Naked nostalgia in genre filmmaking has become one of the more instantly off-putting modes in recent genre filmmaking. Constantly serving us the same broad reference points without a context to make them interesting, the lingering trend relies on our enthusiasm and knowledgeability for the genre to gas up unfulfilling stories. Results have been self-serving, and too often unable to produce something terrifying thanks to too much mimicry. Censor is a thornier horror retread however, with more specific influences on its mind and a perspective on how to incorporate them in an original way.
As much a reflection on a period of ultra-conservatively enforced morality as it is one about what compels us in the horrific, Censor is equally serious-minded and delighted by ruminating through genre history. From first time feature director Preno Bailey-Bond, the film examines the British censorship era of the mid-1980s. This horror period is noted for action taken to films from censorship to outright banning, or occasional prosecution of individuals who owned copies. More famous titles that fell victim were the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the films that defined the era were gore fests produced with verve and on the cheap. Censor isn’t just recalling a certain kind of horror film, but also the fervent conservatism that dictated the culture to which they arrived, or sometimes pushed back against.
The film follows Niamh Algar as Enid, a by-the-book censor who approaches her work with a matter-of-fact sense of protection. When enticed by a horror director (Kill List’s Michael Smiley) and one of his newest works, Enid catches the performance of an actress that appears all too similar to her missing sister. The discovery sends her further into the world of these forbidden films and into her own forgotten history with brutal violence.
What draws Enid to consuming such violence onscreen, particularly when her role asserts it as abhorrent? The film isn’t interested in being prescriptive or definitive, but Enid’s descent allows the film to explore what is subjective within the genre, and also how personal traumacan inform our experience with it. Where Censor sometimes feels slight or (in its final stretches) too opaque, its restraint and trust in our eagerness to not be fed all the answers feels quietly audacious and un-self-congratulatory.
What also makes the film succeed is its streamlined narrative and not relying solely on its atmospherics, which are indeed enticingly wrought. When it drifts into the bizarre, Bailey-Bond infuses it with an unsettling dreaminess that keeps the film from being easily pinned down. Not easily packaged as simple genre homage, psychological slasher, or allegorical mood piece, Censor attempts something delicately placed across the breadth of its influences, selling short none of them. Bristling with dry wit throughout, the film is also no pretentious exercise. Even in its modest package, Bailey-Bond creates a film that is many things at once, impressive for pulling off its uncommon ambitions and still making you work unpack why we are drawn to the thrill of violent imagery.