Censor review – disturbing descent into video nastiness | Sundance 2021

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The act of censorship cuts to the heart of this lairy, seedy, insidious pulp-horror melodrama from first-time feature director Prano Bailey-Bond, with images and ideas developed from her short Nasty. (She must have thought about using that title again, but Censor has the right technocratic chill.) The film is partly about the way censorship is a cousin to the more value-free business of editing, making sense of experience by cutting things out and rearranging the remaining parts. Memory is a selective, editorial act.

It is 1985 in Britain, a time of dialler phones, VHS rentals and indoor smoking, the ruling classes grimly waiting out the miners’ strike and the press in a panic about “video nasties”. Niamh Algar plays Enid, a depressed woman who, with great conscientiousness and professionalism, works as a film censor. (Although, in fact, it was in 1984 that the British Board of Film Censors cut the grumpy, puritan word “censor” and changed its name to the British Board of Film Classification.)

Enid has the unpleasant task of sitting through horrible films, with endless rape scenes, alongside her insufferable colleague Sanderson (amusingly played by Nicholas “Nathan Barley” Burns), who waves everything through, while insisting on making undergraduate comparisons to the Gloucester-blinding scene in King Lear. Enid remarks to her female colleague Anne (Clare Perkins) that her male co-workers seem pretty relaxed about male violence against women. Her boss, Fraser (Vincent Franklin), is a stuffy bureaucrat who has a questionably friendly relationship with creepy horror producer Doug (a typically sharp, black-comic turn from Michael Smiley), who breezes in for lunch with Fraser and makes odious sexist remarks to Enid.

But Enid has a terrible secret: she is haunted by a childhood trauma of loss, now a “cold case” that the police have long since given up on, and which she has spent her adult life trying to excise from her mind. This impulse explains her current vocation. And then, in the line of duty, she has to watch a strange film called Don’t Go into the Church by a mysterious exploitation director called Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), produced by Doug. The woodland scenes in his film are like the horrifying flashbacks from her own childhood that keep crowding back into her mind. Does this Frederick North know something about her case – does he have the answer to the mystery that her parents and the police couldn’t solve? Is he, in fact, the culprit?

The foggy, gloomy texture of Bailey-Bond’s movie has many sense memories of horror: the Italian slasher movies of Joe D’Amato, the under-the-counter sleaze of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, and the video-fetish connoisseurship of Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers, Brad Miska’s V/H/S horror anthology and Hideo Nakata’s J-horror Ringu. I also wonder if in creating Don’t Go into the Church, Bailey-Bond has been influenced by Edgar Wright’s spoof 70s trailer for an imaginary Brit horror called Don’t.

Censor returns us to an era when dodgy material that was under the counter could stay hidden. Explicit movies could exist in a shadowy world, where they were just a rumour, a culture that existed below the stratum of respectability, and even finding out about mainstream movies was difficult. Now digital technology and searchable databases have rendered the counter transparent and almost everything can be seen.

Bailey-Bond reconstructs the uncanny, almost occult world of film itself, and, using her budget cleverly, projects the 80s from claustrophobic closeups on period detail. Enid even says that phrase that people only say in old movies and TV: “I’ll see myself out.” And she says it at a highly unpleasant moment.

With production designer Paulina Rzeszowska and cinematographer Annika Summerson, Bailey-Bond creates something almost unbearably close and oppressive, like the bottom of a murky fish tank. It’s a very elegant and disquieting debut. I wonder what certificate it’s going to get?

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Censor review – disturbing descent into video nastiness | Sundance 2021

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