Censor. 2021. Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond. Screenplay by Bailey-Bond & Anthony Fletcher.
Starring Niamh Algar, Michael Smiley, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Clare Holman, Andrew Havill, & Felicity Montagu.
Silver Salt Films / Ffilm Cymru Wales / BFI Film Fund
Not Rated / 84 minutes
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains significant spoilers.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature film Censor—a riff on her previous 2015 short film Nasty—will divide viewers because apart from being a horror film it’s also a deeply surreal work. Surrealism isn’t for everybody. For others, it’s a lush landscape on which an artist can go mad, to the extent of their desires. Bailey-Bond has most certainly gone mad with Censor, in the best, most exciting way, providing audiences with a story that touches on everything from the righteous moral furore over ‘Video Nasties‘ in the United Kingdom during the 1980s, to ideas of mental health and trauma, as well as how trauma can—and most often does—shape the way we consume media.
The film’s plot follows Enid Baines (Niamh Algar). She works as a film censor, spending her days watching brutal horror films in order to cut out gratuitous sex and violence. One day she sees a film that eerily recalls her own past, when her sister went missing many years ago. She then starts to believe that a grown actress in a film she sees is actually her missing sister. Worse, a murderer has accused one of the films Enid approved as being the motivation behind his crime and she’s named in the press. This all sends Enid on a downward spiral. She tries to keep doing her work, avoiding the media, and living life, but finds herself drawn towards the actress, intent on discovering the truth, even if it violently blurs the line between what’s fiction and what’s reality.
Margaret Thatcher and the Britain under her rule is a significant factor in Bailey-Bond’s film. Thatcher’s concern over the Video Nasties in the 1980s had to do with a perceived “decline in moral standards” throughout the nation. She became increasingly aware of the Video Nasties debacle due to receiving letters from Mary Whitehouse, a British teacher and Christian conservative mouthpiece. Whitehouse wrote Thatcher initially in 1983 to get the Prime Minister interested in a campaign against the Nasties, telling Thatcher that school children were being frightened by graphic slasher movies. She went so far as to say that one pupil had a ‘Porn on Fridays’ viewing party with his father every week because the child’s parents believed it was better if the boy saw such things at home rather than seeking them out on his own. Her brand of reactionary social conservatism was well received by Thatcher, leading to the Video Recordings Act 1984, which temporarily banned the so-called Nasties. Whitehouse and Thatcher, as well as many others (plenty more men than women) like them, treated the Video Nasties as a disease—evil as a contagion is perfectly in-line with Whitehouse’s Christian beliefs—reflected via the film’s dialogue: “The evil is contagious.” And thus a long, Thatcherite shadow is cast over Censor.
The obvious suggestion is that Enid’s a conservative person politically, given she has Thatcher on as background noise—lord help us!—and happily works as a censor with a kind of righteous idea that she’s somehow helping to ‘clean up Britain.’ She’s also got her own personal connection to crime, due to her sister disappearing years ago when they were young, and it’s between this personal perspective and her likely conservative politics that Enid becomes part of a larger web. What the Video Nasties, to the more discerning viewer, really were was a giant scapegoat for British social issues. Rather than looking at a miserable capitalist industrial society’s faults and how it creates the conditions for crime, violence, poverty, and so on, politicians like Thatcher and morality police such as Mary Whitehouse found it more convenient to use fiction as a way to explain what they blindly saw as inexplicable. Thatcher didn’t think police beating up striking miners was bad, influential violence. She, without irony, said “We are the true peace party” in her speech (in reference to, wait for it: nuclear capabilities as a ‘deterrent’) after the Brighton bombing in October 1984—a speech we see/hear part of on the television in one early scene while Enid sits doing a crossword puzzle at home. Ultimately the film’s most significant aspect, to me, is how Bailey-Bond further explores the ways in which Enid’s trauma is directly connected to the way she perceives horror as sociopolitical motivation for violence.
