In a retrospective interview discussing his role in the “video nasties” moral panic, Romano Scavolini – director of the controversial Nightmares in a Damaged Brain (1981) – decried the hypocrisy of American genre films that gleefully show acts of violence but pull away before the audience can witness the ensuing carnage. Mainstream American horror movies, Scavolini explains, allow the viewer to see the knife but never the wound (“vedi soltanto il coltello ma non vedi la ferita”).
Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor (2021) is all about the wound, the scars both physical and psychological that linger long after the initial moment of violence has passed. It is a film deeply invested in the process through which trauma burrows beneath the skin and works its way into the deepest crevices of one’s being. As such, its central narrative and thematic conceit, censorship, extends beyond the film’s setting during the zenith of the1980s video nasty panic, to encompass the complex ways in which individuals respond to traumatic events by repressing, or censoring, painful realities.
The protagonist of Censor is Enid (Niamh Algar), a strait-laced perfectionist who works as a film censor. Enid is proud of her job at the censor’s office, defensively telling her mother (Clare Holman) early in the film that her work is not entertainment, but a job that she does to protect people. Enid believes wholeheartedly in the moral crusade against violent and sexually explicit films that were raging in 1980s Britain. She feels that the innocent must be shielded from dangerous influences and takes care to perform her job with diligence and dedication. Although the film takes place in the years following the implementation of the Video Recordings Act 1984 – legislation that required all films released on VHS to be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification for classification and/or cuts – the public hysteria surround the proliferation of violent videos is not Censor’s primary focus. Instead, the film grounds itself in Enid’s deep-rooted trauma and her failure to move beyond the mysterious disappearance of her sister, Nina (Amelie Child-Villiers), decades earlier. The subject of censorship weaves its way into the film through Enid’s inability to confront or access her memories of the events that took place on the day Nina vanished. Indeed, her parents note, with barely concealed hostility, that Enid has never been clear about what happened when her sister disappeared in a lonely woodland.
Enid is a paragon of self-control whose conservative hairdo and prim reading glasses form a protective façade or stuffy propriety. She pours everything into her work, holding herself to an impossibly high standard and consistently striving for perfection. She seems to have no life outside of her job: no friends, lovers, or meaningful connections, just a drab apartment and a strained relationship with her parents. When Enid’s pain does bubble to the surface it is in quiet moments of habitual self-harm, when she compulsively picks at the skin around her fingernails.
Enid’s trauma is remote, seemingly forgotten, yet somehow omnipresent. She cannot articulate it, nor can she fully comprehend what happened in the woods all those years ago. Instead, she catches brief snatches of memory, flickers of images from twenty years before a red-haired girl running and giggling, the tinkle of a wind chime. Sometimes, her memories are short, fragmented pictures that refuse to tell the whole story. On other occasions, they are more prolonged, albeit incomplete, flashbacks. The sharp trill of a ringing phone brings her back to the distant moment when she sobbed as her father screamed at her, imploring her to remember what happened to Nina. The vague, intrusive manner in which Enid’s past returns to her while simultaneously eluding her grasp is, it seems, characteristic of profound trauma. The most famous contemporary theorist of trauma, Cathy Caruth has argued that
“trauma is not locatable in the simple violent or original event in an individual’s past, but rather in the way that its very unassimilated nature—the way it was precisely not known in the first instance— returns to haunt the survivor later on.”
Essentially, trauma arises out of those events that are so terrible – so sudden, painful, or violent – that they cannot be integrated into the survivor’s consciousness. They resist simple articulation and refuse to be recalled as clear, linear narratives. Instead, they return, intermittently and unbidden, as flashbacks, nightmares, and repetitive behavior. This is precisely how Enid experiences her trauma. She cannot fully recall or express what happened to Nina, but she is repeatedly subjected to unwanted flashes of memory so intense that they threaten to overwhelm her.
