New Hulu release Censor is meta-horror, but don’t let that frighten you off. Director Prano Bailey-Bond’s stylish directorial debut springboards off Britain’s “video nasty” controversy in the 1980s, when gory slasher flicks were targeted for supposedly corrupting children (won’t SOMEBODY think of THE CHILDREN) and allegedly inspiring real-life copycat violence. A new censorship board was formed in 1984 to screen videocassette releases, since they were easier for young audiences to watch — and that’s where this movie starts, with Niamh Algar (of HBO series Raised by Wolves) playing a censor who brings a bit of psychological baggage to work with her.
CENSOR: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: “Eye gouging must go,” Enid (Algar) writes in her notebook. There’s a question about a decapitation scene, a mention of “screwdriver stuff” and a light passing brush up against something to do with “genital cuts,” and I didn’t care to discern if those were literal cuts as in “with a blade” or cuts as in “film edits,” because, you know, eek. Anyway, Enid is very exacting and detailed in her work, which involves watching some pretty cool terrible movies all day and determining which bits need to be lopped off in order to make them suitable for ages 15 and up or 18 and up, stuff like that. If this all seems terribly subjective, well, that’s because it is, but Enid seems to be quite good at it, and is calm and collected in the face of an avalanche of disturbing blecch. She works long hours — wouldn’t you, if you got to screen amazing garbage ’80s horror movies all day? — then goes home and does crossword puzzles by herself and doesn’t answer the phone while Baroness Thatcher goes on about this and that on the telly.
A crack begins to show in Enid’s facade when she has dinner with her parents (Andrew Havill and Felicity Montagu). They have a death certificate. Many years ago, Enid’s seven-year-old sister disappeared and was never seen again; cue some vague, bleary scenes of young Enid and her sibling, apparently lost in the woods. It’s time for closure, Mum and Dad insist, but Enid clings to a miniscule thread of hope that her dear sibling is still alive out there somewhere. This is the opening rumble for a perfect storm that’s about to soak Enid right through her poofy ’80s blouse and loosen her hair bun. Things at work start getting bumpy; a while back she passed a movie titled Deranged, in which a man eats someone’s face, and now a real-life man has eaten a real-life face — and somehow, her name got leaked to the press as the censor. If you have a rather myopic view of things and reality and the like, it’s quite obvious that it’s all her fault.
And then, a film producer named Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) oozes into the office to be a male chauvinist pig with rapey vibes, and to drop off Don’t Go in the Church, which he promises to Enid will be a real bowel-gripper (my words, not his). And it’s true, because Enid fires it up and starts losing her shit while watching a scene in which two young girls get lost in the woods. She runs to the loo and barfs. No spoilers, but I will say that Enid will soon inspire a co-worker to comment, “Someone’s losing the plot.”
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: I haven’t liked a new horror film this much since Amulet, or maybe His House. Censor shows a bit of Argento-Suspiria giallo (the opening credits feature a Goblinesque score), scenes in a subway tunnel tickle the undercarriage of That Scene From Possession and Bailey-Bond cops many an old-school atmospheric vibe from stuff like Evil Dead and Halloween.
Performance Worth Watching: Algar is terrific as a buttoned-up protagonist who builds a wall of oh-so-British reservedness that’s destined to crumble. Her characterization isn’t outwardly TUT-TUT like a stereotypical conservative — it’s more understated than that, and goes deeper than we may expect.
Memorable Dialogue: A decontextualized doozy via Enid: “Thank you for the whiskey. I’ll see myself out.”
Sex and Skin: None. Having any such stuff in the movie sure would seem to clash with its intent.
Our Take: Ooh, tongues feel so nicely when they’re in cheek, don’t they? Co-writing with Anthony Fletcher, Bailey-Bond doesn’t weave the tightest narrative, but she slamdunks the tone, assuring that Enid’s psychotrauma carries some dramatic weight within an overall satirical context. And she doesn’t Mank the crap out of things by making a smart-arsed movie about movies. Rather, Censor is stylish homage, winking pastiche and relevant commentary on the root cause of violence: not art, be it trashy or otherwise, because it’s never art’s fault for doing what art does, namely, and specifically in the case of horror films, indulging the darkness within humanity, and/or humanity’s fascination with that darkness.
No, the assertion the film makes is that a damaged mind left untreated is doomed to malfunction; it’s a serious champion for mental-health awareness. As the sides of the screen begin to narrow, so tighten the screws on Enid’s sanity. And Bailey-Bond shows us how one’s mind may deteriorate into delusion with confident visual savoir-faire, playing with color, subtly referencing slasher classics, toying with aspect ratios and lightly fetishizing a/v static and the whirr and clunk of a VCR. She also implicates the sexual politics of the business of making gory movies — notably, all of which feature human-on-human wickedness, not vampires or aliens or chupacabras — by depicting lurid male filmmakers as exploitationeers who subject women to gross debasement. Some of you movie producers out there should give Bailey-Bond a blank check for her next project.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Censor is provocative and funny, boasting a smartness-to-cleverness ratio of 75:25, which is just about perfect.
— Decider (@decider) June 18, 2021