Prano Bailey-Bond’s impressive debut, Censor 2021 gets the deluxe Blu-ray treatment, courtesy of Second Sight Films. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES gives it his classification.
I was once trying to explain to a colleague, a fellow horror fan but considerably younger than me, exactly what the video nasties scare of the 1980’s was all about.
Whilst the phrases “you couldn’t make it up” and “you had to be there” might have seemed a lazy shorthand, I ended up falling back on them. At this distance, the whole thing seems so fantastical, so far-fetched to anyone who has entered the world since that I might just as well have been trying to convince them that the moon is square and Father Christmas is real, since such protestations on my part would likely have elicited the same, slightly sympathetic look, as though I was spinning some bizarre fable.
Indeed, with the sheer implausibility of it all to a more recent generation, perhaps it has been long overdue that a horror film should draw on this quite bizarre phenomenon from relatively recent British social history. Step forward, then: Censor 2021.
Censor 2021 Review
THE FILM: Niamh Algar is Enid Baines, working as a film censor (presumably for the BBFC) as the Video Nasties moral panic hits a 1985 peak. Her day-to-day job involves witnessing and sometimes excising a stream of strong material, but at the back of her mind is the torment of her sister’s disappearance: Nina vanished when the two were small, but Enid’s parents have finally decided that her sibling can be declared legally dead. Enid, however, is convinced that Nina is still alive.
When a man brutally kills his wife and children, and a tabloid newspaper blames the slayings on a film that Enid passed for classification, the reporting names Enid as the censor responsible for the film reaching the home video market. The beleaguered classification officer is soon the butt of a stream of threatening and abusive phone calls, doing nothing to help her gradually deteriorating mental health.
Events take a fatal turn when Enid is approached by a producer, who tells her that a cult horror director named Frederick North has personally requested that she view one of his pictures, Don’t Go In The Church. To Enid’s discomfort, the images in the film mirror those around Nina’s disappearance and the recognition triggers a series of events which can only end badly…
It’s an impressive debut feature for director Prano Bailey-Bond, one which manages to evoke the look and feel of the films it references whilst staking out its own territory. There were moments that, for me that stylistically evoked the works of Pete Walker (a brief snippet of Frightmare appears in the opening credits) and Censor 2021 certainly shares that director’s penchant for ribbing the powers that be, but you’ll no doubt pick up on your own points of reference.
There’s also an interesting parallel to be drawn with Saint Maud 2020, as the climaxes of both films make great use of the chasm between events as the central character is seeing them and the actual, horrific reality.
A scene in a neighbourhood video shop certainly brought some memories flooding back with its unglamourous and makeshift approach to store display, and its proprietor sheepishly keeping the forbidden stuff under the counter (you can read more on my own memories of that practice HERE) but perhaps most vividly it brought back memories of the scaremongering, the hysteria and indeed the paranoia (sprinkled with excitement) that surrounded the sheer illicit act of having a copy of Zombie Flesh Eaters or A Bay Of Blood in your possession.
Censor 2021 is unafraid to display its cultural touchstones blatantly, whilst feeling very much of the here and now. Those of us who were there at the time will find plenty to cause a shudder and raise an wry smile in equal measure, whilst horror fans of a more recent vintage will find this a most informative (if chilling) history lesson, wrapped in a rather fine and creepy movie.
HOW DOES IT LOOK?: The decision to shoot on 35mm film pays dividends aplenty, with 8mm and even (appropriately) VHS footage deftly sprinkled. The transfer to Blu-ray pays full attention to the accentuated reds, blues and (especially) greens of the film, themselves evoking the limitations of the VHS format (it never could handle red very well, bless it).
The whole visual look to the film is a welcome and necessary reminder that the 80’s were not necessarily one long, fluorescent-dyed, big-haired party. In many respects, Britain could look a pretty grotty place then and Censor captures that contrast admirably.
DISC 1: The main feature (with three audio commentaries) is joined by Blue Underground/Anchor Bay’s superb 2-part documentary Ban The Sadist Videos! (2005-2006) and an interview with that documentary’s director and Severin Films owner David Gregory. The Making Of Censor featurette, plus Prano Bailey-Bond’s short film Nasty (2015, very much a dry run for the themes explored in Censor) round things off.
DISC 2: Focusing exclusively on the film itself, the bonus disc has further interviews with director Prano Bailey-Bond, actor Niamh Algar, Anthony Fletcher (writer), Annika Summerson (cinematographer), Mark Towns (editor), Emelie Levienaise-Farrouch (composer). A video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, a screening Q&A with Bailey-Bond and Levienaise-Farrouch, and a chat between Bailey-Bond and BBFC compliance officer David Hyman are topped off with deleted scenes.
The full retail package additionally contains six art cards and a book with further essays and production photos.
SHOULD I GET THIS?: Usually, in reviewing deluxe editions I’d be discussing an older movie which has been lovingly restored from painstakingly located elements, and for a film produced so recently such attention might appear (at least on the surface) to be premature. After all, the extras for such releases often need a certain amount of historical distance and an understanding of the main feature’s subsequent fate, influence and cultural impact (amongst myriad other things) to tell the bigger story.
However, Censor 2021 is a somewhat special case, in so much as its roots in a national furore and the general role of censorship immediately open up a much wider conversation. The extras included here are not just about discussing the making of a film (whose long-term impact and influence can barely be guessed at), but in putting its inspirations in a proper historical context.
Perhaps it’s just the thing to point my aforementioned colleague towards, in trying to explain just what it was all about for the materials gathered here explain it infinitely better than I ever could in that lunch-break conversation. Pair this impressively lavish set with a copy of Jake West’s Video Nasties – The Definitive Guide, and you have perhaps the ultimate visual resource any film buff could ask for, supporting a genuinely unsettling and evocative feature debut from a director I will be keeping a keen eye on.