80s period pieces are all the rage nowadays, but Censor takes a much darker approach. It’s not about the fun pop culture of the time and the colorful fashion, it’s about the government crackdowns on artistic expression, which escalated significantly to a moral panic over new forms of media distribution. What about the children?! What if a kid gets their hands on a copy of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the newest Prince album? In america, the PMRC came for musicians, and in Thatcher’s uk there was an intense regulation of video nasties.
Similar to what we constantly heard about video games throughout the early 2000s, video nasties were blamed for rising crime rates in the uk, and not the much more obvious culprit: austerity measures and neoliberal policies. These moral panics are often just distractions and culture war issues proposed by the state and ruling classes to keep people from challenging their policies. As in Censor, Enid’s role in censoring movies and the severity with which she carries herself places her starkly on the side of conservatism and perpetuation of these “crime-inducing” films—she’s bought in whole-heartedly.
The business of censorship was about to boom, and now the scene is set for Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor. Seemingly drawing much inspiration from John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, the film shows Enid’s investigating efforts into the makers of some of the more aggressive gore films of the day. With direct references to actual films, some of the titles she watches and dissects, such as Don’t go in the Church and Asunder, make clear just how ludicrous the crime-inspiring allegations are.
But more than anything, Censor is about the unreliability of Enid—who’s even got a little bit of a Thatcher demeanor in her severity and conservative dress—as our narrative focal point, as she mentally unravels. Whether this is due to her consistent consumption of such horrors is unclear. Though the film makes no argument that there could be a connection between films and crimes, it does perhaps show the disintegration of Enid’s reality once she’s convinced herself that her sister is alive, held captive, and coerced into acting in these films, performing gratuitous sequences, including rapes and murders.
From the very start of the film, we’re told that Enid is an unreliable narrator: as the only witness to her sister’s disappearance (possibly death), she can’t remember what’s happened. Echoing this in the present, a man has just killed his wife and child, but claims he’s unable to remember it happening. Enid comes under fire in the press for passing the film that allegedly inspired the man’s attacks, but he later reveals that he’s never seen it.
“It makes me think,” Enid’s co-worker Perkins says, “In my psychotherapy days, we’d talk about how people construct stories to cope. You’d be surprised what the human brain can edit out when it can’t handle the truth.” This gives a good framework for Enid’s story.
At a certain point, we begin watching the video nasty version of her life. “All my films are based in reality,” Frederick North tells her, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality, between the film itself and the film-within-a-film: Bond’s Censor and North’s Censor. Even the violence is notably different between the films.
During Bond’s film, when Enid accidentally murders film producer Doug Smart, the twenty-first century effects and slow reveal give a realness to the scene. Contrast that with the decapitation of Frederick North, which looks more like something out of the classic splatter films of the 80s and happens almost entirely on screen. These two scenes clue us in on which reality we’re watching.
After Doug’s murder, Enid’s unraveling begins. At times she appears in slight static, or there are tracking lines over the whole shot. She also receives a call from Doug, again calling her a prick tease, as he had when she turned up at her house. Did she kill him, or was she imagining it, or was it part of the film North was producing about a censor gone mad?
She tracks down the site of filming for North’s upcoming movie. On arrival, she finds a trailer and is brought inside to get ready for filming. “Is that the sister?” one of the production workers asks. This further confirms for Enid that Alice Lee is her sister. Looking down, she notices a tabloid headline and a photo of herself.
Frederick takes Enid and attempts to prepare her for the upcoming scene. Finally given the opportunity, she asks Frederick about that scene in Don’t Go in the Church, “All of my ideas are drawn from real life…” Frederick tells her, “Horror is already out there. It’s in you.” Enid recoils. The horror can’t be in her: she’s the pure one, the one protecting society from the horror, the one who can filter it out.
Enid seems to feel a real and increasing danger throughout the scene, despite the fact that this is a movie set. It’s very clear that Frederick is trying to pull a performance out of her: “There’s something rotten inside you. You try to control it, but you only make things worse.” Just about every line of dialogue here perfectly winds up Enid in exactly the wrong ways.
Enid’s susceptibility to breaking down is likely driven by trauma, but exacerbated by her isolation and stress. She doesn’t have any friends. She doesn’t have much of a relationship with her parents, due to her commitment to the narrative that her sister is alive and out there. Again, Perkins underlines this: “Like when my mom passed away, if I hadn’t had someone to talk to I might have just … lost it.” She declines his invitation to talk about things with her; she doesn’t even really talk with her parents when they invite her to. She’s letting the trauma fester and the stress weigh her down, which ultimately becomes her undoing.
“You did this, this is all your fault,” Enid shouts at Frederick just before killing him, oddly paralleling the relationship between the conservative governments & organizations and filmmakers during this era. Enid (conservatives) did something that caused significant harm, but turns to North (filmmakers) and declares he is responsible. The boom in crime is a result of policy, but the policing of VHS sales is based on the “crime increases they cause.”
After Enid kills both the Beastman and Frederick North, Alice runs flees in terror, running for her life from Enid, who chases her. After Enid is completely rejected by her, she escapes the empty, lonely and sad reality in favor of North’s vision, getting revenge for her sister, liberating her and reuniting her family in a crime-free uk.