The VHS boom of the early ’80s led to the widespread distribution of horror and exploitation films that were released uncensored both in footage and marketing, thanks to a lack of established legislation specifically designed to regulate video content. It created a moral panic and outrage in the UK, prompting a crackdown on the release of “Video Nasties.” Films faced prosecution, censorship, or an official ban. Prano Bailey-Bond makes her directorial feature debut with Censor, an atmospheric plunge into the Video Nasty era, resulting in a creative and nightmarish critique of the moral scrutiny and censorship that fueled it.
Enid Baines (Raised by Wolves’ Niamh Algar) takes great pride in her work as a thorough and strict film censor. She tirelessly rewinds and scrutinizes videotapes for extreme gore and other material deemed too offensive, penning notes of eye-gouging and such to be snipped. Enid views her role as a protector of the community. Her tidy, sanitized life threatens to unravel entirely when her parents finally declare her long-missing younger sister as dead—the nature of the disappearance long a blank space in her memory. Then, a Video Nasty she was responsible for censoring, Deranged, turned out to not be so scrubbed clean after all and inspired a murder. It puts her in the spotlight of public scorn and outrage. When a new Video Nasty falls in her hands, the lines between reality and fiction blur in increasingly disturbing ways.
Prano Bailey-Bond’s feature, co-written with Anthony Fletcher, is as thematically rich as visually arresting. Opening with a fictional Video Nasty, complete with lo-fi grain in 4:3 aspect ratio, Censor gives a brief intro to Enid before an opening credit sequence plays over actual Video Nasties and new clip condemnations of the period. It’s not a declaration that Bailey-Bond has done her homework, though that’s certainly evident, but a foundation for the central theme of this fuguelike psychological horror movie. While the filmmaker isn’t interested in providing easy answers for Enid’s reality, Bailey-Bond does lob scathing critiques on film censorship’s ineffectualness against the real world’s horrors. As one character, a horror filmmaker, notes with laser precision, “People think I create horror. Horror is already out there; it’s in you.”
Algar excels as a stern, old-fashioned woman slowly unmoored by seismic shifts in her safe little bubble. While Enid is a scrupulous character with mounting desperation and erratic behavior, Algar deftly blends in sly humor, too. The real standout of Censor, however, is Bailey-Bond’s assured direction. The use of drab period detail in contrast with the vibrant neon hues that indicate nightmare logic taking over is brilliant. So, too, is the subtle voyeuristic shots that both unsettle and give insight into the madness. The filmmaker even toggles between aspect ratios, shrinking as reality becomes more elusive, to further distort the truth. Bailey-Bond doesn’t just use the Video Nasty craze as a basis for its story but repurposes the era’s stylings to flip the script on the censors’ mindset.
Censor won’t be for everyone. It’s a quiet introspection that builds to a mind-bending conclusion that will perplex those that prefer concise clarity. The second act slows down a bit to go deep with Enid’s mental state. But for those that don’t mind wading through trippy dream logic and a severe lack of hand-holding, there are many rich layers and themes to be mined. It’s intricate, gorgeous, and mesmerizing, with small strokes of David Cronenberg and Peter Strickland. Bailey-Bonds’ confident feature debut is an intense love letter to the genre, one that feels refreshingly protective of horror. Censor gives us a peek into the Video Nasty period from a fictionalized censor, where the horror is entirely of their own making. This striking debut makes a visceral case that closing your eyes to reality’s terrors won’t make them go away or undo past traumas, no matter how many edits you attempt to make.
More importantly, Censor marks the introduction of a bold new voice in horror.