Having premiered at this year’s Sundance and Berlinale, the stylish and atmospheric first feature from Welsh director Prano Bailey-Bond stands as one of 2021’s most memorable debuts.
Set in Thatcher’s Britain during the moral panic of the Video Nasties (the term applied to horror/exploitation films when they became available on VHS, with the British government and press stoking fears that they were corrupting the public), Censor follows Enid (Niamh Algar), a bookish young woman who takes her work for the national censorship board very seriously. In her mind, she’s “protecting” a vulnerable public. When one particular nasty triggers repressed childhood memories, she’ll fall down the rabbit hole to uncover the secrets behind her sister’s disappearance. Little does she know that the journey she’s on will gradually dissolve the lines between reality and fiction.
At times reminiscent of Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, this psychological horror film hauntingly draws you into its world and the misdirected public outrage that characterised the Thatcher / Mary Whitehouse years. The director and her DP Annika Summerson perfectly capture the look and mood of the era through ominous compositions and appropriately scuzzy films within the films. Bailey-Bond ingeniously addresses Britain’s then tabloid-fuelled hysteria and touches upon the way self-righteous societies have continually used art to scapegoat, but never at the cost of the human drama. She and her co-writer Anthony Fletcher wisely keep any socio-political critique – as well as some meta elements that could have tipped into snarky self-awareness in lesser hands – on the backburner so that the primary focus of the film remains intact. Censor is, first and foremost, a character study which delves into themes of childhood trauma, obsession and unresolved grief. The fact that Bailey-Bond can do these topics justice whilst injecting an impressive dose of humour along the way is further testament to her steady hand with regards to the material.
All in all, Censor is one hell of a calling card, a stylish homage to the Video Nasty era that’s a must-see for horror aficionados, who can champion Bailey-Bond as a thrilling new voice in female-led horror, alongside Relic’s Natalie Erika James and Saint Maud’s Rose Glass.
Censor / Directed by Prano Bailey-Bond (UK, 2021), with Niamh Algar, Nicholas Burns, Michael Smiley. Starts July 29.