Enid exists under a perpetual state of siege. Her past constantly encroaches upon her present, rising up to grasp her, before briefly letting her go free again. This cycle reaches its apex when, during the screening of a film she has been asked to classify, she is confronted with an on-screen reflection of her sister’s disappearance. While watching a new release called Don’t Go into the Church (a clever nod to the plethora of real-life 70s and 80s horror films with prohibitive titles like Don’t Look in the Basement, Don’t Go in the House, Don’t Go in the Woods), Enid becomes violently ill. She begins to shake and runs to the bathroom to vomit. The cinematic depiction of a young girl who murders her sister with axe is too much for her. Enid clearly sees herself in the little girl who brutally attacks her sister, though whether this is because Enid literally harmed her younger sibling or if it is merely a projection of her guilt remains unclear. In any case, her identification with the girl is emphasized as the on-screen image of the child fleeing from her sister’s murder cuts to a scene of Enid fleeing the screening room so that she can be sick.
The Greek word trauma originally described a wound inflicted on the body, but over time it has come to be more closely associated with mental pain. Nevertheless, many psychiatrists have argued that trauma should be considered a whole-body affliction, a disorder that has the power to rewire the brain, recalibrate hormone levels, and damage the immune system. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk explains that
“After trauma, the world is experienced with a different nervous system. The survivor’s energy now becomes focused on suppressing inner chaos, at the expense of spontaneous involvement in their lives. These attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, and other autoimmune diseases.”
Enid experiences her trauma both mentally and corporeally. It consumes her mind, but it also makes itself known on her body, through bouts of shaking, vomiting, and her proclivity for masochistic skin-picking. Her mental wounds become visible in her physical form, and her psychological disintegration is mirrored by an increasingly disheveled outward appearance.
After Enid is forced to re-experience the pain of Nina’s disappearance through the cinematic mirror of Don’t Go into the Church, she becomes obsessed with proving that not only is her vanished sister still alive, but that she has grown up to become a B-movie actress named Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta). Alice, Enid explains, has Nina’s eyes. Moreover, Enid’s belief that her sister has survived allows her to rewrite her own painful history, so that rather than helplessly watching as Nina was taken – or, as the film also suggests, playing a more active role in her demise – Enid can now “save” Nina.
Enid becomes increasingly isolated and paranoid as she attempts to track down Alice and prove that she is indeed her lost sibling. When she finally does find Alice – in a bizarre, Lynchian sequence that takes place during a night-time film shoot – Enid brutally dispatches her co-star (Guillaume Delaunay) and director (Adrian Schiller) in hopes of protecting her “sister” from their sadistic intentions. While the scene in which Enid frenziedly attacks the cast and crew with an axe recalls her earlier role as a censor, cutting up films deemed inappropriately violent, it also signals her final plunge into all-consuming madness, as she is no longer able to separate cinema from real life, fantasy from reality.
In the aftermath of the on-set violence, Alice flees into the forest, and Enid is left to collapse in a broken, bloody heap on the ground. Muttering “please be her, please be her” like a desperate prayer, Enid succeeds in reversing her distressing situation by inexplicably resetting reality so that Alice, now revealed to be Nina, reappears shrouded in brilliant white and glowing like an angel. Enid drives Alice/Nina home as a radio news program announces that all video nasties have been destroyed and, as a consequence, crime has been eradicated. Pulling up to her family home beneath a vibrant rainbow, Enid smiles beatifically as Alice/Nina is returned to her joyful parents. Only a few scratches and momentary glitches indicate that all is not what it seems and that Enid’s happy ending is little more than a hopeless fantasy.
Censor’s conclusion is certainly unexpected. In a film that began as a tense psychological thriller about a young woman traumatized by her sister’s disappearance, the closing flight into fantasy seems disconcerting and inappropriate. However, such an ending – in which a painful reality is replaced by a more appealing fantasy – was inevitable from the outset. One of the first conversations we witness between Enid and her colleagues in the censor’s office concerns the distasteful nature of realism, as Enid advocates banning a particular horror film because its violence is “too realistic”. Midway through the film, when Enid goes to rent a video nasty from a local shop, the owner tells her that the movie’s ending has been taped over with another film. In the closing moments of Censor, Enid performs a similar act of “taping over” as she creates an idyllic scene of family togetherness to mask the disturbing reality of her final tragic descent into violence and madness.
