[Sundance Review] CENSOR

[Sundance Review] CENSOR
CENSOR l Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Catch, catch a horror taxi
I fell in love with my video nasty
Catch, catch a horror train
A freeze frame goin’ to drive you insane

CENSOR is directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, written by Bailey-Bond and Andrew Fletcher, with cinematography by Annika Summerson, produced by Helen Jones, and with music by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch.

The story of Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) is set against the backdrop of the Video Nasty censorship drive brought on originally by the release and promotional push for the Abel Ferrara film The Driller Killer (the story of an artist being driven insane by his life of poverty and betrayal in New York City) and a promotional ploy by the producers of the infamous Cannibal Holocaust (terrible people get eaten by cannibalistic tribes in South America) directed by Ruggero Deodato.

Home video releases were originally unregulated by the British Board of Film Classification (formerly the British Board of Film Censors) due to a loophole and once British politicians and newspapers saw a chance to blame crime and society’s ills on films rather than the austerity politics of Margaret Thatcher and the other real causes, they sprang into action and passed the Video Recordings Act of 1984. All films released on video would now have to pass the judgment of the censorship board to be released in the UK.

Enid is a censor at the Board and, coincidentally, has a past trauma involving the disappearance of her beloved younger sister Nina who was never found. She has a stoic and fanatically determined attitude towards her work which is largely watching the most violent horror and exploitation films and making detailed notes on what needs to be cut out of them for them to be passed for release. Her co-workers are a mostly kindly bunch of normies with the exception of the one who sounds an awful lot like a snooty film critic (which is a funny bit of meta aimed straight towards the critics at large). Her parents invite her to dinner to give her the news that they have finally decided to have Nina declared dead and things begin a downward spiral from then on.

Obviously, CENSOR is meant as a love letter to the horror films of the 1980s, many referenced in the film clips of the movies that the censors are watching and judging – like The Evil Dead, Nightmares In A Damaged Brain, and, first in line, The Driller Killer. There are also fake films that Prano-Bailey filmed and inserted into the scenes in the censor’s offices which definitely pass muster as realistic exploitation titles. Bailey-Bond expresses deep affection for Nightmares, Driller Killer, and a lesser-known title Frozen Scream, that I really want to check out now as a fellow exploitation aficionado. Bailey-Bond also mentions Suspiria by Dario Argento and the influence and love for that film is clear from the use of strongly colored lighting, reds, and aquamarine blues to indicate disturbing mental states and danger.

CENSOR is also a sharp criticism of this kind of censorship and hysteria, much like the Satanic Panic that was concurrently taking place in the United States under Ronald Reagan. It is not a coincidence that such pseudo-moral panics happen during conservative political movements in general since conservatives like to blame social ills on outside forces that easily can be othered. Satanic Panic is still happening now, but really caught fire during the Trump Administration through the Q-Anon movement. The film is most relevant because this kind of thing hasn’t actually stopped happening and has real-life consequences for us.

I have to do a special shout out because I have neglected to laud the work of Dan Martin, who is a prosthetic makeup effects artist who is responsible for the lovely gore in CENSOR. Martin is a wizard of the wound and the maestro of magnificent violence. Some of his previous credits include Host, Colour Out of Space, Free Fire, High Rise, A Field In England (with Ben Wheatley), Girl On The Third Floor, In Fabric, and my most celebrated film of 2020, Possessor. He is also a super humble and nice dude who references eye violence and Lucio Fulci on the regular, so he knows horror. He also did the special effects for In The Earth, Ben Wheatley’s newest film that is also at Sundance this year. Keep an eye out for his work.

Enid’s stoicism seems to me to be a form of flat affect. Her trauma related to her sister’s disappearance is clear and she hides from all forms of human relations and lives for her job censoring films. It is her way of trying to control evil, the evil that she couldn’t control to save her sister. She feels responsible for what happens to Nina, and like a lot of victims of trauma at a young age, takes more responsibility for the traumatic events than is strictly merited. Her only way to save her sister, and potentially other victims of violence, is to make sure that video nasties are not available to the general public to influence minds and cause more violent acts.

Her control starts to slip after she is hit on by a producer Doug Smart (played by the redoubtable Mike Smiley, who was also a force in Ben Wheatley’s incredible film Kill List) in the office and becomes entranced by a film made by the producer’s working partner and director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). She sees a haunting similarity in North’s film to her own life and obsessively starts to study his work. You finally see her visibly enjoy and look forward to a film in the office and then become emotionally devastated by what’s on the screen in a way that she never has before.

Now, this is where we start heading into spoiler territory…

To me, it was clear from the outset that Enid was herself the mentally ill murderer of her sister Nina. Everyone in the family, deep down, knows the truth, but all are in the type of denial common to the loved ones of a mentally disturbed family member. Some killers are made through abuse and pain, but some people are born for violence and are ticking time bombs to the moment when they choose to act on their violent impulses or when the voices in their heads tell them to commit murder. The film puts forth the idea that even murderers themselves are traumatized by the acts that they are driven to commit by their mental states. It certainly is disturbing, as a person with dissociative amnesia myself, that all of our minds can blank away from horrible acts committed against us or committed by ourselves on others to protect our sanity, such as it is.

It puts forth the idea that even the damned murderers among us can feel pain from the acts that their illnesses drive them to. That as a society, we are all culpable because every day we ignore mental illness as a problem that cannot be solved and, as a society, we sacrifice a certain number of murderers and victims alike on the altar of normalcy and peace. Like the politicians, newspapers, and citizens of Great Britain in the 80’s, we accept a certain level of death and horror every day to pretend that art is what is responsible for violence and not look any deeper into the real issues: poverty, mental illness, parental abuse and try to solve the core issues. As a society, to take responsibility for the violence at the core of our existence as human beings.

Taking responsibility is too hard. It’s much easier to blame the messenger for the message.

CENSOR is an assured debut from a remarkable director and filmmaking crew. Niamh Algar has created a striking character with Enid and the ensemble cast is wonderful including the BeastMan played by Guillaume Delaunay who wrings pathos from the few moments he has on-screen. It’s a subdued Britain that bursts with darkness and vibrantly colored fantasies. What’s real and what’s not as the internal tragedy of a trauma victim’s brain spills out with real-life consequences. The imagery of a television tuned to snow is a brilliant symbol for the disturbed mind. There is no escape.

CENSOR had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on January 28.

Dolores Quintana
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