Mired in a grimy, stylized ’80s aesthetic, Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature debut “Censor” is an ambitious horror film that doesn’t completely take advantage of its intriguing premise.
Niamh Algar stars as Enid, a repressed film censor who seeks to valiantly protect the citizens of 1985 London from the so-called “video nasties,” a wave of violent, moral panic-inducing low-budget exploitation films passed around on VHS. In the process of evaluating one especially depraved film, Enid begins to suspect the parallels between its subject matter and a tragic incident from her past are more than simple coincidence.
Algar’s performance carries the majority of the film; “Censor” often relies on her subtle expressiveness to convey its ideas about the impact of trauma on one’s personality, and the self-censorship that one undertakes in forming an identity. What troubles Enid most is her amnesia surrounding the exact details of her younger sister’s mysterious disappearance, a vital memory that was “edited out” of her mind. As Enid struggles to separate reality from fiction, viewers question whether violent media can truly change one’s perception of the world, or whether such forms of expression simply crystallize the violence already present within us.
Though it touches on such fascinating psychoanalytical problems, “Censor,” which debuted in the Midnight category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, doesn’t dig deep enough to properly excavate these ideas. Rather, Bailey-Bond and co-writer Anthony Fletcher focus their attention on crafting the film’s style, leaving its substance to wither.
Cinematographer Annika Summerson’s precise camera movements and impeccably framed close-ups make Algar’s performance all the more potent, and her use of lurid neon heightens the otherworldly effect of the more surreal scenes. Also particularly effective is the decision to modify the format of the film itself — as the tension mounts and Enid’s reality grows increasingly fractured, the frame grows more constrictive, narrowing from cinematic widescreen to a boxy VHS look for the climax. Saffron Cullane’s period costuming is also essential in selling Enid’s aesthetic transformation from timid librarian to full-blown, blood-soaked scream queen.
When all this craft is only supported by some disconnected, agonizingly overt “we live in a society” dialogue and stock footage of Margaret Thatcher’s political droning, however, viewers are left with nothing to latch onto except an ambiguous sense of dread and tension. In a heavy-handed attempt at a descent into madness, the carefully built narrative of the first two acts eventually falls into disrepair as Bailey-Bond hesitates to take audiences anywhere truly nasty.
Even at its most shocking, “Censor” is curiously tame and restrained compared to recent horror films with a similar aesthetic, such as the poetically nightmarish “Mandy.” As a result, “Censor” is a horror movie that doesn’t actually frighten — it’s a slow burn with no real endgame. Despite its focus on a subversive subculture of exploitation films, “Censor” ultimately plays things safe and takes few dramatic risks.
“Censor” is peppered with compelling moments and saturated with style, but lacks the momentum needed to deliver its low-budget horror film love-letter to the designated audience. Even though Bailey-Bond winks at viewers with authentic VHS covers and clips from trashy classics of the era such as “The Driller Killer,” “Censor” is a much more polished enterprise, lacking any real gratuitous, gory fun.
Instead, it resembles the more psychologically driven horror of David Cronenberg’s prescient 1983 masterpiece “Videodrome.” Yet, Cronenberg’s film, which deals with many of the same themes regarding “morally corrupt” media, features a marriage of style and substance that is lacking in Bailey-Bond’s film.
Had “Censor” been less interested in superficial genre play and burrowed further into its fascinating psychological questions, its exploration of this unique aspect of film history would have resonated more strongly. But despite its narrative thinness, Bailey-Bond and her team craft a spellbinding vision that engages audiences through a cohesive blending of cinematography, soundtrack and production design — even if it doesn’t fully commit to its ideas.