‘Censor’ Film Review – Sundance 2021

A film censor discovers an eerie horror film that sends her on a quest connected to her own painfully dark past, where the lines between fiction and reality become terrifyingly blurred.

The 1980’s was a wild time, and in the UK, that time included a period of moral panic and social hysteria that surrounded the new technological advancement of films being released on video cassettes meant for home consumption, aka home video. While filmmakers and artists were experimenting with pushing content to new extremes, conservative types were concerned with whether or not these home-viewed films featuring images of violence and nudity would spur people into criminality and depravity, which ultimately led to censorship and a certain number of films, dubbed “video nasties”, being banned outright. But do on-screen horrors give birth to real life horrors, or is it the other way around? And if violent images are meant to make people commit violent acts, what prevents the censors themselves from losing control?

Filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond in her first feature film, Censor, explores these ideas through the lens of a dedicated professional film censor named Enid (Niamh Algar). The tightly-wound Enid is obsessively devoted to her duties of watching movies in the so-called “video nasties” realm to determine what bits of blood, guts and nudity to censor and what to allow. Enid keeps a cool detachment as she watches the films, not analyzing them or allowing herself to be affected by them beyond the perfunctory business of cutting out the most extreme bits.

But while Enid focuses her energies on cutting out the horrors on screen, her own dark past lurks just underneath her cool exterior. When she comes across a strangely familiar horror film that stirs up memories of her missing sister, who disappeared as a child, Enid becomes determined to figure out who is behind the film, and how the filmmaker seems to know so much about her. As Enid delves deeper into the mystery of the film, and the mystery behind her sister’s disappearance, the lines between fiction and reality blur, and she descends into the world of video nasties – not from in front of a tv but in the bloody flesh.

One of Censor‘s notable elements is the period detail and level of immersion in 1985 England that filmmaker Bailey-Bond and her production and design team have achieved. Shot on 35mm film, Censor depicts Enid’s world in muted tones, and a cold, grey bleakness reflective of the conservative nature of the times. In contrast, the films that Enid watches, many of which were shot specifically for the movie, reflect the vivid colors of the Hammer Horror and Giallo style and the lurid, vibrant nature of the video nasty films – bursting with blues and reds and dripping with blood. The sound design too is immersive and provides a nod to the era throughout, down to the details of the films playing through the walls of the censors office.

This plays right into Enid’s journey as she leaves the comforts of her controlled life and enters the dangerous video nasty world.

Censor is an ode and a love letter to horror films as well as a social and personal commentary on censorship, art, and internalized trauma. In the end, it surmises, perhaps horror films don’t so much as create trauma, but rather help us face what’s already there.

Rating: 4/5

United Kingdom (Director: Prano Bailey-Bond, Screenwriters: Prano Bailey-Bond, Anthony Fletcher, Producer: Helen Jones). Cast: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley. World Premiere, Sundance Film Festival, Jan 28 2021

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