'Censor': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Censor
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A nice little nasty.
1/28/2021

Niamh Algar stars as a film censor in 1980s Britain who gets a little too dedicated to her job in director Prano Bailey-Bond's debut feature.

Steeped in the gory look, grimy feel and transgressive spirit of the so-called "video nasties" from the 1980s, British meta-minded horror movie Censor offers an admirable pastiche, spiked with black humor. A debut feature for director Prano Bailey-Bond, whose well-traveled short Nasty covered similar territory, Censor stars upcoming actor Niamh Algar (Calm with Horses) as a film censor who notices eerie parallels between a horror movie she's assessing for work and a tragedy from her own past.

The many in-jokes and allusions to vintage shockers should amuse fans with long memories and substantial home entertainment collections. That said, at times it's not easy to tell if the sometimes stilted performances from the peripheral cast and bordering-on-cliché narrative moves are part of the homage or just regular weak technique. It's possible there's a little of both column A and column B at work here.

But either way, the film's selection in Sundance's popular Midnight strand, even as part of a socially distanced festival, should give the film some edge in the niche but densely populated category of self-aware arthouse horror, subsection British (see also Peter Strickland's In Fabric, assorted Ben Wheatley films and so on).

Algar's protagonist Enid Baines is a quiet hard worker who tamps down her natural beauty with a librarian-style up-do and steel-rimmed spectacles. She works as an examiner at a quasi-governmental outfit that, although unnamed here, is presumably meant to be either the British Board of Film Censors or the renamed, post-1984 version of the same organization, the British Board of Film Certification.

A montage of audio and archive TV clips over the opening credits situates the action just around that mid-decade cusp for the Board in the wake of outrage from conservatives (and Conservatives, as in the Tory party) and right-wing moralists, up-in-arms about horror or gore-heavy films like Driller Killer (glimpsed here), I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust. Self-appointed moral guardians like Mary Whitehouse accused these "video nasties" of modeling violent, mimic-able behavior that could corrupt the young, a risk increased by the new availability of the VHS format that brought films into the home, where children might access them unsupervised. As a result, some of the most extreme films were not allowed to be circulated on video and had to be reviewed by examiners who would suggest extensive cuts to tone down the material. Consequently, Enid spends most of her working hours watching films on VHS with colleagues, a remote control in hand to freeze-frame images for closer scrutiny and writing notes like "eye gouging must go!"

But when she's assigned to assess a film called Don't Go in the Church, directed by fringe slasher pic specialist Frederick North (Adrian Schiller) and distributed by sleazy producer/distributor Doug Smart (Michael Smiley), Enid is deeply shaken by what she sees. The opening scene — in which two girls play near a cabin in the woods and enter it, with one of the two ending up dead — has details that stir memories of Enid's own traumatic experience 20 years ago, when her little sister Nina went missing in the woods. Enid had been with her at the time but can't remember what happened exactly, and Nina was never found. Her parents (played by Clare Holman and Andrew Havil) have recently decided to have Nina declared legally dead in order to "move on."

Enid can't cope with that decision, and the film suggests that this legal step accelerates a psychological unravelling for the censor, perhaps compounded by the relentless exposure to cinematic violence through her job. Like Atom Egoyan's The Adjuster (1991), which featured Arsinée Khanjian as a censor obsessed with pornography, Censor posits that repeated viewing of proscribed material, even by someone supposedly dispassionate and employed to judge such work professionally, could create an unhealthy appetite for the very stuff they're meant to be regulating.

It's almost a variant of the old the-killer-is-really-the-cop-himself plot twist, and Censor isn't subtle about planting early hints that Enid may be going mad — even before she develops an obsessive conviction that a red-haired actor in North and Smart's movies is really her long lost sister, now grown up and seemingly keen on reliving trauma through drama.

Once final credits roll, Bailey-Bond and Anthony Fletcher's screenplay feels a little thin on substance, and misses a chance to really gorge on the meaty subject of '80s censorship culture wars, a topic that feels oddly resonant now. However, the mimicry of vintage 16mm stock and the lurid, gel-washed lighting of the era's horror features is deliciously executed by DP Annika Summerson, working closely in tandem with production designer Paulina Rzeszowska and costume designer Saffron Cullane. Between them, they get the palette of drab beige fabric, fluorescent glare and scarlet fake blood bang on period.

Meanwhile, Tim Harrison's sound design, full of eerie creaks and just audible screams, bleeds seamlessly together with Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch's original score of synthesizer rumbles and John Carpenter-style sustained chords. Bailey-Bond and the producers have assembled a fine team to deliver a convincing-looking ersatz time capsule. It's just a shame there's not something more startling or original enclosed inside.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)  
Cast: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Sophia La Porta, Adrian Schiller, Michael Smiley, Clare Holman, Andrew Havill, Felicity Montagu, Danny Lee Wynter, Clare Perkins, Guillaume Delaunay, Richard Glover, Beau Gadsdon, Amelie Child-Villiers
Production: A BFI, Film4 & Ffilm Cymru Wales presentation of a Silver Salt Films production in association with Kodak Motion Picture & Cinelab London
Director: Prano Bailey-Bond
Screenwriters: Prano Bailey-Bond, Anthony Fletcher
Producer: Helen Jones
Executive producers: Andy Starke, Ant Timpson, Kim Newman, Naomi Wright, Lauren Dark, Ollie Madden, Daniel Battsek, Mary Burke, Kimberley Warner
Director of photography: Annika Summerson
Production designer: Paulina Rzeszowska
Costume designer: Saffron Cullane
Editor: Mark Towns
Music: Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch
Sound designer: Tim Harrison
Casting: Nanw Rowlans
Sales: Protagonist Pictures

84 minutes