Censor, Sundance’s opening Midnight pick, fails to live up to its potential despite some wild moments of mayhem and gore.
Writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond’s film should attract a lot of love from genre fans based on its concept alone: Set in 1980s England, Enid (Niamh Algar) is a film censor tasked with determining what is and is not appropriate for audiences to see. She spends her days matter-of-factly trimming frames of eye gougings, splayed entrails, exposed genitals, and sexual acts in Troma-like “video nasties”.
After intensely dissecting the life-like qualities of intestine-substituting sausages, Enid sees one of her “pass” movies become the focus of sudden media attention. A man dubbed the “Amnesiac Killer” has killed his entire family after watching a violent cannibal film she approved, which results in him using a “media as motive” defence.
Enid’s life is further complicated by the fact that she is still grieving her missing younger sister, who disappeared 20 years ago. Though her ageing parents are ready to declare the long-lost girl dead in order to find peace, Enid is reluctant to move on — constantly searching for clues of her missing sibling’s whereabouts. Her parents’ decision becomes one stressor too many and she suffers a horrid psychotic break, believing she’s spotted her missing sister in one of the violent horror movies she’s screened. At this point, Enid’s real life begins to resemble the violent pictures she views all day, leaving the final act of Censor to become a full-fledged ’80s gore-fest of its own.
Set amid Margaret Thatcher’s British Conservative panic about media’s influence on society, Censor sets out to defend the use of violent imagery in movies but ends up reaffirming the opposite as Enid descends deeper into her psychosis. Her madness leaves her unable to tell the difference between reality and fiction or past and present. It’s a subversive idea that was similarly probed by Atom Egoyan in The Adjuster, his 1991 movie about a film censor who becomes obsessed with pornography, eventually becoming completely desensitized to it. So too has Enid, who has become numb to the constant barrage of video nastiness in front of her eyes.
Censor attempts to do what Berberian Sound Studio did for Giallo movies but unfortunately, it never quite delivers. Director Bailey-Bond does bring a strong sense of style and atmosphere that recalls the bygone VHS era — a tribute this horror-loving reviewer can certainly appreciate — so there is something to admire here even if the narrative payoff isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Censor screened as part of Sundance 2021, which runs until February 3.