The archives of the British Board of Film Classification, or BBFC (the last initial was changed from “censors” in 1984), are filled with instances of unintentional, fuddy-duddy humour. Take the campaign of its late director James Ferman to eradicate nunchaku (or chainsticks) from the screen. It was this that prompted him to remove shots from 1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, refusing to relent even when it was pointed out that the offending item was not a martial arts weapon at all but a string of sausages.
Censor, which the Welsh writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond has developed from her 2015 short Nasty, captures the grim patrician air that pervaded the BBFC for most of the 20th century. Enid (Niamh Algar) works for the board at the height of the “video nasty” scandal of the early 1980s, when press and politicians colluded in blaming violent horror films (such as The Evil Dead and The Driller Killer) for society’s ills. With her blouse buttoned primly to the throat and her hair pinned tightly back, Enid is the most austere examiner in those airless basement offices, where the filing cabinets have turned a nauseous pea-green colour from all the depravity they’ve seen.
The tension between the scandalous content handled in a working day and the dispassionate language used to describe it produces some corrosively funny dialogue. Enid agrees to leave a scene of eye-gouging intact in one video in exchange for “trimming the end of the genitals”. Her more laissez-faire colleague Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) can tell when she is getting obsessive. “It’s like Rat Brothel all over again,” he sighs.
But Enid is on a mission. When her mother makes the mistake of asking whether she’s seen anything good lately, she replies: “It’s not entertainment. I do it to protect people.” Civic duty becomes personal crusade when she watches a horror film called Don’t Go in the Church. Believing that it could provide the answer to the disappearance of her own sister, who vanished in the woods as a child, she resolves to track down its director, Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). (The name evokes Fred West.)
Bailey-Bond knows her subject, and incorporates echoes of real-life controversies, such as the erroneous link made between Child’s Play 3 and the killing in 1993 of two-year-old James Bulger. But she doesn’t always succeed in dramatising that knowledge. When a movie that was passed uncut by Enid turns out not to have inspired a copycat killing after all (the murderer had never seen it), the subplot simply goes cold. Some of the period detail is off: why does a video store manager hand over his most sought-after horror title to Enid when he already knows she isn’t a member? It might also have provided a subversive twist if Frederick North had turned out to be Enid’s sister, sending messages in celluloid form. The impression instead is that no one involved at the development stage got around to joining the dots.
Censor is at its strongest as a black comedy in a workplace setting. Alongside the amusingly rakish Burns is the perpetually fretful Vincent Franklin as Enid’s boss; Clare Perkins as an astute colleague who argues that a government truly concerned for the nation’s welfare wouldn’t be cutting social services budgets; Felicity Montagu as the prissy receptionist guarding the archives; and Danny Lee Wynter as a timid examiner in a sensible pullover, who fails pitifully to coax Enid out of her shell. A more pressing mystery than what happened to Enid’s sister is why this exceptional cast wasn’t given more to do.
If the film becomes incoherent, that is partly an occupational hazard of anything in which the protagonist descends into madness, as directors more experienced than Bailey-Bond have discovered: Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and David Lynch’s Inland Empire also revolved around the idea of cursed films, and both fell to pieces before the end. Censor suffers, too, from having the appearance of a thriller but none of that genre’s internal mechanisms. Enid is an oddly passive figure, constantly sleepwalking into hazardous situations, as in her encounter with a sinister producer (Michael Smiley), which still somehow fail to generate suspense.
The most effective sort of danger is the kind we don’t see coming, such as the excruciating sequence in Chris Petit’s 1982 thriller An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in which a private detective nearly kills herself while trying to restage the circumstances of a hanging. That slow-burn effect isn’t much in evidence in Censor, which resorts to sudden shots of screaming faces, or Poltergeist-style close-ups of the fizzing static on a TV screen. We may register that this is the vocabulary of horror, but that’s not the same thing as being scared.
If Censor isn’t in the same class as last year’s outstanding British horror debuts (Rose Glass’s Saint Maud and Remi Weekes’s His House), it remains a promising start, and it will be fascinating to see what this film-maker can do once she engages more emphatically with the world. As it stands, Censor feels like it was made expressly for film critics – though not this one.
dir: Prano Bailey-Bond
[see also: The Courier is morally clear-cut and severe]