Censor kicked off the Midnight category of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival this weekend, and it certainly did so with bloody panache. The film is inspired by the video nasty era of the UK, which saw a wave of absurdly violent and gory exploitation films – usually made on a minuscule budget – flood the video cassette market. Naturally, this brought a harsh crackdown on what kind of content films should be allowed to show, and strict censorship laws swiftly followed.
The film takes place in 1985, one year after Parliament passed the Video Recordings Act, and follows a woman named Enid (a next-level performance from Niamh Algar) who works on the censorship board. She spends her days poring over endless scenes of murder, torture, and sexual violence; rewinding and rewatching and rewinding and rewatching again. Enid believes that she’s performing an essential public service by cutting out the more gruesome bits of cinema, or banning some films altogether. Conversations with her coworkers revolve around what exactly defines overly obscene content – Enid allows a scene of decapitation to skate by because she deems it to be ridiculous, but is adamant that a depiction of an eye gouging be cut due to its realism. The schlocky and provocative films that Enid is constantly viewing range from being just plain kooky to genuinely disturbing, and Censor’s inspired title sequence splices together various violent clips from said movies with newsreels of the public outcry (and government action) against them.
The ongoing debate over on-screen violence inspiring real-world violence and the hysteria that surrounds it comes to a head when a shocking crime makes headlines and the press links it to a recent film that Enid and company let by. The media frenzy takes a stressful toll on the quiet and reserved Enid, and as her stoic facade begins to crumble, we begin to learn that she’s been doing a bit of selective editing on herself. When she was a little girl, Enid and her sister Nina went into the woods, but only Enid came home. In a bit of amnesia, she’s unable to recall what exactly happened, much to the confusion and dismay of her questioning parents. Haunted by her guilt, Enid has continued to search for her long lost sister all these years; far past the time that her parents have moved on and her search has teetered over into unhealthy territory.
Things really begin to unravel when a seedy producer by the name of Doug Smart (Michael Smiley having a blast) has her watch a film that brings back her buried memories, playing out almost exactly the way the events of her and Nina in the woods did. This throws Enid into the pitch black rabbit hole of the underground exploitation film scene, where many of the movies she herself banned are sold under the counter. As she attempts to track down the film’s director and in turn, her sister, the film bathes scenes in either eerie green darkness or blue and red pastels; the kind of disorienting look that so many of the 80s films shown throughout Censor soak the lens with (and was recently evoked by 2018’s Mandy).
It’s one of the many ways writer and director Prano Bailey-Bond pays homage to the films that inspired hers – an aesthetic choice among other meta ones. Indeed, the filmmaker’s debut feature is one of the smartest to grace the horror genre recently. While she can’t resist one or two jump scares and a classic long dark corridor, the focus stays on unsettling and impending terrors rather than anything too direct. The film takes what is already a strong concept and pushes it into the realms of psychological terrors, sharp (and occasionally funny) social critique, and the type of good old-fashioned horror movie violence that would give Enid pause. Censor takes the ideas of censorship and exposure to violent content and flips them on their heads, breaking past its period setting and aesthetics to bring to mind more modern sensibilities. For example, consider the toll on the mental health of content moderators of sites such as Facebook, who bear witness to unimaginable things all day, or the fact that the vast majority of the exploitative films of the day featured grotesque and misogynistic violence against women – nearly always directed by men.
Frustratingly, the film’s third act gets lost amid a climactic explosion of style and experimentalism. It leaves much of the more layered elements behind in favor of a more familiar – and less interesting – take on the dissolution of Enid’s sanity. The result is an entertaining but mildly disappointing spiral down the paths of “Was she mad to begin with? Is this even real? Did she murder her sister?” open-endedness that begins to drag once you understand what it’s doing. The ending feels like something you have seen before, whereas the rest feels fresh and enticing. Still, Censor certainly remains worth a watch for any horror fan, and to be quite frank, the level at which lead actress Niamh Algar is playing at is f*cking insane. It’s an impressive and exceptionally intelligent debut for Prano Bailey-Bond.