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Snip, Snip, Snip

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INTO THE WOODS Niamh Algar in ‘Censor.’

A censor brings home her work, with gruesome consequences

Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor may not exactly be the most artfully contrived horror pic of the year, but it carries enough psycho-dramatic weight to interest genre enthusiasts fond of prowling the cinematic side streets in search of hidden dividends.

Enid, the lead character—played by Irish actor Niamh Algar—is outwardly a prim, businesslike civil servant who spends hours every day watching rapes, murders and assorted other hyper-grotesque spectacles in a screening room at her job as a government film censor. Bailey-Bond’s narrative is set in the pre-internet 1980s, the heyday of what British news media then labeled “video nasty” entertainment—known in the U.S. as “splatter.” And the scenes are grisly indeed—needles in eyeballs, eviscerations, the whole gory gambit. Yet Enid and most of the workers in the censorship office appear to be able to take the work in stride. Or so it would seem.

While Enid wrestles with the “to snip or not to snip” dilemma, the local newsprint tabloids launch a headline campaign against real-life copycat crimes supposedly inspired by the nasty VHS tapes—which have titles like Don’t Go in the Church and Asunder. The news stories explicitly cite Enid as a culprit due to her negligence. Real crimes are being linked to films the censors passed. In the wake of that bad publicity, the already-tense work atmosphere with her boss and colleagues becomes unbearable.

Meanwhile, in her personal life, Enid is still trying to get over the mysterious recent disappearance of her sister, which evidently involved getting lost in a spooky forest at night. When Enid is left by herself working late in the office after hours—as far as we can see she’s always alone—her mind drifts off into a recurring series of disturbing scenes, partially induced by the movies she’s forced to deal with and partially the product of her own fevered imagination. For her, solitude is no refuge. Unsurprisingly, her professional manner comes across as just a bit severe.

With these issues preying on her nerves, Enid is further susceptible to ill treatment by the disagreeable people in her daily routine: rude colleagues, her tone-deaf boss, a devious video store clerk and her nervous mother and father, who seem overly eager to blame her for her sister’s disappearance. Potentially the most threatening characters are a smarmy video producer named Doug (Michael Smiley), who slobbers lustily over Enid on his visit to the censors’ office—her boss barely notices—and an even more loathsome director, the shadowy Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). For them, Enid’s meek acquiescence is a turn-on.

Director Bailey-Bond, a product of Wales and the London indie film scene, helps herself to one or two well-worn horror accoutrements in her feature debut, co-written with Anthony Fletcher. Late one night when Enid is at home quietly attempting to control her inner demons, the snow on an off-the-air TV set seems to communicate with her, à la Poltergeist. And her emotional inner landscape—a misty night, the woods, a cabin and the red-haired figure of her departed sister—contains familiar ingredients from too many teenage horror flicks. Actor Algar overcomes these clichés with her performance, an unnerving portrait of an emotionally vulnerable woman with no escape valve for her fears. In an effort to soothe Enid’s nerves, her colleague, Sanderson (Nicholas Burns), recommends that she “construct stories” to help herself cope. But Enid’s coping stories all turn out to be nightmares.

Production values are high quality, especially Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s music score and Annika Summerson’s mock-’80s-style cinematography. Somehow, the softer edges of VHS-tape resolution seem to work better with horror than high-def digital. Bailey-Bond’s Censor screened at Sundance and SFFILM in the Midnight category. We’re looking forward to seeing more of her work, whether or not she chooses to continue in the horror vein. There’s always room on screen for the imaginative use of anxiety.

“Censor” streams on June 11 and will appear in theaters June 18.