The 1980s style of horror films is resurrected in “Censor,” director Prano Bailey-Bond‘s mind-bending (and bloody) tribute to the U.K.’s notorious “video nasties.” This term referred to low-budget gore and exploitation films that were distributed on VHS, often criticized for their violent content and a beacon for endless controversy. Bailey-Bond captures the era in accurate detail, and uses it to set the stage for her protagonist’s total mental breakdown.
Enid (Niamh Algar) works as a film censor. It’s her job to note every gory eye-gouge, violent rape, and grisly decapitation that is shown on film. She takes on the weighty responsibility to protect the public from the horrors that, if they watch such acts in a movie, could influence their own behavior. One night, Enid is tasked with reviewing a particularly disturbing film that awakens something deep in her psyche. What unfolds on screen before her feels like a parallel to her own clouded memories about her sister Nina’s disappearance over a decade ago. Haunted by her lack of answers as to what really happened to her sibling and constantly being bombarded by violent images in her daily life, Enid’s reality begins to veer into fantasy, creating a dream world that threatens to overtake every aspect of her life.
Algar is terrific as Enid, delivering an unsettling performance of a woman who becomes so consumed with the need to finally uncover the answers she’s been seeking that she becomes a completely different person. Her mannerisms and appearance change as the story progresses, and as Enid bounces between the drab trappings of her office and her macabre fantasy world. She creates her own narrative as to what may have happened to her sister, because not knowing is even worse. Is Nina dead? Was she kidnapped? Could she still secretly be alive?
Bailey-Bond (along with co-writer Anthony Fletcher) create a complex psychological thriller, but they eventually write themselves into a corner. The whole “what’s real and what’s a figment of Enid’s imagination?” routine is frustrating, and the film feels more like a “Twin Peaks” homage than a wholly original feature debut. The end result may prove to be a little too exhausting for mainstream horror buffs.
Annika Summerson‘s cinematography and the overall sound design are the big stars here. The period detail is so exact, with an 80s color palate that’s taken directly from those red-lit horror movies from your childhood. The effective use of shadows is one of the scariest elements of the film, and the other is the faint sounds of screams that play in the background at Enid’s office. From the outset, the movie sets a very ominous tone. The ending may be the most frightening of all, because beneath all that sunshine and rainbows and happy endings lurks true evil.
“Censor” toys with the idea that evil is contagious, and the story of a seriously disturbed woman trying to cope with a past childhood tragedy is a decent vehicle for the message. This isn’t a film that will appeal to many, but it’s worth a mild recommendation for the aesthetics alone.