Blood, gore, and violence reigned supreme during the Video Nasties craze of the 1980s in England. The political movement to ban films deemed too obscene and violent had far-reaching implications, especially regarding censorship by the government. While American film had disbanded the Hays Production Code, British authorities cracked down on some truly terrifying and bloodlust-driven flicks. To this day, many of the 80+ films identified as “Video Nasties” would upset the casual viewer. Director Prano Bailey-Bond filters her debut feature Censor through the political era and attitude. With a stunning lead performance from Niamh Algar, the fever-dream feature captures the perfect midnight movie aesthetic.
Censor follows Enid (Algar), a censor marking films for inclusion on the video nasty archive. She has become a superstar at work, even as she finds herself in opposition to some in the office. One night at dinner, her parents confront Enid about a family tragedy. Shortly after, a film she agreed to pass through is labeled as the inspiration for a brutal triple homicide. Suddenly, Enid finds herself surrounded by media and public outcry. When a new film that makes its way to Enid relates to her on a personal level, she begins to interrogate the world around her.
Politics seep into the corners of Censor at every turn. Men are aggressive in the workplace, while women take disproportionate blame for mistakes. Directors and producers subtly and overtly commit sexual abuse. While the video nasty office attempt to provide a social service, programs with mental illness are cut. Censor clips Margaret Thatcher and other British politicians to suggest film censorship was used to score cheap political points. The idyllic suburban images of the 1950s and 1960s of England find their way onto the screen. Bailey-Bond creates clear contrasts between British conservatism and the bloody films on trial. While the film dangles these threads, it does not bring these concepts into the film’s actual narrative, leading to more questions than overt commentary.
While the era’s politics remain intriguing, Bailey-Bond’s ability to capture paranoia makes for some truly arresting sequences. Algar plays Enid’s obsessive personality to perfection. Visual cues to playing with her fingernails and cuticles give away her ticks, but you can read her exasperation in her voice and facial expressions. Her trauma, and her reaction to the events in question, open fascinating doors for inspection. Algar’s arc over the course of the story works as a fall into madness or the reemergence of dark forces in her psyche. The malleability of how you can interpret the story is a feat of writing that is often undermined by performances that lean too heavily into the performer’s mindset. Yet Algar’s performance stands up to the many different readings.
Censor imbues these ideas through a midnight-film vibe, rather than actual jump scares. The psychological journey and descent into the mind of someone struggling through trauma make for some long and drawn-out sequences. The blood and gore are an unmistakable homage to the very movies censored by Enid. This opens the door for some stomach-turning sequences, many of which utilize practical effects to perfection.
Cinematographer Annika Summerson brings the day-glow and fever-dream aesthetics to life. The ever-changing use of light is essential to the pastiche at work. Yet, the work goes beyond mere imitation, instead of taking the bloody-disgusting imagery and forwarding it with new technology. The visuals are crisp, enhancing the blood and guts. Sometimes, Summerson cuts to black and white alternate footage or evokes VHS tape aesthetics. The visual storytelling from Summerson and Bailey-Bond makes Censor part of the Video nasty tradition itself.
However, they go further, creating the emotional isolation and loneliness that plagues Enid. Close-ups help to define the distance between Enid and her co-workers and family. This, in conjunction with the paranoia of the script, helps Censor rise out of mediocrity. Some pieces do not work, especially with the politics in the film. Yet Bailey-Bond and her team deliver a bloody, swift story that lives up to its inspirations. Keep an eye on Bailey-Bond. For a debut, her vision and imagination are breathtaking.