Video nasty. The term conjures up both images of blood-splattered extreme horror, and of the censorious culture that kept those films out of the hands of innocent kids. Or, at least, that's what the unstable protagonist of British period chiller Censor tells herself.
The shadows of the era are cast long over Censor, even if the name British Board of Film Classification (Britain's MPAA) is never uttered. However, that's clearly where the tightly-wrapped Enid Baines (Algar, a ghost with concrete shoes) works, looking through submitted tapes and deciding their future. Three incidents smash into Enid's life, resurrecting old nightmares. First, two decades after her sister Nina disappeared her parents have finally asked for their missing daughter to be legally declared dead. Then the press links a particularly brutal murder to a film that Enid approved for uncut release, causing her to become a hated figure (a nod to the real-world claims that the two boys that killed two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 were influenced by Child's Play 3). But above all is a print that has been submitted for review, a lost slab of British gore called Don't Go in the Church by an enigmatic director called Frederick North (Schiller), that has triggered old and buried memories relating to her sister's abduction.
In a sense, Censor falls prey to the same cultural trap in which some of the video nasties were caught. A lot were just schlock, but that was no excuse for banning them. Others did indeed have a deeper meaning under the gore. Some aspired to be insightful, but never carried the subversive intellectual heft they needed. First-time feature director and co-writer Bailey-Bond's broadest and most successful point is that censors rarely do more than inflict their own fixations and damage onto the films they judge. But tying Enid's censorious instincts up with her childhood trauma, and how she collapses through the demi-monde of low-budget filmmakers and into the inevitable bloody denouement, almost feels superficial. As a simple story of a moralizer being brought down by their own bloody instincts, it works; but asides about the catharsis of gore, and the inner evil of humanity not needing horror movies to be seeded, imply the script wanted something deeper.
Where Bailey-Bond excels is in the construction of Enid's unraveling world. After years of retro-influenced films faking the giallo aesthetic with a few colored bulbs, or thinking some aqua leggings is enough to say "Eighties!", her feel for the VHS era is a welcome relief. It's never a gimmick: The flickers between aspect ratios, the precise use of static crackle, are the record of Enid's corrupting image. It's details of narrative and setting, even to the nod-and-wink name of the new film dragging Enid down, and tying it all in to the old "mysterious film of unknown provenance" trope binds it even closer to the bloody mass of Eighties gore.
Yet it's not just in the movie nods. Mercifully, Bailey-Bond doesn't try to recreate the hyper-sleazed, overblown look of 1980s London that has become popular in recent cinema. Instead, it's that very beige Britain, a country of artificial fibers and a particular kind of dusty grime that you can practically run your fingers through on the screen. She also perfectly captures the look and feel of the old-school British corner video store, with their crusty shelves, and taboo titles hidden in brown paper bags under the counter. It's more than emulating a cinematic look. It's creating an engrossing, disturbing, yet authentic world that cracks wide open like Enid's fragile psyche.
A longer version of this review ran as part of our Sundance 2021 coverage.
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