Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 10, 2021 1:08 pm 
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Saving UK auds from icky horror extremes, but not herself

Previous viewers of Peter Strickland's 2012 Berberian Sound Studio will feel themselves on familiar ground with Prano Bailey-Bond's Censor. Again this is a precise and self-conscious picture of the world of period horror film, though this one takes the familiar swing of breaking down the fourth wall toward the end when the female protagonist, a 1980's British censor of video nasty style horror called Enid Baines (Niamh Algar, recently seen in Guy Ritchie's Wrath of Man) loses her grip on "reality" and dives full-on into a personal fantasy world after confusing scenes from a horror film with memories of the traumatic loss of her own sister years ago.

The genre's different too: Berberian Soind took Toby Jones into Italy for some giallo, and this is in England and concerns the hayday of the video/VHS era when under-the-counter illegal "video nasty" stuff ran off the rails. In both cases, those not into period horror might prefer to stay at home. But the delicate restrained atmosphere and delight in control will delight special tastes. Where Berberian felt as if the plot-line was just an excuse for reveling in period film and tape and sound techniques and accoutrements, with the subtlety of Toby Jones's acting outweighed by the relative crudity of the other performers', Censor is always leading up to a tense, genre-style focus on Enid's trauma and her loss of touch.

But viewers and critics have wished Baily-Bond had ramped up the violence and vileness more. When there is discussion of decapitations and face-eating (alleged to have inspired a real life murder), some feel Censor should not have censored but let rip. In truth, both of these films are constipated and distractingly obsessed with their own arcane trappings. And the sense of confinement: Gilderoy's (Toby Jones) impression of being trapped in an unpleasant job he's not getting adequately paid for; Enid's general uptightness, her prim blouses buttoned up to the neck - and the whole absurdity of considering displays of cruelty, torture, violence, and murder as matters to nitpick about. Is genital mutilation onscreen too much, but a decapitation okay because it's so patently absurd? Enid thinks so.

The interest is that Enid, and perhaps anybody who spends long hours watching ultra-violence staged to entertain a special audience, may either be lastingly traumatized by such activity, unconsciously develop a strong taste for it, or both. But Censor doesn't develop this theme as fully or clearly as it might have done. It also doesn't go as far as could have worked into the full-on horror show finale, some feel. Others have suggested the social commentary about conservative Thatcher-era repression using film violence as a pretext was another thing that could have been developed further. These are two divergent aspects of the film that, if expanded, might have made Censor feel solider and more memorable.

What often attracts in a "sophisticated" horror film like this one is its striking sound and visuals, the sensory stimuli. Censor has a distinctive restrained look at first, rather like that of Berberian Sound Studio. Totally changing gears in its final segment, it works hard to mimic grainy, ugly videotape used in "nasty" VCR material such as Enid has been constantly studying, and now imaginatively merges into. Restraint of color and style and precision of mise-en-scene are at a high level in both these films. But Censor's climax is a little underwhelming, and you're warned that if,l like me, you're not an enthusiast for the genres referenced, the return diminishes as the reels play out. The best "horror" in film goes beyond convention into something truly personal and original, as in the disturbing fantasies of Cronenberg and David Lynch.

Let's not make unfair comparisons, though, but simply conclude, as Jessica Kiang does in her Variety review, that Censor is "a stylish calling card for all involved."

Censor, 84 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 28, 2021, showing also at Berlin, Amsterdam, Seattle, San Francisco and Jeonju. Metascore 69% (Berberian: 80%) Scheduled for US release Jun. 11, 2021.

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