Sundance 2021: “Censor” is a video nasty throwback suitable for all rages

Sundance Censor Censor (Sundance Film Festival)

Niamh Algar learns the price of prurience in Prano Bailey-Bond’s neon-soaked ode to the video nasty.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

It’s England in the 1980s – poverty is high, Thatcher is in office, and the so-called moral majority is sounding the alarm about the increasing ubiquity of “video nasties”, gory, violent films that, as the hysteria goes, tap into the seediest, most antisocial impulses of the British people. Think Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer, or Cannibal Holocaust: eerie exercises in sociopathy that thrill their fans and terrify their detractors. For Enid (Niamh Algar), a film censor, her job isn’t about protecting a sensitive public from the disturbing films she’s shown (ones with titles like Deranged and Beast Man), but merely to do her job well. Even so, she’s buttoned up in more ways than one, from her uptight clothing to her lack of chemistry with her coworkers. Much of that is due to years of trauma sustained from the disappearance of her sister as a teenager, which she was present for but can’t remember a thing about; her parents only recently chose to declare her dead and begin to move on with their lives.

But Enid’s not ready to give up the fight, particularly when sleazy film producer Doug (Michael Smiley) comes to her to have her cut and rate an old film from their studio archives — Don’t Go in the Church, from a mysterious yet prolific director named Frederick North. Something about its tale of young women facing axe murders in the woods activates something in her, and she becomes convinced it (and North) may hold the key to her sister’s whereabouts.

Immediately, writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond‘s debut (alongside co-writer Anthony Fletcher) hearkens not just to the ’80s horror films it faithfully evokes, but to similar homages like Peter Strickland’s excellent Berberian Sound Studio, both of them meta-textual meditations on the effect of horror on not just those who watch them, but those involved in their making. Bailey-Bond splashes the frame with the grain and fuzz of the VHS tapes of the era, contrasted with bold, neon-lit atmosphere when we’re more firmly in Enid’s real world. But even then, there’s something of the collapse of society hiding in the corners: train rides home are filled with tension, and darkened subway station corridors promise violence for a young woman in an England she has greater call to fear.

Censor marries that grimy aesthetic with sneakier discussions about the things we repress even in the face of violence and trauma.

Algar carries all of this on her back, and pulls through a memorable, restrained performance even as the demands of the material and Bailey-Bond’s direction keep her at arm’s length. We don’t know much about Enid, but that’s because she refuses to tell us, or anyone else for that matter; it’s all up to Algar to convey every inch of discomfort and unease with a stolen glance or a twitch of the lip. Costume designer Saffron Cullane helps her out with that journey too, as we watch Enid’s wardrobe evolve from prurient schoolmarm to the Ring-like white shawl and ratty hair she adopts by the harshly-lit, hallucinogenic climax. Algar, who also impresses on Ridley Scott’s similarly-weird sci-fi series Raised by Wolves, is a fantastic match to the material.

But Bailey-Bond and Fletcher smartly elide claims that the video nasties actually doing what Thatcher et al. accuse them of, and rather posit that the violence of Censor comes from the anticipatory projections of otherwise-well-adjusted people. For lack of a better term, it’s all projection: those who fear the video nasties are turning people violent are the selfsame people who might turn violent themselves. And just as Enid snips the nastier bits out of horror films to make them acceptable for public consumption, so too does Bailey-Bond play with the way we ‘edit’ our memories to craft a more pleasing narrative for ourselves — particularly in a horrifically tragic coda wallpapered over with rainbows and smiles.

It’s hardly a flawless debut: Bailey-Bond struggles to keep to bridge her more domestic first act with the bonkers giallo delights of the third, and none of the other characters manage to stand out much in the shadow of Algar’s immense gravity. But like Enid, I feel like Bailey-Bond has a push and pull fascination with the exploitation slashers she emulates and comments on in Censor, and that discourse shines through in every crimson-slathered frame. Video nasties, after all, are works of art that relish in their ability to prod and provoke, even when they don’t have much to say at all: Censor, for its part, marries that grimy aesthetic with sneakier discussions about the things we repress even in the face of violence and trauma.

Censor played in the Midnight category of the 2021 Sundnace Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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