For many Americans like me the term ‘Video Nasty’ is a new one. Basically it’s exactly what it sounds like – a label in the UK typically designated for low-budget horror and exploitation films. During the VHS boom these flicks were distributed on video cassette and met with harsh criticism by various organizations for their graphic and excessive violence. In “Censor”, the exciting feature film debut for writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond, ‘Video Nasties’ play a central role in this fresh and unconventional slice of horror.
The film is anchored by a strong and layered lead performance from Irish actress Niamh Algar. She plays Enid, a film censor in 1980’s London who spends her days watching VHS movies with her colleagues. I’m talking about hilariously titled flicks such as “Cannibal Carnage”, “Driller Killer”, and “Beast Man”. The censors are tasked with assessing the content of the films and then determining what must be cut before it’s allowed into the public. Enid takes her job seriously, considering it her duty to “protect people“. When asked if the steady diet of blood-soaked violence rattles her she replies “I’m focused on getting it right. Don’t really think about anything else.”
Enid’s life outside of work is practically nonexistent in large part due to the disappearance of her sister Nina some twenty years earlier. Enid is still haunted by dreams of the two of them playing together in the woods shortly before she vanished. But that’s all she can recall and she blames herself for not remembering more. Her parents (Andrew Havil and Clare Holman) have seen the effect it’s having on Enid and they’re ready to declare Nina legally dead and move on. But Enid’s not giving up and holds out hope despite the grim prognosis.
But the truth is Enid’s job combined with the disappearance of her sister is wearing her down. It comes a head when she’s asked to screen a film called “Don’t Go Into the Church” from a notorious filmmaker and provocateur named Frederick North (Adrian Schiller). She’s instantly shaken a scene depicting two young girls in the forest. It triggers flashbacks and soon an unraveling Enid ventures down a twisted rabbit hole of suspicion driven by her past trauma and deep-rooted guilt.
Along the way we get an interesting but shortchanged side-story that nibbles at but never takes a bite of the ‘art versus literalism’ debate. It’s introduced when a maniac gruesomely murders his wife and claims to have been inspired by a violent scene from a film Enid screened. Soon the morally outraged “Save the Children” crowd are camping outside of her apartment and hounding her with nasty phone calls. There’s a lot of soil to plow especially considering Enid considered herself among the morality defenders. But that’s as far as the arc goes and it’s mainly there just to throw gas on Enid’s emotional decline.
“Censor” moves along with a dark psychological pulse, slowly building towards a bloody finish that blurs the line between what’s real and what isn’t. Bailey-Bond clearly loves horror and her open-armed embrace of the genre leads to some eerie yet delightfully nostalgic touches. Add to it a perfectly tuned lead performance, moody claustrophobic cinematography from Annika Summerson, and layers of terrific 1980’s detail. You end up with a fascinating stew, uneven in spots but never dull, and with plenty to say about censorship, media violence, self-blame, and denial. And all with a few coats of blood for good measure.
VERDICT- 3.5 STARS