They were called “video nasties” — those 1980s slasher flicks and splatter films filled with sexual violence, graphic depictions of murder and gallons of Caro syrup that, for a brief moment, were considered the root of all evil in Thatcher-era Britain. For years, some of the genre’s most extreme examples, whether homegrown or imported, were considered cinema non grata by U.K. censors. When videotapes hit the market, however, a number of horror movies considered too dangerous for the general public found their way into folks’ VCRs, and suddenly, you could watch eyes being gouged out and guts being liberated from bodies over and over again. Uncut versions of previously banned or butchered-to-death works like I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left, The Beyond or The Driller Killer were a button-push away. Moral watchdogs cried foul and claimed these movies not only desensitized kids to degeneracy — think of the children! — but caused crime rates to rise. And as fingers were pointed and 50-point-font headlines demanded action, these home-entertainment intruders once again found themselves at the mercy of a pitiless censorship board.
Here endeth the history lesson (if you want a deeper dive into the phenomenon, we recommend you read this). It helps to know some of the real-life backstory that loiters around Censor, filmmaker Prano Baily-Bond’s throwback debut feature that rewinds to that particular mid-1980s moment of hysteria. Her hero, Enid (played by Raised by Wolves’ Niamh Algar) is a film-board censor, one of a handful of people that stand between an innocent population and apparent, Nasties-inspired chaos. Every day, she views the hardest of the hardcore horror movies put before her and passes judgement. “I kept the tug of war between the intestines,” she says, comparing notes with a colleague on a particularly grisly candidate for a coveted 15 rating, though Enid recommends trimming a realistic eye-gouging “because some things are best left to the imagination.” She’s good at what she does, because nothing seems to rattle her. Until, of course, something does.
It isn’t the way that her officemates and fellow censors treat her with barely veiled contempt that cracks her imperturbable demeanor. It isn’t even the accusation that Enid had okayed a film that allegedly caused a man to commit a copycat crime, and thus has everyone in an uproar. What has unnerved this woman is a vintage movie by the notorious director Frederick North, which has just been resubmitted for review by his longtime producer (Michael Smiley, a regular in Ben Wheatley’s rep company) with the hope of a more lenient verdict. The film, titled Don’t Go in the Church — a pitch-perfect Eighties horror title, this — features two girls wandering around the woods. It’s a scenario that feels eerily close to an experience Enid had years ago, when she and her sister were out and the latter just … disappeared. What’s even odder is that Alice Lee, the redheaded actress who’s North’s muse, bears a remarkable resemblance to her missing sibling. A rabbit hole opens up before the guilt-ridden Enid. And down, down, down she goes.
What follows is a variation of Alice in Wonderland if your idea of a “wonderland” is drab filing offices, video stores that deal in under-the-counter contraband, a sleazeball’s bachelor pad and a backwoods film set. Baily-Bond sets the speed to slowburn and, along with her cowriter Anthony Fletcher, peppers the script with digs at the era’s paranoia about a VHS copy of The Evil Dead turning the nation’s youth into serial killers. A montage of fictional carnage bleeds into news footage of protesters being beaten by cops and bleeding actual blood; “If they’re so worried about the general public, why do they keep slashing social services?” one of Enid’s peers rhetorically asks as Thatcher reprimands the agitators on TV. That’s as big-picture political as it gets, unless you consider the mere notion of setting a movie in an era of strict cine-censorship a political statement unto itself.
Censor is more interested in drumming up dread, as well as channeling a nostalgic pang you associate with Instagram filters, but for a certain type of analog media experience: the hiss and pop of a cassette tape, the blue “Play” screen, the grainy look and lurid red lighting common to low-budget frighfests. Baily-Bond may be a few generations removed from having to hunt down U.K. bootlegs of The House by the Cemetery, but she clearly understands the appeal, and the shared secret aspect of savoring forbidden, subversive fruit. It’s as much a movie about genre fandom as it is a genre movie, in other words, especially for viewers of a certain age that find the phrase “Video Nasties” doubling as a Proustian Madeleine. (The fact that noted horror scholar and journalist Kim Newman is on board as a producer and advisor suggests an added level of gorehound authenticity.)
If you begin to wonder whether this is more of an exercise in style than an inquiry into why such things can and should be considered art (or not), you wouldn’t be alone. The atmosphere makes up for the occasional downshifting from creepy to meandering, at least until the last 15 minutes kick in and attempt to make up for lost time. It’s at this point that Censor remembers what horror films do, and that they’re rooted in a return of the repressed. Any potential line between reality and fiction and movies and madness gets blurry, then disappears altogether. The whole thing takes on a level of fractured fairy-tale storytelling that nods to both the Brothers Grimm and the father-figure Cronenberg. And, for a few brief moments, you feel like a several acts of throat-clearing give way to a person, at the last second, finally finding their voice.