A False Censor Security
A bit of a landmark for me recently, as for the first time ever I found myself watching a movie which was executive-produced by someone who once wrote me a letter. Hey, it's not much, but it's noteworthy for me at least. The person in question is the writer and critic Kim Newman, who – in addition to being a brilliant author and critic, a snappy dresser, and (according to Neil Gaiman, at least) the inspiration for Pinhead in Hellraiser – is a man who seems to be meticulous about replying to his fan mail. (An inspiration to us all.)
Given that Newman is an a uthority on the horror genre and has probably watched more bargain-basement films of that type than any other person in history, it should not come as a great surprise that the first movie he's actually been involved in is… a rom-com. No, hah, it's a horror movie, of course: Prano Bailey-Bond's Censor.
The film is set in the early 1980s, with the UK in the grip of industrial unrest, the scourge of Thatcherism, and a moral panic about video nasties – the boom in VHS home entertainment also being underway. (There are various allusions to and recreations of notorious moments from legendary nasties like Cannibal Ferox, The Driller Killer and The Evil Dead: there is a lot here aimed at connoisseurs of classic gore.) Doing her bit to shield the public from the worst of this sort of thing is Enid (Niamh Algar), working – we are invited to assume – at the British Board of Film Classification, where her punctilious attitude and reserved demeanour has won her few friends amongst her colleagues.
Not all is ideal in Enid's private life, however: she seems isolated and withdrawn, with no close friends or acquaintances. A clue comes when she has an awkward dinner with her parents – it transpires that, decades earlier, Enid's sister disappeared in mysterious circumstances, and Enid's own role in events is far from entirely clear. Her parents want to move on, but Enid is insistent her sister is still alive, somewhere, and refuses to countenance any other possibility.
The pressure on her builds as a video nasty she cleared for release is implicated in a grisly murder, and she is asked to view an older movie called Don't Go in the Church!. But the events of the film are strangely resonant for Enid, almost seeming to be a recreation of her own memories of her sister's disappearance. Could there be a connection? She sets out to investigate the film and its director, regardless of where this takes her…
American horror cinema currently feels like it's going through one of its phases of retrenchment and consolidation, which is probably just another way of saying it's sequel-a-go-go time at the moment (with the odd remake thrown in as well) – the trailers before Censor included one for a remake of Candyman and another for the latest Halloween episode, while follow-ups to The Purge, Don't Breathe and A Quiet Place have also been out this year, along with yet another Conjuring movie.
Over here we don't seem to be making nearly so many films of any kind, but at least our horror films seem to be a bit more original and interesting. One of the highlights of last year (not a vintage twelve months, of course, but still a hell of a movie) was Rose Glass' Saint Maud, a film with which Censor has a few things in common with – apart from being low-budget British horror films starring and directed by women, they are both about protagonists undergoing a kind of psychological disintegration, which is reflected in the fabric of the film as the story unfolds.
The first thing to say about Censor is that this is not one of those films which will have the average person rocketing out of their seat in sudden fright every ten minutes (though there is certainly the occasional shocking moment) – the film achieves its effects slowly and carefully, through aggregation of detail and the creation of an unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty and unease. A convincingly grim and grotty 1980s is evoked, alongside the look and feel of many films from the era (archive footage, some featuring key players from the censorship debates of the time, is also included).
This is not to say it isn't a very effectively creepy and unsettling film, built around a strong performance from Niamh Algar, who very effectively loses it in the course of the film – the movie occasionally makes quite big asks of the audience, and Algar does good work in keeping them on board. It's almost wholly her movie, although Michael Smiley gets a ripe cameo and there's an interesting turn from Adrian Schiller as an enigmatic horror director (this part feels like it was crying out for a more heavyweight piece of casting, but it seems that was not to be).
The film's effectiveness as a piece of horror is closely tied up with its also being a rather tongue-in-cheek comment on the whole notion of censorship. The film apparently had its genesis when Bailey-Bond reflected on one of the chief principles of the censors: that certain images would be likely to provoke morally depraved behaviour from people viewing them, thus making it desirable to have them cut. But what about the censors who look at this depravity-inducing material more than anyone else? How come they are immune?
Of course, this is itself one of the main objections raised by the anti-censorship lobby, namely that one person shouldn't have the right to decide what another is allowed to see or hear (assuming they are both adults and of sound mind) – it's patronising, to say the least, and smacks of an implicit elitism (the idea that some people are better equipped to make this kind of judgement than others).
Censor's stance on all of this is initially difficult to unpack, as the film's protagonist – and Algar makes her more than sufficiently sympathetic – explicitly says that she sees her job as protecting the general public. The film seems to be suggesting that watching too much gory horror is indeed bad for you – but there's also something very ironic about this, as well as the repeated dialogue that ‘evil is contagious!'. The film is partly about what the source of true horror is, and the film-makers clearly don't think that the wellspring is VHS cassettes (or any other recording medium you care to mention).
Still, the film has playful fun recreating the atmosphere of dodgy old horror films, and there's a lot of enjoyable knowingness in the film – early on, Enid comments critically on the poor quality of a special-effects dismemberment in a film she's considering, only for an identical moment of on-screen splatter much later on to be (deliberately) equally unconvincing. The film deconstructs itself quite wittily towards the end, and it may be that its own intelligence and subtlety won't necessarily help it find an audience amongst those looking for closure and certainty. But I enjoyed it very much; it doesn't have the simplicity and startling power of a film like Saint Maud, but it's a clever, vibrant, and very effective meditation on the nature of horror and horror films, as well as being a highly engaging (and rather gory) psychodrama. A very strong debut.
...The Courier, a competently assembled drama/spy thriller directed by Dominic Cooke and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. On this occasion Benny plays Greville Wynne, a British businessman recruited by MI6 to make contact with Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet officer (Merab Ninidze) prepared to reveal secret information. (This is based on true events from the early 1960s.) Wynne is initially very skittish about this but as he becomes friends with Penkovsky finds himself increasing prepared to take dreadful risks to help him.
Very much post-Bridge of Spies, but not up to the same standard – nevertheless, a well-mounted and fairly engaging film, most notable for a sharp change of direction and tone in the final act. Well-played, though Jessie Buckley is underused as Wynne's wife. A powerful story and worth remembering, but I'm not sure this film is distinctive enough to bring it to the wider audience it deserves.