I went to the South Bank to see the new film Censor. Since I can’t give you any pictures taken inside NFT2, apart from the one at the top, here are some pictures from the way in. A nice lady with a clipboard ticked off my name from the list and I had to check-in with the NHS app.
The film starts without any BBFC certification shown, presumably a deliberate reference to the themes. We also have heavy reliance from the start on visual cues from the 80s, including old logos from the era, and an insistence on flickery, indistinct video playback – though in fact pre-recorded video of the era played back quite clearly then, and still does (it’s home tapes of broadcast TV that aren’t great on modern televisions).
The 80s are now far enough away to have their own shorthand of references that have been absorbed by film-makers who never saw them at the time: Thatcher on TV, New Romantic synth music, punks with eyeliner… this film does at least understand that it is set in 1984 (from the Miners Strike footage) and so doesn’t include yuppies and mobile phones, thank God. The devil is in the minor details, at the periphery and quickly passed over. Is Felicity Montagu’s archivist character operating a desktop computer or a microfiche viewer? The former wouldn’t make sense since no one else in the office has them, but she lives in a room composed of paper files. Are the clothes appropriate for these semi-academic cynics? I suppose so, and I don’t think anyone uses an anachronistic expression, although “move on” made me wonder. Of course in-door smoking (and on the Tube) is present and correct, but how does Enid afford a later mark of Ford Cortina, and why does she need one anyway, wouldn’t a Mini be more in her range?
The story is that Enid is working at the BBFC (though it is never referred to as such), classifying films including the new wave of horror and supernatural chillers that were dubbed “video nasties” and subject to a moral panic. Point of information: although the original 80s panic fizzled out, it did get an abrupt revival in 1993 during the Jamie Bulger case, when the film Child’s Play 3 was briefly held to be the cause of it. At the time of the Hungerford shootings in 1987 it was also asserted that Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo films had contributed to the psychotic rampage, but they were Hollywood products and never labelled as VN. The concept was already in public consciousness by 1983, and in 1984 there was an episode of The Young Ones based around it, which apparently was held over from the first series in 1982.
My parents were both teachers and they took the Times Education Supplement, and I looked at their copies at the time. It had fascinating articles about the battles over curriculum in some American states, issues around busing and multiculturalism and other topics I didn’t really understand. But it did have a reliable stream of concern about issues relating to the new phenomenon of teenagers and children around 10 watching extreme things. There were 2 strands: the isolated teenager with their own TV and video player, watching a new range of material without adult supervision; and the more worrying idea that the parents knew about this and approved and enjoyed it themselves.
It’s hard to convey the excitement around video and cheap home computers had at that time, which went beyond the quality of what they presented. Of course ZX Spectrum graphics weren’t as good as real arcade machines; the point was that you had it, at home, controlling it on your screen. With video, the sheer strangeness of realising that you can just… put the tape in and watch the film again, right away. And then talking about it the next day and realising that not everybody had seen the same thing as you, we all had our separate viewing worlds now. The old world of being served a set menu to pick from at most 3 options was over, in music and TV and cinema. Kids these days really don’t have any idea what it was like just before back then, and they’re better off without that side of things.
In Censor Enid is in a group who seem to spend all their time reviewing extreme material. Are they a special unit set up for this part of the BBFC remit? They aren’t only working on video releases because the playbacks they watch are film projections. Notice that there are no references at all to the Betamax/VHS divide, although the 2 formats were still available at this time. At the same time, her parents are in touch about a sensitive matter: they want to have her sister, who has been missing for over a decade, declared legally dead. Enid was present with her on the day she disappeared into some woods (it seems), and she has had to suffer guilt and recriminations ever since. Early on we see her reading from what looks like an old school exercise book. Soon after, when reviewing a new horror film she becomes obsessed with the actress appearing in it, and the idea that she may be her sister working in a new identity. At the same time, there is a public scandal over an alleged connection between a film she approved for release, and a violent killing that makes the national news.
The centre of this film (reality blurring into fantasies, and rescue fantasies for lost children) is quite old hat. When was the first version of this stuff I can remember? I think The Singing Detective is a classic example, with the pulp detective imagery blurring around the painful memories of a mother’s suicide and a father’s disappointed life. Life On Mars and many episodes of Inside Number 9 have gone over this ground already, and made fun of it in some places. Berberian Sound Studio is the obvious close relative, in fact this may be just a reworking with a female lead. The terror of static TV screens was already used in the non-nastie mainstream success of Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, and Videodrome in 1983 captured the possibilities of the new visual age. The nasties in Censor remain quite tamely theatrical. We have a stereotype bored make-up artist, and a panto-villain prick-auteur director who seems bored of his own hamminess. The sleazy “video shop” is simply the tabloid image of such places at the time, simply a reworking of the earlier image of the “dirty books” business. There is only the faintest allusion to snuff movies, because that twist has been done already. Enid’s night-time odysseys are absurd. As soon as we are introduced to the award that the creepy film producer keeps on his sideboard we know something bad will happen with it, and so the audience laughed when it duly happened. This film doesn’t seem sure how serious it wants to be and doesn’t seem to expect the laughter at that moment, since we plod on quite relentlessly until the heavily-indicated Unreal Ending, which has some affinity for the end of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. I think all these things I’ve mentioned were referred to in the film itself, applying the very 80s idea that self-reference defuses criticism.
A non-cinematic relative of this film would be The Apparition Phase, though I expect that will get a screen adaptation before long. Fun fact: both that novel and this film have credits for Joel Morris and Jason Hazeley, a great pair of lads.
In conclusion, I recommend this film. Try getting it on pirated VHS for authentic period feel.