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Sundance 2021 ‘Censor’ Review: Video Nasties Offer More Than Just Violence

Protagonist Pictures
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A horror fan’s worst enemy might just be the censors, ones who decide if a film is just too grotesque and therefore dangerous to be shown to the public. They demand cuts from the director to dial down the violence, or they end up banning the film entirely, making it as if the film never even existed. This happens at a far less extreme rate nowadays, but in 1980’s Britain, censors were in a frenzy over banning horror movies they feared would make viewers violent. But what about those very censors, entrusted with the responsibility of determining what is too violent to be seen? What effects do these images have on them

This is the idea behind Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature, Censor. At a time when the general public was concerned with the rising extreme violence in films, censors were given the responsibility of either cutting out the violence or banning these “video nasties” altogether. Bailey-Bond uses this era as a starting point with the main character, Enid (Niamh Algar), who works as a censor with a dedication to saving the public from these gruesome images. Enid is so intent on protecting people from this violence because of her dark past — her sister that went missing when they were both children. As Enid watches these films in dark rooms with her notepad, she begins to remember what could have happened to her sister, and is forced to confront what might be lurking deep within herself. 

Censor is an homage to 1980s horror, specifically video nasties, which is clear from the very beginning with the retro title sequence. It uses colorful lighting at every turn, combined with dark shadows and intense framing (with a few aspect ratio changes) to put the audience in the setting of a 1980s horror film. It is a joy to catch some references while also feeling as if you’ve been transported back in time to this very specific moment in cinematic history. All of this is just the surface of what the film is attempting to say, however. 

Enid, struggling to come to terms with what happened to her sister while also fervently working to keep violent images away from the public eye, begins to unravel as the films bring up memories of her past. Bailey-Bond uses horror films and censorship as a metaphor for trauma, which she explores through her main character. Enid’s entire career is based on erasing violent and traumatic images for the sake of saving others from seeing them, all while not being able to remember a trauma that happened to her when she was a child. There are very clear connections made in the film about trauma and memory and how the brain often hides these things from us in order to protect us. 

Censor pushes forward into a deeper exploration of how we cope with trauma and how horror can play into that. Horror films offer a great catharsis and comfort to many viewers, which is why so many people love the genre. It creates an escape, a safe place to experience fear and process it. Real life is not like the movies. Life is dark, harsh, and unforgiving, often offering no tightly wrapped conclusion to our stories. As the film unfolds, these ideas shift from comprehensible to more complex and sometimes confusing as it reaches its conclusion. The third act becomes jumbled while it attempts to juggle all of these themes. Despite this, there is still much to indulge in from the images alone. Neon colors and VHS aesthetics work more than just cool visuals  — they are part of the fabric of the film itself and develop as the story does. The committed performance from Niamh Algar elevates the events even further, lifting the story to new heights. 

While the ending may not stick its landing with many viewers, Censor still offers an array of ideas surrounding trauma and catharsis through the lens of horror films. Prano Bailey-Bond has a lot to say about the matter and she does so with style and creative vision. She clearly has a love for the horror genre and respects the power of it. Although the film struggles in narrative structure and pacing at times, it is a clear signifier that Bailey-Bond is someone to watch.

 

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