The ’80s were a great time for horror fans. More and gorier films found their way to the eyes of fans through home video. This created a cottage industry for down-and-dirty schlock fests. So long as they piled on the blood and depravity, they were sure to make money. But in the UK, there was a major backlash. While the British Board of Film Censors heavily edited gory films for cinemas, there was no such system for VHS releases. This led to the so-called “Video Nasties” list, an infamous roster of titles banned for their extreme content. But someone had to watch those movies; if they were really harmful to the public, what about the censors themselves? This is where Prano Bailey-Bond’s new film Censor comes in.
I’ve long been fascinated by the Video Nasties. Motion pictures that were banned and often prosecuted on obscenity charges. It was in the heyday of Thatcher’s Britain, and the hammer fell. But at this point I’ve seen a good many of the Video Nasties; pretty much none of them are more than just graphically violent. Fake looking, usually. Some are in bad taste, sure. But obscene? Harmful? I can’t imagine. But that was the belief; in much the same way rap lyrics and later violent video games were the target of concerned parent groups, horror movies were considered a blight on the purity of youth. Phooey and pshaw.
But that’s why Censor, one of the opening night films of Sundance 2021, hits so well. Enid (Niamh Algar) is a censor who watches film after film in her seemingly noble goal of protecting everyone. Others in her job are more lax than she, specifically Sanderson (Nicholas Burns), an academic who contends the gore in these movies is too ridiculous to take seriously. When news breaks of a man who seemingly copycatted one of the movies Enid and Sanderson passed (with heavy cuts), the media go wild. They start blaming the censors themselves for their lacks morals and permissive attitude.
This hits Enid specifically hard; we find out as the movie begins that she does her job out of a sense of duty for her sister, who went missing when they were children. Enid’s parents have Nina declared dead, but Enid is dead-set on proving she’s alive somewhere. The pressure of both the media scrutiny and her missing sister merge. It comes to a head when she views an archive film that seemingly mimics the last day Enid spent with Nina. Enid becomes convinced an actress in the notorious films is in fact her sister. But she’ll have to do research to find out.
Censor not only reflects a the time period of dreary ’80s UK perfectly, but also the mislaid concerns of the people who needed someone to blame for the rise of violent crime. Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher tackle this without casting too much shade on the conservative backlash, nor absolving the violent trash hitting video shelves. But at the center we have a character for whom the gruesome images begin to blur with buried emotional scars until she truly cannot tell reality from fiction. The final sequence, on the set of a new soon-to-be Video Nasty, is a descent into true psychological despair and red-and-blue-tinted fantasy.
At times feeling in the same vein as Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and with a haunting final scene right out of David Lynch, Censor is an effective and affecting character study. Algar plays repression and vulnerability with precision. When Enid’s psyche begins to fray, the actor never makes it feel automatic. It’s an amazingly strong feature debut from Bailey-Bond. I hope to see her joining the ranks of the best of British horror in the next few years.