'Censor' Review: A Tribute To Video Nasties That Can't Keep Up Its Momentum [Sundance 2021]

It's the 1980s, and the United Kingdom is clutching at their pearls over a wave of video nasties – low-budget, ultra-bloody horror films that are on the rise thanks to the miracle of VHS. While a sensible person may realize that such films – violent as they may be – are harmless, paranoia has set in, with many assuming that these schlocky gore-fests will lead to the complete collapse of society. The only safeguard against the videos is a group of censors. One such censor is Enid (Niamh Algar), who toils away in screening rooms and sees herself as the last line of defense between video nasties and the viewing public.

Prano Bailey-Bond's Censor pays tribute to the era of video nasties by nailing that '80s aesthetic to a T. There's a lot of beige; the clothes the characters wear are drab; and, most of all, the horror films playing on fuzzy TV screens are cheap and drenched in bright-red blood. As an exercise in style alone, Censor succeeds – we're fully transported into its world where Z-grade horror movies on VHS tapes have an unusual, unprecedented thrall over viewers.

Enid appears to have no life outside of her job, but she's also continually haunted by the disappearance of her sister many years ago. In vague, dreamy flashbacks, we see Enid and her sister wander into the woods. But that's all Enid says she remembers, and now, all these years later, her parents are ready to move on and declare the missing sibling dead.

The decision triggers something harmful in Enid's mind and she begins to suffer what appears to be a slow-moving nervous breakdown. Things are further complicated when someone in the UK commits a bloody murder which is then blamed on a video nasty film that Enid was in charge of censoring. The tabloids turn her into a punching bag, flat-out blaming her for the murder. And if all that wasn't enough, Enid watches an old horror movie called Don't Go In the Church that eerily mirrors her own memories of her sister's disappearance. The film begins with two sisters wandering into the woods, one of whom meets a ghastly fate.

Algar's work in these formative moments of the narrative is solid, with the actress perfectly conveying Enid's increasingly fractured mindset as she grows more obsessed with trying to find the connection between Don't Go In the Church and her sister's vanishing. The set-up allows filmmaker Bailey-Bond to embrace surreal scenarios, full of moments where the aspect ratio shifts to resemble an old, cheap video, and lighting effects that transform from drab to garrish. Horror fans will take solace in the atmosphere at work here, ditto the shots of cheap-o horror films that are consistently splashed across boxy TV screens.

But Censor also runs out of momentum. Once its initial set-up is out of the way the film can't sustain itself for very long, resulting in a lifeless journey to a predestined finale. What keeps the film's head above water are the occasional flashes of nerve-jangling horror – there's one dream sequence shock that's bound to be a favorite among jump scare aficionados, and the film's climactic sequences, while predictable, still manage to chill, thanks primarily to Algar's unhinged performance.

Censor lives and dies by its influences and those craving a meticulous recreation of drab '80s bureaucracy clashing with Day-Glo gore will no doubt find comfort in the familiarity of it all.  So much modern-day horror seems beholden to the horror of the past, and Censor is no exception. It works as a loving homage to the era of slap-dash, go-for-broke '80s horror, but it ultimately adds nothing to the conversation.

There are glimmers of something far greater buried beneath all the style – the shots of newscasters decrying the creeping influence of VHS horror; fantasy sequences where Enid dreams all video nasties have been banned and Britan has become a conflict-free utopia; Enid dealing with a chauvinistic, abusive movie producer (Michael Smiley, who excels at these sort of creepy-guy roles). I wanted more of that and less of the recurring blue-and-red gel lights and shots of cheeky VHS cover boxes.

/Film rating: 6 out of 10