Sundance 2021 Review: CENSOR, The Danger Of Confusing Fiction With Reality
One of the most popular arguments to despise horror films and related genres – in their most violent and explicit incarnations – is that they can inspire atrocities in real life. It's a thought as old as the films with Lon Chaney and remains in force to this day: just remember all the controversy generated by Joker and the Death Wish remake before their premieres.
If we talk about extreme measures against extreme films, what happened in the United Kingdom during the Margaret Tatcher years is fundamental. The explosion of the video market in the eighties changed the way of watching cinema forever. "Children can rewind and watch those scenes over and over again," says a character in Censor, a film set precisely in those years, when 72 movies on video, called video nasties, caused mass hysteria and harsh censorship.
Censor, the debut feature by British filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond, joins the long tradition of cinema about cinema, this time from a very particular point of view: that of the censors. Enid (Niamh Algar) is responsible for deciding which images should be cut from some slasher/cannibal movie or, depending on the case, if they should be banned. Not all of her colleagues are as strict, one of them, for example, quotes Un chien andalou to defend a scene where someone's eye is gouged out, which Enid wants to remove.
But let's not get confused, she always tries to do her job in the best way, with responsibility and objectivity. It's evident that she doesn't like this type of cinema, usually made by men and with women as the main victims. She ironically calls them "masterpieces." This doesn't mean that she wants to censor everything, her seriousness allows her to differentiate between over-the-top gore and more realistic violence.
Enid can't overcome a trauma from her past: when she was a child, her sister Nina disappeared while they were strolling in a forest. Enid suffered amnesia, preventing her from contributing to the recapitulation of the events. Confronting the reality that developments in the case had stagnated, her parents decided to stop waiting for a miraculous happy ending, accepting that they would never see Nina again. When they receive the newly-issued death certificate, the parents took the opportunity to move on, even though Enid was unwilling to accept the terrible ending. Guilt still overwhelms the protagonist.
Censor explores that moment when fiction affects reality... at least in appearance. Although Enid is not a filmmaker, she's pointed out as one of the responsible people when the hysteria grows because the press connects the characteristics of a real crime with one of the horror films within the film: Deranged, notorious for a sequence in which a murderer eats the face of his victim, a scene approved by Enid and another colleague.
Likewise, the protagonist's harsh past increasingly controls her head. Reality reminds her of the tragedy: the killer supposedly inspired by Deranged declares to have amnesia and, in the midst of the scandal, she falls prey to guilt again. Fiction evokes her sister: another film within the film, Don't Go in the Church, appears to be directly based on Nina's disappearance. Not to mention when, playing detective, she discovers Asunder, a forbidden video nasty that shares a director with Don’t Go in the Church and features an actress that looks like her sister.
Censor creates its own mythology. It mitxes real movies – for example, sequences from Abel Ferrara's The Driller Killer – with fictional titles: Cannibal Carnage, a banned tape that video stores rent clandestinely (there's an extremely funny interaction between Enid and a clerk), derives from the Italian subgenre led by Cannibal Holocaust. These details make noticeable the director's taste for genre cinema of that time. It's quite enjoyable.
Like other similar contemporary films – Knife + Heart, to name one – Censor draws on the genre cinema that it's referencing, specifically the giallo style. Dream sequences and saturated colors represent Enid's mind and her downward spiral on screen. Censor intersperses reality with the oneiric, bordering on the nightmarish, playing with the link between the real and the fictitious.
The film explores how her protagonist goes deeper and deeper into the world of video nasties (she meets a producer, "acts" in the sequel to Don't Go in the Church), as well as real-life violence and horror. Censor doesn't fall into nonsense; everything is linked to a personal trauma – and her conviction that the creators of Don’t Go in the Church are true criminals – that leads to delirium.
Reality and fiction, even though they have an undeniable connection, are not the same. Censor remarks on it on several occasions, similar to the Canadian 1980 film Deadline. We hear, for instance, that the amnesic killer didn't even know about the video nasty Deranged!
In its memorable and brutal climax, the separation is marked by the change in the aspect ratio of the images. At that point Enid no longer distinguishes. And when she finally seems to wake up from that "trance," she prefers fiction over the horrors of reality and imagines herself as a vengeful movie heroine.
She prefers the miraculously happy ending. She even believes that the demonization of video nasties worked, that they were all banned and consequently the evils of British society eradicated. Her last fantasy is a poignant and satirical comment that works for that time… and today.