Two movies released within months of one another last year and now widely available on streaming platforms—Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor and Jacob Gentry’s Broadcast Signal Intrusion—have an astounding number of commonalities, even by the standards of “twin films.” Both feature protagonists who long for closure, who stare at screens professionally, and who so lose their grip on reality in doing both that they commit terrible acts. Both are set in the recent past—1999 Chicago for Broadcast; 1985 England for Censor—and are centered on the predominant technological media of those times: VHS and television. Both have distinct dread-inducing visual styles rendered in such detail that they each fabricate in-world films and TV shows to drive their stories. Those details, it turns out, are at the source of the films’ clever appeal—and they help distinguish the films’ otherwise identical psychological framework and philosophical outlook.
Broadcast and Censor are at once narratively backward-looking and thematically contemporary. They are attuned to a pervasive wave of nostalgia felt in the age of the glitch for the bygone age of static. That in itself is nothing new. The once-laborious VHS technology has gained a strange digital afterlife. The last-surviving Blockbuster Video location, in Bend, Oregon, is a place of pilgrimage. Apps provide VHS camera filters for your phone. Short “analog horror” films employing the bugs and quirks of public access television to sinister effect are profuse on YouTube. The horror podcast Video Palace draws just as effectively from the grimy lore of the independent rental outlet. Archive 81, the James Wan-produced horror series centered on found Hi8 tapes, is among the top ten most-watched on Netflix. The clunky videocassette on its own is a harbinger to mystery, if only by virtue of the fact that the tolerance for managing a VCR is a vanishingly rare eccentricity in 2021.
On the surface these two films would be of a piece with the ongoing trend, at least until it occurs to viewers that that very nostalgia is being weaponized against them.
Censor is Welsh director Bailey-Bond’s debut feature. It tells of Enid Baines (Niamh Algar), an employee of the British Board of Film Classification, where she exerts an exceptional level of scrutiny toward “video nasties,” violent, cheaply produced horror films that were subject to considerable public outrage in the Thatcher era. Her say-so determines what can stay and what gets cut in any film, assuming she doesn’t ban it outright. Prudish, bespectacled, solitary, and inclined to pass the time doing crosswords to the soothing ambiance of Tory conference speeches, Enid is a suspiciously broad caricature. Though beneath it is a lingering trauma and an unsteady constitution.
Reeling from the disappearance of her sister in childhood, she is at odds with her parents who want to declare her legally dead. At the same time, she is subject to her own public scrutiny when a film she passed for release is linked to a gruesome domestic murder. Continuing her work, despite being hounded by tabloids and threatening phone calls, she is given a new film containing a scene that resembles the circumstances under which her sister went missing. With the newfound hope that her sister may be alive, made more severe by an actress with a strong adult resemblance to her, Enid’s prim exterior gradually recedes under a fervent drive for vindication. She spends her free time renting the very videos she’s meant to suppress and staring at them almost reverently. The fixation naturally dovetails into increasingly risky behavior: stealing private information, an encounter with a sleazy producer that goes from bad to worse, and sneaking onto a film set where further disaster inevitably follows.
One of the most striking aspects of Censor is a visual style at odds with the dismal décor of late-Cold War-era Britain. Bailey-Bond’s use of a muted, solid palette—dark green office hallways; a teal bathroom; pale blue flat walls—and the uncanny ability to mood-light a fluorescent-fixed office floor gives the region an improbable chicness, like a soot-laden Miami Vice. It may be tempting to lay this at the director’s novice work in music videos, but that is to miss its equally possible thematic purpose. The film has a televisual glow that seems to seep outward from its boxed confines the further Enid spirals out into obsession. Once she crosses completely over, the look follows suit, cutting between a full-color, picture-perfect ideal of her old worldview and a damaged, static-lined reality she failed to obscure.
Set fourteen years later, in a different country, and with a swapped gender, Broadcast Signal Intrusion nevertheless echoes most of the broad points of its British counterpart. Harry Shum Jr. plays James, an archivist who works nights transferring VHS recordings of a local affiliate station onto DVDs. His leisure hours are spent fixing camera equipment and watching footage of his wife, who has gone missing. In the course of his work, he discovers instances of pirate broadcasts cutting into normal programming, in which crudely animatronic female dummies mouth indecipherable lines. They occurred frequently enough to merit attention from both the FCC and the BBS (bulletin board system) community on the nascent web. When he discovers that the dates of the intrusions line up closely with the disappearances of women, including his wife, his obsession is unsurprisingly kindled.
No lead is too outlandish for James—as when his young runaway sidekick (Kelley Mack) hears a phone number in Morse code and they follow it to a phone just sitting in a public storage unit outside the city. Neither is any source too suspect. James consults an especially unsettling antiques dealer, a far more paranoid predecessor in his quest, and the basement-dwelling keeper of the storage unit, all of whom speak cryptically in a manner meant to warn James but which only enables him. For James there is no such thing as a dead end or a simple answer. In the end, he, too, is capable of anything in seeking to confirm in reality what is already forged in his mind.
Broadcast Signal Intrusion has its own surreal dream imagery and careful retro media recreations—such as an ’80s sitcom and a ’70s sci-fi show—but its visual reference points are vastly different from Censor. Gentry applies a grimy and shadow-laden but still naturalistic aesthetic closer to the claustrophobic 1970s classics like The Conversation, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men. But Broadcast Signal Intrusion is less interested in uncovering a vast, well-orchestrated scheme than it is in depicting the unraveling of a conspiratorial mind. Indeed, anyone looking for a well-spun web where everything seamlessly connects to everything else is going to come away disappointed. That could very well be narrative negligence, at least compared to Censor, which depicts its protagonist’s faults in judgment more clearly. It may also be another nod toward the contemporary.
The VHS aesthetic offers an intimate, homespun vision of technology amid a present landscape that is isolating, coldly sleek, and not always in the user’s control. That often overlooks how the actual technology was a wire-entangled headache even in its prime, and the iconic plastic rectangle was, in truth, clunky and fragile. In the hands of Bailey-Bond and Gentry, the VHS look spins out further into a sinister illustration of our present disillusionment in which “doing your own research” is a baroque exercise in self-denial. Indeed, their psychological portraits match well with the common injuries that befall a tape. In Censor, it is obscured by tracking interference; in Broadcast Signal Intrusion, it has become unspooled.