The practice of creating a so-called “cover story” to mask painful realities is relatively common amongst trauma survivors. Often, they will concoct a simplistic account of their traumatic experience that can be relayed to friends and family in hopes of explaining certain symptoms and behaviors. Enid’s colleague Perkins (Danny Lee Wynter), who had previously worked as a psychotherapist, tells her at one point that “people construct stories to cope”, to make difficult experiences more bearable. He also comments that “You’d be surprised what the human brain can edit out when it can’t handle the truth”. The word “edit” is crucial here, as it establishes a connection between the processes of film censorship (editing and cutting out unpalatable scenes) and the brain’s tendency to repress difficult, traumatic memories. The use of the term “edit” also foreshadows Enid’s ultimate escape into fantasy, as she cuts out her painful experiences and splices in a happier solution.
Although the video nasties panic is not at the center of the film, it is an important part of Censor’s setting, and the cultural context mirrors Enid’s individual trauma in some very intriguing ways. In much the same way that Enid creates a happy story of family togetherness to screen a much more violent, and indeed complex, reality, so too does it seem that everyone else around her is trying to distill difficult realities into simplistic, easily consumable stories. Early in the film, a man murders his wife and children, and the crime is blamed on a video nasty that Enid and her colleague Sanderson (Nicholas Burns) passed for release, albeit with extensive cuts. It is later revealed that the man in question had never seen the film, and the connection between the murder and video nasties was a vain attempt to explain an incomprehensible crime. Similarly, throughout the film, there is a recurring motif whereby radio, television, and newspaper headlines loudly and confidently blame all manner of social ills on video nasties. Censor, however, suggests that this is a simplistic response to the complexities of a society that was, in the 1980s, torn apart by war, political violence, and mass unemployment. The attribution of crime and social unrest to the proliferation of controversial VHS tapes therefore seems like nothing more than a story created to simplify a complex reality. Indeed, this process of simplification is rendered explicit during an early scene where Enid observes a couple fighting on a train. They bicker cruelly, almost violently, about her recent job loss, providing a momentary glimpse of the rampant unemployment that was ravaging Britain under Thatcher. When Enid looks away from the pair, she sees a man holding a newspaper whose frontpage headline declares “Crime on the Rise: Video Nasties to Blame”.
Enid’s recalibration of her own anguish, her creation of a naïve fantasy to cover the pain of a profound loss, echoes the broader process of cultural recalibration taking place around her. Britain in the 1980s was dealing with its own traumas: A massive economic downturn that saw tens of thousands lose their jobs, war in the Falklands, a surge in political violence, a callous Conservative government. It is immensely difficult to weave all of these diverse issues into a cohesive narrative, and it is even harder to understand a nation’s indifference to the growing numbers of unemployed and impoverished. It is far easier to distill that pain into an easily digestible story about perverse videos corrupting an otherwise decent nation. Like Enid, Britain itself has constructed a story in order to cope.
Although set amidst the moral panic of the video nasties scare, Censor is a film less about violence and more about wounds. It allows us to witness the knife, the act of violence, but also the carnage that follows, the wound that festers long after the danger has passed. In places, Censor actually seems more interested in the wound than the violence itself. After all, we never see what happened to Nina – though, there are hints and allusions – but we are brought into intimate proximity with the scars her disappearance has left on Enid. The film is interested the marks, the lacerations, that linger in the aftermath of a traumatic event. It shows how both the mind and the body respond, often in bizarre or inexplicable ways, to trauma. Moreover, Censor explores the stories we tell – as individuals and as a society – in hopes of masking unbearable pain and conjuring a simple explanation for infinitely complex realities.
Censor is now on general release in UK and Irish cinemas. It is also streaming online: https://www.censormovie.com/watch-at-home/
Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRrhXjH1M70
Ban the Sadist Videos! (dir. David Gregory, 2005).
Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Viking Penguin, 2014).