Let’s get this out the way, I am obsessed with the Video Nasties (to the extent that I even co-host a podcast about them). For those not in the know, this is a group of films banned in the UK under the Obscene Publications Act in 1983. The wider list included 72 separate films, 39 of which were successfully prosecuted and some of which are still technically banned (though merely because they have not been re-certificated). The argument for this censorship was always a façade of moralism, a ‘won’t someone please think of the children’ campaign that also believed horror movies bred psychopaths. In reality, as Mark McKenna argues in his book, Nasty Business: The Marketing and Distribution of the Video Nasties (2020), this much talked about ‘moral panic’ was a fabrication, the real reason for censorship was a war on the working class: an anti-home video stance that took advantage of the provocative marketing of low-budget horror and exploitation to besmirch this nascent form of distribution.
First time feature director, Prano Bailey-Bond, is also obsessed with the Video Nasties, to the extent that she has made a film about them. Censor presumes you know what a Video Nasty is and it presumes you are on the right side of history. This film firmly believes the moral panic to be a fabrication and crafts an entertaining narrative that, rather overtly, delivers this message. Here, we follow a film censor working in the 80s (we even have Thatcher making a cameo on the TV to prove it, truly the scariest part of the movie), who is responsible for either censoring or banning nasty videos. The films are fictional but are lovingly linked to the real movies, with similar titles and a few smart jokes for fanatics like myself. Our protagonist, Niamh Algar’s Enid Baines (a strong performance), is an upstanding moralist who believes she is saving people from depravity. She takes her job seriously, scarily so, attacking it with a religious zeal as if she is the only thing standing between the country and its inevitable degradation at the hands of low-budget, exploitation cinema.
The Video Nasty pastiches created for the film, which we see snapshots of, are brilliantly done. They display the filmmaker’s knowledge of the area and help to centre the film. The careful verisimilitude evokes an affection, making the film serve as an ode to an era of cinema and not a criticism of it. The narrative progression is all somewhat expected, fiction and reality start to seemingly overlap as the censor’s obsession with pruning out the nasty starts to cause a breakdown. We have the apparent news that a film she passed inspired a copy-cat killing, reinforcing her belief in the moral poison of these films but damaging her faith in herself, and her ability to do her job. The film maintains a heightened look, not going for full pastiche but including smart elements that blend reality and cinematic fiction. Aspect ratios are played with nicely throughout, adding to a slippery sense of what is real and what is film, reflecting back on the fear that Video Nasties created real damage.
The sense that fiction is overtaking exists from the start but the film does not quite do enough with this. With a runtime of 84 minutes (including credits, and they aren’t short), this film takes on far more than it pays off. The length is another meta element, giving it the runtime of a lot of these straight-to-video horrors, but this playful touch cuts against the film’s wider impact. There is a nice narrative here about how an obsession with censorship, and puritanical attitudes, is where the real madness lies. The fixation, the dwelling and the refusal to see art, especially extreme art, as cathartic, that leads to dangerous places. It is hardly a novel idea, but it is nicely woven, leaving us with a film that understands how horror can be a healing art, as well as crass-exploitation. The aim is not to deify a bunch of films that are mostly crap (believe me, for every The Evil Dead (1981) there’s a I Miss You, Hugs and Kisses (1978) (yes, that’s a real Video Nasty)), in fact, the sequences with a Video Nasty producer (played by Michael Smiley) lean heavily into the exploitative and sleazy side of the operation. This balance is well handled, this is not rose-tinted nostalgia but a specific critique of a worthy target: the censorship itself and the general fixation.
As a whole, Censor does not quite come together. It has a handful of truly satisfying moments, and a strong central message, but it is all rather slight. It is a promising work, though. This is a filmmaker to watch out for in the future and, while the clever parts of this film don’t necessitate a satisfying whole, this is still an endearing love letter to the Video Nasties with enough to delight fellow obsessives. Alas, the final irony is that the territory it explores was better handled by one of the Video Nasties, Dario Argento’s masterpiece Tenebre (1982). But, Censor does have more heart.