Trauma and horror are intertwined in so many ways, which Censor focuses on via surrealism. In a literal sense, trauma is horror, no matter the form it takes, whether physical, mental, or sexual. One of Enid’s fellow censors mentions how “people construct stories to cope” and that the “human brain can edit … when it can‘t handle the truth“; this posits trauma as a form of self-censorship. This takes full shape later when Enid can no longer tell the difference between what’s fiction and what’s reality, her own existence becoming the grainy, skipping track of an old VHS tape. Even the aspect ratio of the film changes as she slips between the happiness she believes is occurring and the horror that’s actually taking place. A brilliant, chilling moment at the end shows Enid bringing who she thinks is her sister home, only for the reality in the background to show the terror of what her traumatised, confused mind has created. What’s most important here is how Enid got to this point and what that has to do with her own traumatic experience as a child.
A slight, brief digression here, but I promise, it’s all connected.
Some people find comfort in horror, and see the experience of consuming horror fiction as a figurative method of catharsis. I view horror through this lens, as someone who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder due to physical and sexual trauma—I find the ‘being scared’ aspect of horror helps exorcise some of my own demons in the sense I can immerse myself into a character/world where I’m able to safely engage difficult topics through fiction. However, not everybody responds to trauma in the same way. Certain people who’ve been traumatised respond entirely differently to fiction that involves horror or other intense elements, or just real life and crime. Some who deal with trauma let their traumatic experiences steer them in a bad direction, socially and politically. For instance, Nancy Grace’s fiancé Keith Griffin was shot when she was only nineteen. This single tragic event turned her into, what I and many see as, a deeply conservative person whose worldview is not innocent until proven guilty but the other way around, affecting every single opinion she expresses about crime and justice; she has, on many occasions, rushed to judgement about potential suspects, negatively shaping media coverage around important cases, and she’s always quick to call herself a ‘crime victim’ when defending her opinions about crime/criminals. Another example is Eagles of Death Metal’s frontman Jesse Hughes, whose experience during the 2015 Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris turned him into a Islamophobic, gun-loving American nationalist, eventually turning his ire not only towards Muslims but also towards young survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, accusing them of exploiting their fellow students’ deaths (without a shred of self-awareness for the way he’s acted in the wake of the Bataclan shooting).
A long-winded way to say that Enid fits into this pattern of trauma shifting some people into a more sociopolitically conservative person, and Enid represents the extreme of the spectrum. Enid’s breakdown can be viewed as a comment on how trauma informs our own viewing practices and how we consume various forms of media, particularly when it comes to violent media, fictional or not. She’s become a censor and sees herself as playing a part in the Conservative Party’s moral crusade to rid the nation of harmful cinematic imagery; in and of itself an effect of the trauma inherent in her sister’s disappearance. In the end, she transforms into a cinematic symbol of Margaret Thatcher or Mary Whitehouse’s moral censorship, taken to the extreme. She rids Britain of scummy, misogynistic producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley)—with an appropriately phallic trophy-through-mouth kill, the trophy being a woman holding up an axe—and then nasty horror director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), the figurative erasure of the types who created those dreaded Video Nasties.
As I mentioned before, Censor will divide, and has already divided, horror fans. I see Bailey-Bond’s film as an important one in contemporary UK horror. Most hardcore horror fans who know of/have seen many Video Nasties will find interest here, even if they don’t love the end results. Enid’s surreal journey into her own personal, existential horror story is at times disorienting, but that’s because of the way Bailey-Bond visually presents the mind like a video tape—a thing that can be edited, manipulated, cut. The final half hour is weird and wild, though not without intent. Because just as much as the film has some great, bloody horror moments, it’s above all an exercise in true psychological horror as Enid’s life, and mind, unravel like an unspooled VHS.
What I personally take away from Censor most of all is that trauma can warp the way a person sees the world, sometimes to the detriment of their better sense and at the expense of social freedoms. What happens to Enid in the end is that she becomes the brutal horror she believes that films inspire in society, except it wasn’t a film that drove her to murder, it was her own fragile psychological state and the way she’s let trauma infect her view of the world. Frederick tells Enid: “Horror is already out there, in all of us. It‘s in you.” Moments later he also tells her: “Take control of your story.” This second comment forms the foundation of Bailey-Bond’s depiction of trauma because Enid doesn’t take control of her story—her trauma—and instead lets her traumatic past control her. We can let our own bad personal experiences, regardless of whether they’re sufficiently traumatic, shape how we see the world, or we can view the world through unfiltered eyes. Although none of us can ever rid ourselves of subjectivity we can always work to see the world outside our own perspectives. If we don’t step beyond our own insular view of the world we can do genuine figurative, and literal, violence to others, just like Enid.