Brian Quinn digs out the video nasties of yesteryear and reviews Censor, which features Niamh Algar.
The ’80s were fun, weren’t they? A time of big hair, bright colours and – depending on how much hairspray you had left – even bigger hair. Of course, Britain had big hair too, most of it belonging to Margaret Thatcher, whose firm hairdo was outdone only by her staunch policies. Wielding a brand of rightwing politics said to be upholding traditional family values, Thatcher, alongside conservative activist Mary Whitehouse, embarked on a moral crusade to clean up the nation.
Punk may have died, but in its place, perverting young minds with every re-watch, surfaced ‘video nasties’: a slew of exploitation horror films that flooded the British VHS market in the 1980s. Branded obscene by the British Board of Film Censorship, these tapes were deemed liable to corrupt the youth – possess them, make them trade in their moral compasses for bloody machetes and slash away into the night. Oh, won’t someone please think of the children?
Enter: Enid (Niamh Algar). Squirrelled away in a dark screening room, notepad in hand, she decides what’s fit for public consumption: eye-gouges? Not a chance, Disembowelment? Keep dreaming. Severely shy, her colleagues think her prudish – which, in an office full of stodgy censors, is no mean feat. But the truth is Enid is haunted by an unresolved family trauma: Her sister was mysteriously abducted when both were young, playing in the woods at the dead of night – just like a horror film. In-fact, it’s eerily identical to one that crosses Enid’s desk, Don’t Go into the Church.
Enid becomes obsessed with finding the truth behind the tape: its infamous director, Frederick North (Adrian Schiller); and his muse, the elusive Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), who bears a striking resemblance to Enid. Her investigation sends her down a rabbit hole bearing all the gorey hallmarks one would expect to find in a ‘video nasty.’ Will Enid finally find the closure she’s been looking for? Or has she – as any patronising parent would tell you – been watching too many scary movies.
The latter is certainly the case for director Prano Bailey-Bond, a schlock aficionado who revels in the weird, the retro and the downright gruesome. From the slasher flicks of Joe D’amato to the operatic flourishes of Dario Argento, Censor is rife with visual allusions, all vividly brought to life under Annika Summerson’s cinematography. Flipping between film stocks (35mm and 8mm), as well as video, Summerson deftly captures the grainy aesthetic of the era, owing to much of the film’s charm.
However, moviegoers hoping for an exploitation extravaganza will have to remain patient. Bailey-Bond is intent on playing the long-game here, slowing down scenes so we feel as rudderless as Enid while she navigates the shadowy spaces between reality and fantasy. As a result, the pacing can suffer, especially early on – but it does offer Algar the time and space to inhabit a character as guarded as Enid.
Having already proved herself one to watch with her IFTA-winning performance in Calm with Horses, the Mullingar native manages to carry the entire movie on her shoulders – decked out with era-appropriate pads, of course. Enid doesn’t say much; she reacts, hell, it’s what she does for a living. But when she’s forced to take action and creep through the fuzzy underworld of genre filmmaking, it’s Algar’s face, so often trapped in close-up, that says it all.
Enid escapes her reality into the realm of ‘video nasties’ because at least there she feels some semblance of hope. It becomes a mission of self-healing, which in a genre traditionally dominated by female suffering, is a radical act in and of itself. But this is where the film’s balancing act loses its footing: by paying homage to ‘nasties’ while simultaneously satirising their conventions, Censor tries to have its cake and eat it too – the bloodiest of red velvets, one would hope.
Still, for Bailey-Bond, Censor is a promising feature debut that leaves you craving more. You could say she has a bright future ahead of her, but from where I’m sitting it’s dark and grainy, with a splattering of fake blood to lead the way.
Censor is released in cinemas from 20th August 2021.