Every week on the grim landscape of contemporary discourse that is Twitter seems to bring some new moral outrage over which the entire site erupts. Most often, as is the case with so many of the moral panics that have been circulating in the public consciousness for the past century, they pertain to the media—to what we see, hear, and absorb from all facets of pop culture. There’s too much sex in movies, or too much violence; we need more trigger warnings, or we need to strike them entirely from discussions of art. The debates are nothing new, of course. Arguments over the impact of mediated depictions of sex, violence, and other controversial subjects on impressionable youth have persisted for as long as childhood has been understood as a realm of innocence in need of protection.
The UK saw an exemplary instance of such think-of-the-children moral panic in the early 80s ‘video nasty’ scare. The term described a number of particularly gory low-budget horror films that initially bypassed the British Board of Film Classification because they were distributed on video cassette rather than by theatrical release. A media watchdog group called the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association led a campaign against video obscenity that resulted in the prosecution of video stores and distributors attempting to trade in nasty fare.
This year’s Censor, the debut feature by Welsh writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond, is set against that anxious backdrop. The story follows Enid (Niamh Algar), a film censor tasked with screening splatter flicks that come before a video review board. Enid’s occupation appears at first to be just that—a day job—but her personal investment in seeing violence wiped from the nation’s VCRs begins to take shape as her own history is revealed. Enid’s younger sister, Nina, went missing when the two were children, and her parents have elected to declare her dead in absentia decades after the fact. When Enid is tasked with reviewing a video called Don’t Go in the Church (a nod to the 1980 video nasty Don’t Go in the House), memories of the day Nina vanished come rushing back. Convinced the film is somehow connected to her sister’s disappearance, Enid’s life begins to spiral into chaos.
At a meeting to discuss the fate of one movie (does the eye gouging scene need to be axed?), Enid’s coworkers, less zealous censors than herself, discuss the irony of banning videos to maintain “the nation’s sanity” while Thatcher’s government guts welfare and social services. As Enid sits at her dinner table with a crossword puzzle later that night, the Iron Lady herself appears on the television in the next room, condemning the militant labor activists taking part in the 1984 miners’ strike. These details ground the story, albeit heavy-handedly, in its historical setting, and they also gesture at the questions Censor seemingly intends to provoke. Enid’s job, and the social context in which she works, offer ample space for Bailey-Bond to explore the role of media censorship in eras of political repression and upheaval. Instead, Censor falls into the safe territory of hollow personal tragedy and individualised mental descent.
The past few years have seen a wave of art house horror movies that apply the aesthetic and directorial standards of critically acclaimed indie filmmaking to the genre; Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar are the most discussed among them. Like Aster’s oeuvre, Bailey-Bond’s film is indebted to the stylistic language and generic hallmarks of grindhouse and exploitation cinema, but also aims to distance itself from these traditions. Censor is all about gore and excess, but it doesn’t engage in them, drowning its few scenes of violence in stylised colour grading rather than dressing them up with the visceral, camped-up carnage of the video nasties. Like much of the other recent work in the art horror canon, Censor makes abundantly evident its filmmaker’s intentions to load it with meaning beyond the ostensible senselessness of the blood and guts on display in maligned 70s and 80s slashers.
Critic Scout Tafoya argues against the ‘elevated’ label placed on Aster’s films and other works in his ilk. These movies are often praised for their unflinching explorations of real-world trauma, but as Tafoya writes, ‘[t]rauma is the glue that holds franchises like the [sic] A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th together; the idea that a malevolent presence is coming for you, has killed your friends and family, and nothing will protect you if it decides it wants you.’ It has always been the experience around which the horror genre revolves, and horror is perhaps uniquely equipped to explore and process it.
Like the protagonists of Hereditary and Midsommar, Censor’s Enid lives under the shadow of past trauma. The loss of her sister is a hazy memory, though, and the absence of concrete detail both haunts and comforts her. She wants to know the truth about Nina’s whereabouts, putting herself in peril in her attempts to find out, but she represses the event itself, afraid to see what may be the gory details. Enid’s predicament illuminates the most profound notion Censor gets at—that stifling images of violence doesn’t make the violence itself go away, and that the desire to censor comes all too often from the fear of one’s own capacity for harm. “People think that I create the horror, but I don’t,” a director (Adrian Schiller) tells Enid close to the film’s climax. “Horror is already out there in all of us.” In Censor, Bailey-Bond creates a world, and a character, with the capacity to shed light on the endless cycles of media panic that have overtaken so much of pop cultural discourse. What unravels over Censor’s tight runtime instead is a rather timid rehashing of a handful of psychological horror tropes. Yet Censor still holds out promise—not only for its young filmmaker’s career but for the potential to consciously employ the generic signifiers of 80s horror in the service of something more complex than empty nostalgia.
Censor is available on VOD now
by Lucy Talbot Allen