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Censor Is A Hallucinatory Look at the 1980s Video Nasty Phenomenon: Sundance 2021 Review

Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut proves there’s plenty of horror in the censorship debate

Censor Is A Hallucinatory Look at the 1980s Video Nasty Phenomenon: Sundance 2021 Review
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This review is part of our Sundance 2021 coverage.

The Pitch: Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) is an uptight film censor with a tragic past. After becoming embroiled in a murder scandal that the press link to a violent horror film she edited, Enid becomes obsessed with Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta), an actress who bears a striking resemblance to her missing sister, Nina.

Her pursuit of Alice leads Enid into the shadowy world of underground horror films and the company of questionable men like smarmy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley) and director Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). As Enid’s obsessive hunt for the truth intensifies, she begins to lose track of what is real and what is a movie as both her sanity and her life come under threat.

Video Nasty: The most intriguing aspect of Censor is how it uses the hysteria about film violence in the UK as its backdrop. Censor is set at the height of the 1980s Video Nasties craze in Britain, when imported horror content was blamed for real-life violence. During this period, producers and retailers were fined for indecency and selling banned content, and horror films were heavily censored by government regulators.

Uptight Brigade: Censor is first and foremost a personal story about Enid. Enid’s work as a video censor is a gateway to her obsession, but it also informs a great deal about her character. As a survivor of trauma, Enid has internalized her relationship to violence, but it seeps into her self-proclaimed “important” work censoring horror films. Despite the fact that her co-workers categorize her as a prude behind her back, Enid has a clear respect for the integrity of the films she’s cutting; early in the film she advocates for edits that maintain the narrative continuity, even as her co-worker rolls his eyes.

Fletcher and Bailey-Bond’s script doesn’t offer a great deal of insight into Enid’s personal life, which keeps the character at arm’s length. The audience barely knows anything about her non-work life aside from the fact that she spends her evenings home alone watching TV and working on crossword puzzles. At one point, Enid rebuffs the advances of her co-worker Perkins (Danny Lee Wynter), though it’s unclear if she is genuinely disinterested or if her trauma prevents her from developing intimate connections.

Gothic Heroine: Niamh Algar is front and center for the majority of the film and the actress proves to be more than capable of anchoring the film. It’s a surprisingly quiet performance considering where the narrative ultimately takes her, but it works because Algar slowly and masterfully unravels Enid in front of our eyes.

Saffron Cullane’s costuming is instrumental in conveying this arc. Enid literally starts the film as a tightly buttoned up censor, complete with perfectly positioned hair and collared blouses. By film’s end, however, Enid’s reserved shell has completely cracked. With her white nightgown splattered in blood and her long hair set loose, Enid is outfitted in the wardrobe of a gothic heroine. It’s a simple, but effective way of highlighting Enid’s evolution from reserved bystander to active, bloody participant.

Giallo Vibes: Bailey-Bond’s film has been described as giallo-influenced, in large part thanks to a lighting scheme that is heavily dependent on striking reds and blues, particularly the film’s surreal second half. It’s similar to the approach adopted by Yann Gonzalez for his 2019 film Knife + Heart in that it feels like a playful, knowing period homage.

Censor works as a kind of amalgamation between two modes of horror filmmaking that was popular in the ’80s: the sexy, visually provocative European gialli and the low-budget US exploitation/slasher films. Most of the censored films that are shown in the film hue closer to the latter category, but as Enid begins her investigation (and descent) into Frederick North’s filmography, the hallucinatory vibrant giallo vibes take over.

 

Political Commentary: Enid’s dedication to her work takes a hit when the press dubbed “The Amnesiac Murderer” commits a crime that has seemingly been influenced by a film that Enid edited. This development puts Enid at the center of the debate about the responsibility of onscreen violence, which is when Censor is at its best. Not only does Enid begin receiving threatening phone calls, it sends her spiralling into uncharted territory.

This is the point in the film when Enid switches from passively observing horror content and becomes an active actor in it: She develops a fixation on Alice Lee and, from here, begins her journey into the stigmatized realm of murky video stores, late night rendezvous and wooded sets that is the world of Video Nasties.

Muted Climax: While the more surreal, meta-textual back half of the film does confirm that Censor doesn’t support the argument that fictional violence begets real-life violence, Enid’s descent into depravity and madness feels too familiar and predictable. Visually, this is when Prano Bailey-Bond’s capacity for striking imagery and playful recreations of vintage ’80s horror aesthetic comes alive, but narratively it doesn’t push the boundaries far enough. The weak resolution of the film is tempered slightly by an ambiguous and memorable coda, but the overall resolution of Enid’s journey feels tempered and mildly unsatisfying.

The Verdict: Censor is a mostly entertaining period horror film about a woman’s descent into madness, set against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous periods for horror films in UK history. Despite a striking production design and the strong performance by lead actress Niamh Algar, the narrative familiarity of the second half and restrained climax let the film down.

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