Review by James Mahon
Embodying the chilling effects of Dario Argento’s horror subgenre ‘giallo’ thrillers and the voyeuristic sensibility of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond, 2021) is the feature length directorial debut of Prano Bailey-Bond. The film is a welcome addition to the cannon of inventive horror movies that not only depict gory violence but examine why we watch it.
It is the mid 1980’s in Britain and the ‘video nasties’ debate is at its height. The low-budget horror movies containing scenes of severe and pornographic brutality are causing widespread outrage among the media and public about their effect on ‘impressionistic young children’ and their blending of ‘fact and fiction’. Interacting directly in this environment is our chief protagonist Enid Baines (Niamh Algar). As a strict film censor, Enid is committed to eradicating as much barbarity and savagery as possible in a desire to protect society from their pernicious influence. That is until she comes across a film that seems to re-enact her sister’s disappearance at the age of seven, an event which has traumatised Enid ever since. From this point onwards the stability of real life starts to unravel as Enid rapidly descends into an ever-increasing hysteria.
Credit must first be attributed to Bailey-Bond, her cinematographer Annika Summerson and production designer Paulina Rzeszowska, whose combined efforts produced an omnipresent atmospheric unease and tension that did not falter from beginning to end. Achieving this, was the deliberate textured gloominess of the frame’s composition, the constant close-ups of Enid’s facial contortions and nervous tic and the gloomy stagnancy of virtually ever setting from the film censorship office to the public underground. The filmmakers went as far as shrinking the aspect ratio to spatially communicate the declining lucidity of Enid as time progressed. This is not to mention Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch music, which seemed to pervade and intensify every shot, echoing Argento’s masterpiece Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975).
Like contemporary horror movies such as Jordan Peele’s US (Jordan Peele, 2019) or Ari Aster’s Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019), Bailey-Bond’s film accomplishes the fiendish challenge of convincingly displaying the fraying of society’s conforming forces on the main character. Yet on a more profound level this is utilised to convey the film’s underlying message. Although separate and with drastically different motivations, Enid is similar to Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) in Peeping Tom, an artistic tool used to question the factors that compel us to watch and engage in these visual narratives. Is it a desire for escapist fantasy? Or a hidden pleasure we derive from accessing someone else’s world unbeknownst to them? Or perhaps a combination of both? The film’s ending hints at an answer without being definitive, leaving it to the audience to speculate and interpret.
This review cannot go on without mentioning the performance of Niamh Algar. Her portrayal of Enid is superb, selling the viewer utterly on her characters’ fall into delirium and hallucinatory righteousness.
Nonetheless the film is not without its blemishes. It is too short at 84 minutes, whether down to the script or financial constraints, the dramatic effect would have been enhanced if there had been a more prolonged balance before its decisive tonal change. Ultimately though, Censor is a brilliantly crafted and refreshingly thought-provoking horror movie.