As video equipment became more available to consumers throughout the 1970s, more and more films were being made independently by up and coming directors and producers. There was a surge in this decade of low budget horror films with more gore than ever before. Maestros of the genre like Herschell Gordon Lewis were able to put out films quickly and cheaply, and the popularization of the video cassette meant films were more accessible to consumers than ever before. Though no specific event can be cited as the instigator of the video nasty panic in Britain, two stand out: a full page advertisement for Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer that appeared in multiple video magazines, and an anonymous letter sent to National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association member Mary Whitehouse regarding the obscenity of the film Cannibal Holocaust, which had in fact been written by the film’s distributors as a method of marketing. A rise in the demand for these films led to the passing of the Video Recordings Act of 1984. This prompted individual investigations of dozens of films which were divided into three sections, possession of which held various punishments by the British government. The “video nasty” is now an infamous title for films of the era, an ironic turnaround where now getting through the list of 39 banned films (not to mention sections 2 and 3, films that underwent lesser scrutiny but were still widely confiscated) might be a challenge for a curious horror fan. The moral panic Britain held over the contents of these films was extremely harmful to the industry, and if such a panic had followed in the United States, most of these films might have been lost to time.
Censor is a film set sometime during the video nasty era, following a woman named Enid who examines and dissects films in order to determine if they are suitable for release after a bit of careful editing. In her personal life, Enid is haunted by the disappearance of her sister many years ago, and when she sees a new film that awakens repressed memories of this, her psyche begins to collapse as she goes deeper into the world of the video nasty. Enid’s job is a difficult one: carefully surveying works of women being tortured and torn apart. When a film Enid passes supposedly inspires a murder that shocks the nation, she is sold out in favor of her male co-worker, and stalked by fervent journalists. As Enid searches further for her sister, she begins losing her grip on reality. She dreams of the images she sees in the films, the lights in her office change to that of vivid red and blues of 3D glasses.
The film has a lot to say about this time period, the films of the era, and how people consume media like this. The treatment of women is a large issue for Censor, both in the fictional films within the film and the plot at large. Enid is approached by a producer of multiple nasties, who unashamedly sizes her up in front of her boss and her co-workers just after she has finished dissecting a film where the screams of the female victim echo beyond the small television screen. It is reflective of the unreasonable panic of the era and uses that panic to create a descent into madness. It is a difficult film to parse, never too abstract that the audience can’t tell what’s happening, but always evolving its fantasmagoric visual atmosphere and spreading doubts in the viewer of the true nature of the story. Eventually Enid gets closer and closer to what she feels is the truth, entering a world that is exploitative to women and empowering for voyeuristic men who call themselves auters.
Throughout the entire third act, a slow visual trick is implemented to give the audience an indication of Enid’s demise. She enters the set of a video nasty in production, and is dressed up by a dismissive makeup artist to fully enter the fiction. There she confronts everything she has been searching for. I won’t spoil the rest any further, but the ending of the film is a technicolor nightmare that is a feast for thought. Prano Bailey-Bond’s keen eye for direction and careful sense of character make this a slow burn sure to keep any audience invested no matter how much knowledge one might hold of this era or the art that was persecuted within it.
The video nasty movement was meant to protect the children and the general public from films deemed too obscene for public consumption. But this movement is, as many know, anti-art. A lot of people find an extreme catharsis in these films. Two films that were completely banned were I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, two films that reckon with brutal violence against women. Films in section 3, that were liable for confiscation but holders could not be prosecuted for, surprised me. Films like Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre appear on this section, but the one that most shocked me was Foxy Brown. Films about consumerism, economic disparity, and women both disenfranchised and empowered were deemed just undesirable enough that people should not see them. Because at the end of the day, it is not that we did not want these films to be seen, we did not want the ideas to be interpreted. But there is catharsis in carnage, and Censor understands that. As a character says towards the end of the film, “horror is already out there.” By tucking away the horrors of this world and the horrors in our art, we are denying ourselves the ability to process and learn from the terrors of the world around us. No matter how many VHS tapes get confiscated, horror will always be out there. As Enid’s reality glitches between suburban pastels and hellish grains, a final piece of narration suggests that everything will be alright now that these obscene objects have been taken off the streets. But there are still horrific screams echoing beneath the carefully positioned rainbow.