The 1980s were a strange time for horror history in the United Kingdom. Following a moral panic over violence depicted in unregulated movies released on home video, over a hundred films were either banned or recalled, resulting in the passing of a law that forced video cassettes to be certified by the British Board of Film Classification (or BBFC) before release. Tapes were seized from video stores and destroyed under this charge, and the BBFC employed censors whose job it was to specifically watch these home videos and make notes of what needed to be cut for release.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s debut feature film Censor takes this time of upheaval and transforms it into a character study with style, ambiance, and all-out terror in equal measure.
Enid (played by the excellent Niamh Algar), the titular censor of this film, fully believes in the cause she works for—keeping supposedly dangerous, violent content out of the hands of the public by watching new video releases and marking down what needs to be cut. However, she’s still dealing with the unresolved disappearance of her sister Nina, and when she watches a video that hits a little too close to home for her liking, it leads her to believe that Nina is still alive. Her quest to investigate the world of exploitation horror and home video takes her deeper and deeper into an underworld she never expected, and as it turns out, she might not like the answers it has to give her.
It’s easy to compare little parts of Censor to other great movies, like Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and its exploration of what happens behind the scenes of violent horror movies, or Rose Glass’s Saint Maud and its protagonist’s strong moral code that leads her into dark places. And yet Prano Bailey-Bond has a style all her own as co-writer and director, building a world around the central character that starts out bland and becomes more and more colorful over time. She’s excellent at creating tension and atmosphere, making the viewer question reality as much as Enid does in her darkest moments. She even managed to legitimately get me with a jump scare that didn’t feel cheap or unearned.
Niamh Algar was the perfect choice to play Enid, balancing an uptight professional exterior with worry and anxiety bubbling beneath the surface. This is her movie to make or break, and she carries it with one of the best performances I’ve seen in a horror movie in a hot minute. Algar can show us so much with a tiny facial twitch, and for the stone-faced stoicism someone like Enid carries, subtle cues are all we get most of the time. It makes it all the more shocking when she lets that stone face drop and all her emotions come out at once, bringing her troubled interior to the forefront in some genuinely gripping scenes. By the ending minutes of Censor, we’re locked in, and we understand why Enid does what she does, but that doesn’t make what comes of it any less shocking.
Censor takes the idea of a “slow burn” horror movie and makes the seconds fly by with Algar’s performance and Bailey-Bond’s visual panache, so it’s no time at all until we’re deep in the full-frontal terror that comes from the ending. It takes on a bit of Wicker Man or Midsommar-like tension as we follow Enid down a road that seems to have an inevitable conclusion, and though I came pretty close to figuring out the truth behind everything myself while watching, it was no less satisfying or scary to watch play out. This is one of those stories where if you watched the first five minutes and the last five minutes next to each other, you would be incredibly confused as to how we got there—and I mean that as a compliment. Seeing everything spiral from quiet character moments to surprising gore over time is as entertaining as can be.
If you’ve been reading my reviews for a long time, you know I’m a huge sucker for a good movie score, and thankfully Censor delivers on that front as well. Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, a French pianist and composer, created the mostly-electronic score for this film, and it goes a long way towards building the atmosphere that makes everything work. Her original music has just enough elements of throwback synthesizers to firmly set the film in the 1980s, but she uses a ton of organic samples and instruments to make it clear that what we’re seeing is no schlocky slasher—this is real horror, and Enid is trapped in the middle of it. I hope this score gets a separate release as soon as possible. It’s a shame there isn’t much of it available online yet, but you can hear some of it in the film’s trailer.
This is a movie worth checking out as soon as you can if you’re a horror fan. 2021 is going to have to put out some absolute masterpieces to keep this one off of my list of favorite horror films of the year. Censor is visceral, gripping, and legitimately unsettling, with just enough homage paid to films made in the era of the “video nasty” panic to keep fans of the history of horror entertained. Prano Bailey-Bond and Niamh Algar are going places for sure, and I already can’t wait to see what comes from them next.