Sunday, 22 August 2021


Under The
Counter Culture

Vertigo UK 2021
Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond

Warning: Very minor spoilers but nothing
that should truly ruin the movie for you.

Censor is the debut feature length movie of Prano Bailey-Bond and it’s a bit special for people who lived in the UK at a certain time and remember the atmosphere and bizarre newspaper/TV reportage of the, frankly ridiculous, UK Video Nasty panic of the early to mid-1980s... a time I talk about in my reviews of two documentaries about the subject here and here.

Indeed, the film is set during these times and, after a nicely done set of pre-movie logos presented as static tinged 4:3 video versions of themselves, we are briefly introduced to the character of Enid before going into a title sequence that plays out some of the violent scenes of some of the films on the government list (most but, not quite all, of the films which were banned and ended up with people being prosecuted and jailed for renting and selling these films at the time are now available over here in the UK in uncut form, of course... with the exception of such gems as Cannibal Holocaust and The New York Ripper, which you would be best advised as importing from other countries rather than watch them in a mutilated, UK version).

Now, I have to say, I did thoroughly enjoy the movie but I did have just a couple of little problems with it, which I’ll outline when I get to them. However, the basic idea is that the main protagonist Enid, played in a quite deliberately stifled/muffled way by actress Niamh Algar, is a censor working for the BBFC. Many years before the time period of the film, her sister Nina went missing in Hertfordshire under mysterious circumstances. Enid was with her sister when it happened but she hasn’t been able to remember anything about it... nor indeed accept the fact that her sister is probably dead. One of the films within the film that she passes, albeit with severe cuts, allegedly sparks a copycat murder where a guy eats his wife’s face before shooting his two children. He’s dubbed the amnesiac killer because he doesn’t remember doing it and, actually, the idea that killers are being programmed by remote control (almost) is explored a little way into the story, although it’s halted when it turns out later that the killer has never even seen the film. Which is a nice little dig at the superfluous nature of imposed censorship and the BBFC in general, I would have to say.

Anyway, while all this is going on, Enid gets a new movie screened for her to suggest cuts on, brought in by a producer played by the brilliant Michael Smiley and called Don’t Go In The Church. The film is more than a little reminiscent of the night when she lost her sister and so she goes to an ‘under the counter’ style video store (there was a lot of that back in the day) to seek out more of this producer and director’s work. And that’s all I’m saying about the story here because I really don’t want to spoil things for the reader.

But the film has a lot to offer and one of the avenues it explores is the way the brain edits out certain events after a psychological trauma such as Enid possibly experienced as a child, with the dialogue regarding this spoken by one of the characters, a fellow censor in Enid’s workplace, being an implicit metaphor for the editing out of scenes from a movie. The other thing which the writer/director and her screenwriting collaborator get into here is the deterioration of reality and, with Enid, the mind confuses reality for the nature of her obsession, in this case the rickety old VHS format which we all loved as kids back in the 1980s and 1990s. To this end, apart from the lighting very occasionally falling into Argento/Bava territory, we have two things happening... the degrading of the stock at points, in addition to some surreal, dreamlike sequences which deliberately blur the boundaries for the viewer (and for Enid) as to just what we are watching and, from about 20 minutes before the end, a very, very slow and subtle but gradual shrinking of the frame, going from a widescreen towards the old, 4:3 format screens on which those old videos would have been watched in their downgraded, pan and scan versions (pretty much the only way to see these things unless you were a 16mm film collector or owned an expensive laserdisc player at the time).

And what the various ideas explored culminate in is a point at which the viewer no longer knows if Enid maybe didn’t murder her sister herself or if she is, as one character remarks at some point, just losing the plot. But it is handled in an interesting manner and, frankly, the director completely had me on her side during a sequence near the end which I felt almost reminiscent of certain scenes towards the end of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil... the obvious goal post of a censor being the complete eradication of video nasties, leading to a zero crime rate! It’s a nice, sarcastic nod towards the institutions who insist on being the moral guardians of others because they can’t deal with their own insecurities tied to the subject.

Now, I have to say, I had two slight problems with the film which, while they didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the movie in any fashion, did make me a little apprehensive of fully buying into certain aspects. Number one was the fact that I couldn’t in any way, shape or form sympathise with the main protagonist. I mean, she’s a censor, one of the lowest forms of life on the planet. You can see exactly the kind of job she does on these films throughout the movie and as summed up on her handwritten notes near the beginning of the movie... “Eye gouging must go.” However, to be fair, I don’t think I’m totally supposed to like this character... the amount of gory carnage and the attitude depicted in the movie to the kinds of people who do these kinds of jobs seem to make it clear that the director’s heart is in the right place. However, as a counter to that, because I couldn’t identify with the character, no matter how brilliant the performance is by Niamh Algar (and she does do a fantastic job here, you really feel the void between her and her parents... not to mention her coworkers), then I wasn’t rooting for her either. I didn’t care if she found what she’s looking for (her sister) or lived or died because, basically, a censor is a censor and I have no sympathies for those who commit crimes against filmanity.

The other problem I had was with the ending. When the frame starts to almost imperceptibly begin to shrink on the approach, I think we’re at the point where we need more disclosure from the writers as to where the film is ending... not necessarily wrapped up in a neat package, just something more where we are progressing to with the character. The only thing which seems spelled out, however, is the ambiguity of the mental state of Enid and the relationship between the story as it plays out and the similarity to the act of the audience watching this film in the same way Enid watches her films to censor. But, around 20 minutes before the end, although it gets fun... there is no real progression. It’s like the film just ends but then plays around in its own entrails for a while before letting the audience go with no actual punchline to the film other than the voyeuristic nature of the audience.

That being said, I certainly had fun with Censor (especially a wonderful, visually ironic death scene around about two thirds of the way through for one of the characters) and for people of my age who actually remember living through these terrible times, it’s a nice reminder and feels like the director is standing in judgement with her arms crossed, glaring down at the BBFC with the intention of, quite rightly, shaming them for their actions. It also has a wonderful jump scare involving Enid's mother which concludes one of the more surrealistic sequences of the film which is so simply done and yet so effective. Loved that moment, I have to say. So, yeah, I’ll certainly be on this one when it gets a Blu Ray edition for sure and I think it’s one of the more interesting movies to get released in the UK this year. Definitely worth a look.

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