Censor – Sundance 2021 Review

by Jordan King

The advent of home video in the early 1980s heralded in a glorious new age for film-lovers the world over. After years of having to hope for cinema re-releases or heavily edited TV re-runs to roll around, viewers could pick their poison, pop it in the VHS player, and lose themselves in their latest obsession.

As is the way with all great things however, the Golden age of video was met with as much cynicism as celebration. When films such as Ruggero Deodato’ Cannibal Holocaust and Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer found a new home in video stores across Britain, a cultural war commenced as parents and politicians alike clamoured to clear so-called ‘Video Nasties’ off of shelves and out of collections before they turned their purveyors into murderous maniacs.

Of course, media hysteria and a wilful attempt by Maggie Thatcher’s Tory government to redirect blame for society’s ills onto ostensibly trashy entertainment didn’t help matters, and neither did the distributors and directors’ competing attempts to outgross one another with their output. That being said, speaking as a critic brought up in a village overshadowed by the infamy of serial killer and former cinema manager Peter Moore who named his murderous alter-ego ‘Jason’ after Friday 13th’s hockey-mask wearing marauder, and as someone who is living through the ongoing raging debates about media and violent crime that in recent years has centered on the gaming industry, the legacy of video nasties remains timely and relevant.

At this point enter Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond, whose feature debut Censor kicked off the Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series last night.

Sundance '21 Movie Review: Videos and nastier in the engrossing “CENSOR” | Rue Morgue

Set in the mid-1980s at the peak of Thatcherism, chain-smoking in public spaces, and the colour beige, Bailey-Bond’s film is the account of a film censor, Enid (Niamh Algar), who finds herself losing her mind as she navigates the dark heart of the nasties industry in search of her lost sister.

From the film’s outset we know that something terrible happened to Enid’s sister when they were children, with momentary flashbacks stabbing at the periphery of revelations that elude Enid’s reach. When watching through and making notes for cuts to a film called Deranged, we glimpse Enid’s unique experience of trauma as she sits nonplussed by graphic mutilation whilst taking exception to the killer’s anonymity. ‘I was trying to see who dragged her away’ she remarks to her colleague, who exasperatedly asks her whether that really matters. To Enid, it does, and throughout the film we see the toll that ambiguous loss takes on her as she chases loose ends and fragile leads in pursuit of elusive filmmaker Frederick North (Adrian Schiller), whose ‘Don’t Go in the Castle’ features a forested scene of axe-murder that feels wrought straight from Enid’s fractured memory of her sister’s disappearance.

As Bailey-Bond’s tightly spun narrative – the film is perfectly pitched as an 85 minute shock to the system – draws Algar’s Enid out of the safety of the censor’s office and thrusts her into the fluorescent flared lens of the kind of world she spends her days cutting around from the safety of a viewing booth,  we are presented with a snapshot of both a time we would prefer to believe is out of mind, and also a reminder of the still prevailing paranoia that surrounds media and motion pictures’ role to play in murder and violent crime. As Enid’s search intensifies and the lengths to which she is willing to go become more extreme, the question of censorship, desensitisation, and where we draw our definitional lines between the darkness inherent in humanity and the darkness imbued in us by the art we consume is asked pointedly and impactfully.

Oozing with genre awareness, classy compositional work both in terms of framing (the 16mm stuff is to die for, oftentimes all too literally) as well as a fantastically nightmarish synthesised score from Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, and fronted by a traumatised yet tenacious turn from Niamh Algar as our leading lady, Censor is a stern reminder of incontrovertible truth of the fact that whilst we can hope for happy endings and try and switch off the so-called ‘nasties’ that lay a ‘Play’ button away, not every story can be switched off… not every evil can be censored. As delightful as it is disturbing, Bailey-Bond’s feature bow is an impressive, impressively nasty bit of work, the kind which would have sat happily, horridly alongside the nasties it homages.

Prano Bailey-Bond. Niamh Algar. Remember their names.

Censor played as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021

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