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SUNDANCE 2021 Midnight

Review: Censor

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- In Prano Bailey-Bond's assured, Sundance-screened debut, a horror-film censor begins a slow descent into what appears to be full-on insanity

Review: Censor
Niamh Algar in Censor

Leave it to Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond to prove that “video nasties” are a gift that just keeps on giving. In Censor [+see also:
interview: Prano Bailey-Bond
film profile
]
, easily one of the most intriguing films shown at this year's Sundance Film Festival, there is enough affection to persuade us to “catch, catch, the horror taxi” - or was it train? - and fall in love with the invention that has been so vehemently derided for its depictions of violence, sex and the occasional cannibal, creating nothing short of a mass panic. But hers is not just an homage to the under-the-counter, passed-around-in-a-paper-bag kind of entertainment: there is a story here that's actually heartfelt and fun, punctuated by such lovely observations as, “The eye-gouging must go.” Those dingy VHS rental stores, though... Someone should just bring it all back.

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It also has to go because her protagonist Enid (Niamh Algar) is a – whisper it – censor. A very meticulous one at that, taking her job way more seriously than most of her colleagues unbothered by on-screen dismemberment or raping. These are entertaining discussions they have, figuring out what can stay and what not, throwing in some Shakespeare for no good reason. Talk about a surprisingly revealing process, one that says plenty about them, too, based on what it is they find the most troubling. But despite her buttoned-up professionalism, Enid does look increasingly exhausted, and then a certain Don't Go in the Church proposition suddenly comes her way, waking up a memory she would rather keep dormant. Once she sees these two little girls, far away in the woods, there is no going back to her notes.

Enid, whose sister disappeared ages ago – an event she claims to remember precisely nothing about – starts to believe that the very person her parents would rather declare dead is, in fact, still alive. And still running around scared in the woods, this time for money, though, as one redhead actress does seem to resemble her an awful lot. Despite all that, her descent into what appears to be full-on insanity happens slowly – after all, it doesn't quite go with her librarian style or her matter-of-fact approach to the job, as crazy is what you cut from the film, not what you tend to take home. But when a murderer is believed to have been inspired by one of the titles she actually approved, amidst the tabloid frenzy and nasty phone calls, Enid begins to question much more than just her own sanity.

It's interesting that Algar's character, pretty much selectively amnesiac, does to her mind what she does to these films: things are trimmed, here and there, or just cut out completely – bye bye. Her life might be a safe PG-13, uneventful save for some sleazoid eyeing her up and down, but that's because all the juiciest parts were swiftly erased and there is a fear that any kind of excitement could result in their swift reappearance. It would be great to actually see them brought back, with a vengeance, in all their full, gratuitous glory and for much longer than Bailey-Bond seems to have patience for, speeding through that ending. It's a bit of a let-down, especially after she spends so much time showing what is going on around Enid as well – with 1980s crowds clinging to the idea that films are to blame for the pain, that someone, anyone, could finally be blamed for it all. Forgetting, clearly, that “horror is already out there, in all of us”. You have no idea.

Censor was produced by the UK’s Silver Salt Films. Its sales are handled by Protagonist Pictures.

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