Prano Bailey-Bond: ‘Censor’ and the politics of horror | Daily News

Prano Bailey-Bond: ‘Censor’ and the politics of horror

The heroine in Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor, Enid, is played by Niamh Algar. In the first half of the story, Niamh portrays her as an efficient, meticulous, and cool woman, who sticks to her CV and does what she’s told. Employed as a censor, she finds herself on the frontlines against a spew of low budget blood-and-gore slasher thrillers that took Britain by storm in the early 1980s. Opposed to violence of all forms, she justifies her decision to cut one scene after another on the grounds that doing so would love much to the audience’s imagination. Her male colleagues are not so easily convinced; one of them asks quixotically about what Shakespeare would have done in the face of such ruthless censorship. Enid’s reply is simple: he would have become more creative, more imaginative.

Yet despite their best intentions, they fail to prevent of their reviewed films, Deranged, from encouraging an audience member to go on a grisly killing spree. Somehow or the other the tabloid press gets a hold of Enid’s name and publicises it, resulting in a flurry of phone calls from distraught, furious people. Her superiors and colleagues at the Censor Board are not perturbed, but they, like her, are caught in a quagmire: they have to balance the demands of a government that views these films with distaste and disfavour with the need to preserve the autonomy of the artist. Judging from some of the grislier scenes we are made witness to from the films they are made to review, we realise this is more than just tough; it’s virtually impossible. Not that it perturbs Enid: bespectacled and cool-headed, she maintains her calm in front of the storm, ever efficient and unemotional. For her, it’s just a job.

Video nasties

The first half of Censor is deceptively slow and bland. It’s impossible not to think back on the culture of what was then called “video nasties” that cropped up in 1980s Britain. Even more impossible, in fact, to forget that the government of the day was led by Margaret Thatcher, and that her government waged a reactionary campaign against these movies, and justified censorship with an appeal to traditional values. These campaigns of course formed part of a much wider and more ruthless campaign against dissent, particularly from working classes and lower middle class families; we even see Mrs Thatcher railing against her critics from the Left, spliced with images of the police breaking up street demonstrations. The director tries to draw up a link between the government’s action against critics and dissidents, and its actions against video nasties, their directors, and their producers.

In the second half, the story takes a turn. Without giving away to many details, Miss Enid finds in one of the movies she is made to review a throwback to her own past. Revising that past, she finds some unsavoury, unappetising details, getting mixed up in things she may not have wanted to get mixed up in before. Her forays into the world of video nasties reminds you, at one level, of James Woods’s forays into violent television in Videodrome, a film that, though based in Canada, evokes memories of its period in the same way Censor does. More or less trapped between two worlds, Enid extricates herself, literally, by a flight of fancy. In the end she chooses to stay wedged between those two; the final scenes cut between them, revealing her descent into madness and desperation. Unlike Videodrome, there is no grand dénouement, no shocking ending; indeed there is no ending at all.

Ruthless reform

Prano Bailey-Bond does a pretty good job at two things: charting her protagonist’s descent into insanity, and portraying a fairly accurate picture of life in the 1980s as can be gathered from the experience of the “video nasties.” Conducting extensive research and interviews of officials, she depicts a decade caught between open rebellion and ruthless reform. Thatcher looms over the entire story, like an unseen character, in much the same way Ronald Reagan did in Joker. When one angry caller after another gives Enid a piece of his mind, you realise how polarised public opinion would have back then.

Born in 1982 at the height of the video nasties uproar, Prano Bailey-Bond cites Twin Peaks as a key influence on her career. Directed by David Lynch, Twin Peaks went to become one of the more landmark series to hit US television, with a story as twisted and confused as a David Lynch production could be. In 2018, she was lauded as a Screen International “Star of the Future”, not too long after her short flicks, screened at various festivals from London to Melbourne, won her plaudits from critics and audiences.

One of these shorts, Nasty, was screened at over a hundred such festivals, clinching one set of awards after another. Censor marks her first foray into feature filmmaking; shot for less than 130,000 dollars, it was backed by a consortium of grants associations, including the BFI, Film4, and Ffilm Cymru Wales. The response to the movie has been universally warm, if not lukewarm, with critics noting how the plot breaks genre barriers, instead of just examining the cultural phenomenon it revolves around and centres on.

Because much of the film takes place at night, we can’t make out what period the story is set in. But there are certain clues, and after we follow them, we become as caught up in the period as Enid is. It’s not coincidental that the final sequence, in which she succumbs to her fantasies, is the only episode that plays out in daylight. The symbolism here is unmistakable: for Enid, and for us, emancipation can only come at the cost of insanity.

Offending scene

Yet the director is less successful in telling us whether we should care for the video nasties that swept over British life. What are we to make of those grisly movies? Should we care to have an opinion about them? Enid has one: she thinks they’re disgusting, and endeavours to cut out every offending scene. Her colleagues, though, are not so sure: the male ones prefer to keep back those scenes and let the director have his way.

Enid encounters a producer at night and confronts him about his work; you won’t see the climax coming, but when it does, you are left with the feeling that this is not what you really expected. From then on, leaping from one climax to another, the story embraces a logic of its own, breaking the fourth wall. In the end, when Enid looks at us, the smiling face belying a long repressed madness, she pulls us into her world. But do we want to enter?

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