Video nasty – a film on video considered to be gratuitously and offensively violent or pornographic. A controversial subject ever since the early 1980s, this was thanks to the unwavering determination of Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) based in the UK. In a nutshell, the aim of NVALA was to target and censor ultra-violent low-budget horror movies in an attempt to protect society from the harmful future these movies might create.
This subject has been explored numerous times in the past in cinema, with Jake West’s documentaries Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide providing the essential composite of a dark period in the United Kingdom’s film classification history. Fast forward to 2021 and Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor hits cinema screens as a means of further exploring this historical era. It serves up a deliciously sleazy tale, aimed at those courageous enough to journey down the ultra-violent rabbit hole.
Censor follows Enid Baines, played by the superb Niamh Algar, a film censor who lives a sheltered life due to a traumatic experience as a child involving the disappearance of her younger sister. After a chance meeting with notorious horror producer, Doug Smart (Michael Smiley), Enid views enigmatic director Frederick North’s newest yet strangely familiar flick, Don’t Go In The Church. Enid quickly begins to lose her grip on reality leading her on an unsettling quest to find her missing sister.
Right off the bat, Bailey-Bond’s spiritual successor to her 2015 short film, Nasty, opens with a grainy VHS-styled credits sequence that immediately solidifies what sort of cinematic experience Censor is going to be. References to Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou, footage of Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, along with a number of other video nasties and a backdrop of critical analysis from a number of figureheads in the film classification industry introduce the audience to a world of cult filmmaking and immediately focuses on the opposition to gratuitous violence in cinema.
Very quickly, we are thrust headfirst into the world of Enid Baines and her incredibly difficult job of separating fiction from reality. It’s an opening that effortlessly encapsulates grindhouse cinema with mature conviction that recalls the recent similarly styled Yann Gonzalez slasher Knife + Heart.
Enid is haunted by the disappearance of her younger sister. In a way, it almost feels like she has continued down a career of horror film classification in an effort to stumble upon the whereabouts of her sister in a world she has heavy disdain for. Algar’s enthralling performance oozes charisma and emotion as she faces opposition from everything and everyone around her, much like the cinematic world she regularly has to analyse and reject.
A fractured relationship with her family is a clear indicator of Enid’s struggles. The jarring way in which Enid’s parents swiftly move from heavy depressive subject matter to how good the fish is at a local restaurant is profoundly effective. Nonchalant creepy advances from men are almost normal and the backlash she faces from society culminates in a real-life murder, dubbed the case of the Amnesiac Killer. It’s a confident character focus, elevated by Algar’s terrific performance, that forms the backbone of Bailey-Bond’s movie that comes entirely full circle by its conclusion.
Everything from the cast here is top-notch. Michael Smiley is impressively creepy in a minor role while Adrian Schiller’s Frederick North is an encapsulation of every madman behind a camera lens that attempts to justify excessive insanity and vivid bloodshed as artistic expression. It’s all self-referential, and that’s the point really, with Bailey-Bond and the cast executing it all confidently.
Bailey-Bond’s direction is striking throughout too, with vibrant reds and pinks bringing to mind the artistic flair of cinematic legends like Dario Argento and David Lynch. This is heightened by the brooding ambient atmosphere created by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s score that captures the similar unnerving dread of Lynch’s terrifying Eraserhead soundtrack. It is all remarkably competent, and it has been quite some time since any director has had such impressive confidence behind a feature film debut like this.
But even with all these remarkable qualities on display, Censor’s greatest triumph is its pacing and runtime. Clocking in at around 80 minutes, Censor never outstays its welcome with pacing that understands when to cool down entirely for strong effect and when to ramp it up to get the adrenaline pumping again. It is a quality that the majority of veteran directors, never-mind debut directors, can only dream of achieving and Bailey-Bond deserves all the credit as she obviously understands her craft and her audience extremely well.
It’s not all roses and bubble baths though, as Censor does suffer in its final act but never in a way that discredits everything that has come before it. As we reach the culmination of Enid’s harrowing investigations, Bailey-Bond opts for a finale that has no interest in explaining everything for our audience.
Instead, Bailey-Bond chooses to overindulge in Censor’s ambiguous DNA and presents more questions than answers which may lose a number of its viewers before the credits have even rolled. The essence and intended meaning of it all lies there in plain sight having been referenced earlier in the movie a number of times, but Bailey-Bond has opted for a finale that offers a different kind of experience by its end.
Little artistic expressions like the shrinking of the film’s aspect ratio to 4:3, all the way down to the distorted static interference of the visuals referencing an earlier showcased film named The Day The World Began, Bailey-Bond wants to offer her audience a unique experience and it is simply a question of if you can invest or not. I can safely say I was invested throughout but others may not be as receptive.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor is a superb debut. Feeling like an unholy union of Joel Schumacher’s 8MM, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns and Denis Villenueve’s Enemy, it’s a fascinating dive into the world of video nasty horror and the effects it ultimately had on society.
The finale may become make or break for some but if you can invest in Bailey-Bond’s debut, Censor may just be your new favourite horror movie and for those unfamiliar with the video nasty history, it may open up a vicious rabbit hole with deliciously sinister rewards. This one comes highly recommended folks.
Censor is in Irish cinemas from the 20th August.