off a flurry of fervent tabloid speculation and harassment.

What troubles Enid most isn’t any of these events but a trauma from far in her past that rears its head at exactly the wrong time. As a child, her sister disappeared and when her parents seek to finally file a death certificate, Enid’s guilt and fears return with a vengeance. Her paranoia and anxiety are informed by her own work, processing the imagery of violence against women day in and day out. Her memory, reality and subconscious start to collide, blend and meld in a hallucinatory dream-like fashion, and it seems the only way for Enid to find her sister is to plunge headlong into the world of the video nasty.

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A woman in a darkened hallway looks back over her left shoulder in the movie "Censor."
Niamh Algar in the movie “Censor.”
(Maria Lax / Magnet Releasing
)

Following Enid’s heart of darkness journey, “Censor” moves from the literal to the metaphorical and symbolic. Bailey-Bond manages to balance these worlds, at once commenting on the often exploitative nature of genre filmmaking, as well as celebrating the psychological and artistic potential it holds.

Collaborating with cinematographer Annika Summerson, Bailey-Bond utilizes familiar horror aesthetics, contrasting Enid’s drab and foreboding office atmosphere with more colorful, giallo-inspired choices as the film progresses. Gorgeous, moody lighting bathes the subjects in reds, pinks, cool blues and sickly greens, rendering the mundane horrific and the horrific melodramatic. TV static and shifting aspect ratios serve as transitional tools, trapping us within the square limits of a VHS format.

“Censor” is a bold artistic statement, inspired by the history of its own genre, though it’s not an uncritical assertion, posing complicated questions about media effects without offering easy answers. If there’s a criticism to levy, it’s that at a certain point it ascends to such emotionally and visually operatic heights there’s nowhere else to go; you wonder for a moment if Bailey-Bond has “lost the plot” as it were. As an experience of mood, tone, performance and dazzlingly macabre style, it’s a striking and wholly original piece, a cinematic experience that has no obligation to offer the audience pat conclusions wrapped up in a tidy bow. This is horror after all, and things do get messy.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Censor’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes

Playing: Starts June 11, Laemmle Glendale; Landmark Westwood; Cinema City Theatres, Anaheim; available June 18 on VOD


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