'Censor' Visits the Era of Video Nasty Films with Bone-Chilling Results [Sundance Film Festival 2021]

Girl with blood on her face in woods
Niamh Algar as Enid in CENSOR. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

People choose career for all sorts of reasons, but what impetus would motivate someone to work as a film censor? In the 1980s UK, public outcry rang loud against the video nasty phenomenon. The British Board of Film Classification became responsible for deciding what movies made it through the code and which would be banned. While this career could attract people who enjoy exploitative movies, those who enjoy enforcing rules and standards might also like playing by the book. In her feature-length debut, director and writer (along with co-writer Anthony Fletcher) Prano Bailey-Bond also speculates a woman burdened by a past sin might linger here, also. After all, watching films about heinous acts done to women would be a fitting punishment for someone with a degree of self-loathing and heavy guilt.

Enid (Niamh Algar; Raised by Wolves) is a movie censor, who takes the job seriously. She wants to get it right and obey the rules. Beneath her old maid exterior, however, lies a troubled soul burdened by guilt for a past transgression she carries in her deepest center. She's always been able to do the work in a professional, unaffected way until she watches Don't Go Into the Church (not a real movie). The events in the film seem strangely familiar, and the lead star with the long red hair, Alice Lee, bares a resemblance to someone she once knew. Enid becomes convinced she knows Alice and sets out to find and rescue her, no matter what it takes. Her grueling journey will force her to enter the seedy world she's only known from a distance.

Director Bailey-Bond, along with cinematographer Annika Summerson, creates a unified era-appropriate visual aesthetic from start to finish. Grainy title credits usher us into this world, quickly followed by a nightmarish scene bathed in red light. It turns out we are watching a horror film on an analog TV, with the movie being paused and rewound to review an especially gory moment. From the clothing to the telephones to the corner video store, the 1980s UK setting is painstakingly constructed. In addition to clips from real video nasty films, Bailey-Bond and her team also created several original films to use within the plot.

A woman stands in dimly lit hallway
Niamh Algar as ENID in CENSOR, a Magnet release. Photo credit: Maria Lax. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing. 

Bailey-Bond's shows her love for the B movies of the 1970s and 1980s in many of her stylistic choices, which include chiaroscuro lighting and an abundant use of color filters. At work, the lighting turns a sickly green, while at home, Enid is most often bathed in bluish or reddish light. These subtle changes in look change the temperature of the scene and influence viewer reactions, from disgust to terror to nausea. There are moments the darkness swallows her whole, leaving the viewer frozen in a void.

Prepare to see gore both in the live action and the films surveyed. The camera does not linger visually on scenes of rape, although the noises coming from the TV speakers make it obvious what's happening. However, gorehounds and fans of the bloody and grotesque shouldn't go into Censor expecting that flavor of story. While the movie doesn't shy away from violence, most shots are brief. Only one sequence (and you will know when you see it) dawdles in bloodletting, but most of the grisliest details assault the viewer aurally. Speaking of which, the sound design is another strong component, with juicy splatters and squelching heard during the horror sequences. Other moments require Enid hearing distant voices, or multiple televisions at once, so the right amount of distance, clarity, and pitch combined to create some chilling soundscapes. Bailey-Bond references wanting to emulate the "warren of rabbits" sound design of the animated Watership Down feature (1978). 

Censor is an homage to horror movies, a social critique and commentary on the medium, and a look into the human psyche. Enid's need for forgiveness and catharsis drives her into the darkness. Her impulse to get it right and protect the innocent both come from a broken place. Censor leaves viewers to wrestle with difficult questions. The ending may haunt me forever. You can't ask more from a horror movie than that.

Release Info: Premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2021; Available on demand June 18th, 2021.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.