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{Sundance Film Festival 2021} Censor – First Look Review

Prano Bailey-Bond’s disturbing debut Censor, opening at Sundance Film Festival, is a thought-provoking watch not just for horror fans.

The film delves into the UK censorship of gory, over-the-top 1980s video nasties, treating viewers to a promising splatter montage in the title sequence. It also makes a point against the argument linking violence in the arts to crime by flipping the script. What happens when those whose job is to protect others from fictional horror surrender to their most brutal instincts?

Personal Trauma And Responsibility In Censor

The film follows protagonist Enid (a brilliant Niamh Algar) whose 9-5 involves sitting through the ghastliest movies one can imagine. She’s the titular film censor, dissecting the bloodiest bits in the nasties while grappling with some personal trauma. 

Enid doesn’t just feel invested with responsibility towards audiences, she uses her job as a way to keep her guilt over her sister Nina’s disappearance at bay. She can’t remember what went down in the woods when they were children. Her brain must have edited out the most distressing details, a colleague suggests. When a horror movie she’s reviewing hits a little too close to home, Enid embarks on a consuming search for someone who might not even exist.

Censor Portrays The 1980s At Their Bleakest

Censor effectively recreates a 1980s atmosphere we very rarely get to see on screen. The movie parts from the common representation of a splashy, pop decade and thrives in a bleak, austere aesthetics instead. The bright, vivid colors of the low-budget horror productions — a mix of existing B-movies and others created for Censor specifically — make for a jarring contrast when juxtaposed to Margaret Thatcher’s grey England which Enid navigates. 

The film encapsulates the collective hysteria of the time, where violent movies were believed to incite crime. Incorporating archival footage, the film weighs in on the long-standing debate on whether extreme artistic content should be deemed responsible for the most heinous crimes. Despite Enid’s increasingly paranoid behavior, Censor dismisses this connection through the words of director Frederick North, played by Adrian Schiller.

“Horror is already out there, in all of us,” he tells Enid while on set.

Prano Bailey-Bond’s Inspirations

Bailey-Bond pens an ode to the horror genre, with plenty of Easter eggs for nasties fans. She cites classics such as The Evil Dead, perhaps the most infamous nasty censored by the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC), among her inspirations. She was also influenced by Italian masters Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci for the look of some of the nasties, which insist on close-ups on eye injuries.

The Welsh filmmaker winks at modern viewers for whom banning such blatantly exaggerated violence rings absolutely ludicrous. And that kind of gore-filled scenes blends into Enid’s journey once she spirals out of control. The movie gifts viewers with a few epic, gruesome deaths so in line with the nasties’ mood one might wonder why we don’t get to see more.

The Aspect Ratios Of Censor

Censor also addresses the sexist treatment that women in horror have encountered historically. Alongside having to deal with the most causal everyday harassment in the workplace, Enid exists in a world where men dismiss her interest in the genre. When she goes to a video store to get uncensored movies for her research, the owner tells her that someone like her wouldn’t want to watch such films.

Yet Enid doesn’t just want to watch them. In fact, she also proceeds to enact her own fantasy. The film, shot on Kodak 35mm, makes clever use of aspect ratios to differentiate her reality from the fictional nasties. Towards the end of the movie, it is hard to tell which is which. 

The cinematography by Annika Summerson has an interesting, claustrophobic quality to it. The ratio shrinks and collapses around Enid, finishing off in an alienating technicolor ending in 1.33. On one hand, the finale rushes Enid’s relationship with the object of her obsession, B-movies star Alice Lee (Sophia La Porta). On the other, it is an excellent depiction of the protagonist’s solitary quest. Similarly to Rose Glass’s Saint Maud, the dreamlike final moments of Censor enhance the horror beneath the candy surface. This epilogue, and the conversation it prompts on the necessity of the horror genre, are guaranteed to stay with you for nights to come.