Sundance 2021: Censor – Review

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The Sundance Film Festival gets off to a (video) nasty start with Prano Bailey-Bond’s dark and disturbing debut horror Censor.

After viewing a strangely familiar video nasty, Enid, a film censor, sets out to solve the past mystery of her sister’s disappearance, embarking on a quest that dissolves the line between fiction and reality.

It is a fascinating exploration into the world of the British Board of Film Censors, as they were called in the early Eighties. They were often seen as the villains by many film fans at the time for banning many horror films for being too obscene under the Video Recordings Act of 1984. Many of them banned due to the belief exposure to graphic depictions of violence could have an influential effect on the viewers. Particularly young viewers who may obtain the videos through illegal means.

What the film cleverly does is take the age-old question of “Who watches the Watchmen?” and applies it to the BBFC. What would having to watch all these films do to the psyche of the person deciding its classification?

Enid is a diligent and professional censor but often faces an uphill battle in her attempts to address the over-exploitation of women in the genre against the patriarchy in the industry. Are her feelings linked to a traumatic incident from her past? An incident that comes back to haunt her when a new film feels eerily familiar and unlocks old memories. Setting her on a search to discover the truth. A search where the lines between fantasy and reality become increasingly blurred.

Niamh Algar excels in the role of Enid. She does the impossible and creates empathy from the audience for a member of the BBFC! It is a haunting performance that subtly hints at a darkness bubbling under the surface. One that threatens to erupt into violence as her psyche becomes increasingly worn and stretched like a video tape watch too many times that finally snaps under the pressure.

Bailey-Bond and her production team have done an incredible job of recreating the Eighties period setting but also have filmed it to resemble the look of the very VHS tapes Enid is forced to watch on repeat. Clearly a huge fan of the genre she draws upon influences from the time such as Argento and Ferrara. Similar to her lead character, she knows when to make a cut, somewhat ironically given the subject matter, preferring to rely on atmosphere and mood over gore. Knowing that in spite of the shock factor, it is what is left unseen and unknown that truly frightens. For the human mind is capable of conjuring even more horrific images than one can create with practical special effects.

Alongside a commentary on the prevalance of violence towards women within the movies, it also exposes the psychological abuse on the other side of the camera and workplace. Enid is subjected to sexual harassment by a producer (a suitably sleazy turn by Michael Smiley) and it explores the treatment of actresses on set by their male directors. It is a throwback to an earlier time but also incredibly relevant in its critique following the #MeToo movement.

Censor is remiscent of 2012’s Berberian Sound Studio. Where a sound recordist working on a horror movie finds the lines between the film and reality become increasingly blurred.

This film echoes its success so neither Enid or the audience can be sure of what’s real and what’s not.

One thing that is without doubt however is that Prano Bailey-Bond is the real deal in terms of talent. One only hopes that the BBFC pass Censor uncut so it can find its audience. Otherwise this reviewer will need to open up an old Blockbuster video and start selling pirate copies under the counter!

Rating: ★★★★★

Director: Prano Bailey-Bond
Stars: Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Sophia La Porta, Michael Smiley
Runtime: 84 minutes
Country: UK

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