A feature film debut is high stakes at the best of times, terrifying at the worst, and doubly so when the world premiere of your debut is the kickoff for Sundance Film Festival. Fortunately, British director Prano Bailey-Bond nails it right out of the gate with her phenomenal love letter and dissection of the 1980s video nasties era of British horror, Censor.
Censor follows film censor Enid (Nanmh Algar) throughout her dreary, grinding life pouring over “video nasties” for things to cut, edit, and reject altogether. She has no social relationships outside of work, and only a tenuous relationship with her family due to her lasting trauma and psychological complications from the disappearance, and potential likely death, of her younger sister Nina years prior; a disappearance of which Enid was the sole witness. The more she agonizes over her sister, the more she loses sleep over it, and the more the events of the gory images in front of her, day-after-day, leak into her psyche and twist her memories like frog DNA into a dinosaur’s genetic code to equally disastrous results.
The backbone of Censor is, appropriately, the human need to control or “censor” the uncontrollable and the unsavory. Enid gets into censorship as a career, assumedly, as a reaction to the loss of Nina and her subsequent amnesiac loss of the events that led to it. A common refrain from her throughout is the idea of “getting it right” and “protecting people,” both of which show a desperate attempt to control the supposed morals and behavior of the public out of a gnawing guilt caused by her inability to control what happened to her sister; a neurotic compulsion that intensifies as she posits her sister’s face onto any woman who has as little in common with her memories as happening to have red hair or eyes of a similar color. Her need to control something, anything can further be seen in her physical tics of picking at her nail beds and hands until they bleed, or fidgeting with her hair when it isn’t perfectly contained within a ponytail or bun.
This compulsion to control morality and the narrative of disturbing events that surround her is juxtaposed perfectly with news clips of Margaret Thatcher and various news network talking heads blaming “video nasties” for essentially every single societal problem conceivable. There’s an anti Thatcher movement brewing? The movies are making people violent. Someone murders his family? He was copying a movie, even if he never even saw it. Horror is used by the world at large and by Enid, in a micro sense, as desperate claw clinging to a hand-waving excuse for the uncomfortable and the upsetting (ionic, since horror in more recent times is known as an outlet for catharsis and stress relief explicitly by the viewer surrendering control completely in a safe environment). The less control she has, and the more her delusions grow, the more she clings to horror as a scapegoat for her problems to the point where she conflates the fictional narratives with her real past, culminating in an extreme psychotic break partially caused by her inability to surrender to the truth, to accept catharsis in the horror you can’t control, to admit that sometimes things just happen. As a coworker says to her, “People create stories to cope.”
Visually, Censor shows the love, respect, and adoration for the genre that Bailey-Bond holds. From the lighting to the color palettes and camera work, one can see nods to legendary horror icons such as Sam Rami, Argento, Fulci, and Wes Craven. The fact that these are directors who had their films banned by censors in the Thatcher era is obviously very apt. Complementing the stylistic references are the very real clips of some of the more legendary “video nasties” of the era, for example, The Driller Killer and Last House on the Left, and the use of 35mm film as the recording medium for the production at large, as well as additional artifacting filtered over the two fictional video nasties that blend the real and the fictional together nicely. One could easily imagine how a full-length version of the fictional nasties may look accordingly. It all just fits, and it’s a joy to see a horror debut from a filmmaker who truly loves and revels in everything that’s made the history of horror film what it is.
However, there are some issues at play. For the main traumatic motivation, the past events surrounding Enid and Nina on that fateful day are a little too unclear. By the end of the film it went from a curiosity to a realization that we will never get any more information than we got, and though the climax to the arc is phenomenal, it still feels a little disappointing to not know at least a little more. Even Pamela Vorhees gave us a little more context before she met her end. The pacing can also be a little uneven at times with some of the film clips being at times too long, too short, or in the case of one in particular, arguably unnecessary altogether. This occasionally detracts focus from a narrative that should be given the appropriate space it deserves to shine as brightly as possible.
That said, Censor is a hell of a horror film, a hell of a debut, a hell of a kickoff to Sundance 2021, and to echo the statement made by Variety Magazine this past year, Prano Bailey-Bond is absolutely one to watch.
Images courtesy of Sundance Institute