Sundance 2021 Film Review – Censor (2021)

The dawning of a new era in home entertainment began in the late 1970s with the “format war” between Betamax and VHS, the two leading purveyors in the new world of watching films and TV from your sofa. VHS won out in the end, with the lure of rewind and replay partly behind its victory, though some still maintain it was pornography that was its true ace card, despite reports to the contrary.

What it did do was bring the censorship debate to the fore in a much larger way as, in the “early” days, videos were not certificated, leading a wave of uncensored, unexpurgated horror films known as video nasties, a sea of obscene, vile and depraved films that, in the eyes of those on the offensive, would turn anyone who watched them into violent killers – especially as, according to their opponents, they were real. That, frankly, is still more scary than anything in the DPP’s list.

This fascination with the nasties, the role of censors and monsters real and unreal is the framing of Prano Bailey-Bond’s sumptuous horror/thriller Censor, debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and already positioned as one of the best of the year. The titular censor is Enid (Niamh Algar) who is working for the BBFC (we assume) during the moral panic of the early 1980s as a rising number of gruesome films make their way into her in-tray. Pressure from above to ban many of those she is watching is becoming unbearable, particularly the works of Frederick North, a filmmaker seemingly basking in the warm glow of the pandemonium. Enid becomes obsessed with his works, with its images bringing repressed memories of her missing sister, gone for decades, back to the fore: are the film’s real? Is the actress her long-lost sister? Or has her work blurred her reality to such an extent that she can’t tell one from another?

Potentially, it’s all three, and thanks to Bailey-Bond’s assured hand and potent visuals – punctured by Annika Summerson‘s burning, neon-soaked aesthetics – the lines between fiction and non-fiction will keep you guessing long after the final, stunning images. Mirroring the historical paranoia that these nasties would deprave and corrupt, pulling us into its fantasy world to enact our deepest fantasies and thoughts, Censor is propulsive and thoughtful, touching and frightening on so many levels it is impossible to ignore. Add to the mix a ballsy, mesmeric and intoxicating lead turn by Niamh Algar, one of the brightest lights shining through from this side of the Atlantic right now, there won’t be many films of this ilk that not only stay with you long after the credits, but will make you think about the absurdity of our recent history. Then again, the present day isn’t much healthier, is it?

★★★★1/2

Horror | UK, 2020 | 18 | 2021 Sundance Film Festival | Dir.Prano Bailey-Bond | Niamh Algar, Erin Shanagher, Clare Holman