Sundance 2021: Censor Is a Thrilling Tribute to the Video Nasty Era That Can’t Stick the Landing

by Brian Marks

In Censor, co-written and directed by Prano Bailey-Bond, a film censor in the UK of the 1980s finds herself slowly losing her mind amid a steady flow of blood and viscera, even as she is convinced that she’s doing society a favor. The slow-burn horror film, which is indebted to Peter Strickland’s horror-adjacent thriller Berberian Sound Studio (2012), is fascinated by the twin impulses toward repression and voyeurism that animate Enid Baines (Niamh Algar). Censor creates such a compelling sense of dread that it’s a disappointment when the movie loses the thread as it hurtles toward its conclusion.

Bailey-Bond’s film, her debut feature, is concerned with the ‘Video Nasty’ era in the UK, a time in the 1970s and early ‘80s when films packaged for relatively new videocassette recorders (VCRs) were free of the censorship restrictions that theatrically released films were subject to. This proved to be perfect for makers of gory horror movies and exploitation films because filmmakers could stuff them with whatever titillating and terrifying images they wanted and release them without hindrance. But UK politicians, in the midst of a right-wing turn, began to lash out at the gleefully violent films, which were in turn blamed for Britain’s rising crime rate (without evidence). The mid-‘80s saw new laws passed in the UK requiring direct-to-video films to pass the same ratings and censorship tests that theatrical films had to undergo, and some particularly gruesome titles were simply banned for decades.

Enid is among the censors responsible for reigning in the video nasties. Every day she settles down with a coworker to watch another splatter film as she diligently scribbles out everything objectionable about it. She’s not an extremist, and she seems willing to let some amount of violence get through, particularly if it’s stylized. But while some of her coworkers are motivated by their own sense of what’s immoral, and one even seems like a plant designed to chip away at their puritanism, Enid is a true believer. “We can’t afford to make mistakes,” she tells a fellow censor early on as if something truly horrible might happen if she doesn’t singlehandedly stop it. During a dinner with her parents, we learn more about what motivates the censor. They present her with a death certificate written out for her younger sister, who went missing years earlier during a trip into the woods the two took that only Enid returned from, unable to remember what had happened to her sister. She half-heartedly believes her sister might be alive somewhere, but her zealotry about censorship suggests she believes something terrible happened, and the only way to fix it is to cut off the flow of cheap violence seeping into the marketplace. One horror film she watches for work particularly unnerves her, as it features scenes nearly identical to her memories from just before her sister’s disappearance, which sets her on a doomed quest to find out what else the director might know about her past.

Perhaps it’s fitting that the best parts of a film called Censor happen before the parts a censor would most object to. The mystery that pervades the early sections of the film is utterly compelling, and Algar makes her character’s history into a puzzle that we want to unlock. Bailey-Bond doesn’t hide her politics, and she includes a speech from Margaret Thatcher that rails against protesting leftists and tries to paint them as anti-democratic for daring to speak out against her party’s policies. Enid desires to hack away at horror films the same way their villains lay axes into their victims, but she also has a conformist streak that fits in with the political climate of the era. She sees extreme horror as an antisocial force, and so it’s necessary for her to sanitize it, to bring it back into the mainstream where it can safely rejoin society. Bailey-Bond and her co-writer Anthony Fletcher run out of steam toward the end, though. The film flirts with moments of madness and surrealism throughout its runtime, but they fall into the temptation of turning the finale into a bloodbath that doesn’t seem like a logical progression from where it started. There may be too much (ax) hacking at the end, but it’s far from the work of a hack. Bailey-Bond clearly has a gifted visual sense and a knack for creating enveloping atmosphere, signaling a talent worth watching out for.

The first-ever “virtual” Sundance Film Festival runs from January 28 – February 3. Check back for our daily coverage and visit the festival’s official website for more information.

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