Sundance 2021: CENSOR is a Gleefully Gory Love Letter to the Video Nasty Era

Going into Sundance Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature length directorial debut Censor was easily one of my most anticipated films. It’s a period piece taking place in UK during the 1980s during the Video Nasties era. For those not privy to this bizarre slice of genre history, this is when the British government was banning or heavily censoring horror and exploitation films for the sake of protecting their citizens, who they believed would turn into mass murdering heathens if only they could see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its full uncut glory. Keep in mind, this was at the peak of the home video boom, so this is when video distros were plunging the bowls of 42nd street for any and all content to put on video store shelves, and the more lurid the film or the subject matter, the better. While regulations now are much less draconian at this point in time, government censors were charged with watching these films before they were approved for public release or performance in the UK and suggesting either cuts or in some cases outright banning for the sake of the public good.

Censor the film however, follows Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) a female censor who is known for her dedication to her job and attention to detail. We soon discover Enid is haunted by the disappearance of her younger sister Nina who mysteriously vanished when she was a child. Even though Enid was with her at the time, she can’t recall the events that transpired that day. That is until she’s reviewing a film titled Don’t Go in the Church, by fictional director Frederick North, which ignites a flood of memories of that fateful day and begins her decent into madness. These troubling thoughts are only compounded when she discovers an actress in another North film, Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta) looks shockingly as Nina would look, if she was still alive today. Was Don’t Go in the Church based on her life? Is the actress her sister? Driven by guilt and loss Enid is driven into a desperation fueled frenzy as she shows up on the set of the latest Frederick North film, which promises to be the last performance by Alice Lee.

Steeped in genre history Prano Bailey-Bond shows a love for all things horror in her stunning debut that doesn’t feel frivolous or fanboy-esque. Instead she’s used the fertile ground of this moral crusade and her knowledge of these films to pose the question — what toll this gatekeeping would take on its keeper. I mean this is also if the keeper is a guilt ridden husk of a human being possibly harboring a deep seeded secret, that is literally eating her from the inside out. In a role that relies on so much nuance Niamh Algar is tasked with being our guide on this journey as we witness her slowly unravel at the seams in a way that is usually reserved for the men in this genre. This is really a sight to behold given she also manages to take the very fabric of reality with her as she rips it to shreds in the process.

Reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, rather than simply aping the films of this time, which most of these “homages” tend to fall victim to. Bailey-Bond has managed to craft something that feels very much her own, while still being very influenced by this era of exploitation cinema. It’s no easy feat since I’ve seen more seasoned directors fall prey to these nostalgia fueled knock offs, but Censor feels very much like it has its own very assured voice. Being a fan of this particular genre myself, I think Bailey-Bond gets so much right as she delves into the lurid paranoia that eventually triggers Enid’s turn in the last reel as you’d expect, given some of the real films that make an appearance or inspired Censor. Gleefully gory as you’d expect Censor digs into the history and the hysteria of the Video Nasties to deliver a devilishly clever story of one woman’s descent into her guilt fueled madness.

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