Censor [Sundance Film Festival Review]

Censor can be enjoyed by any horror buff, but it will have special significance for those of us who grew up with the genre during the '80s. It was a time when home video was suddenly making it easy for people to consume fright flicks. It was also a period when such movies were pushing the envelope in terms of blood and gore. Many worried that these so-called “video nasties” would corrupt the minds of people who watched them. Director Prano Bailey-Bond, making a stunning feature debut, uses that paranoia to fuel her story.

Enid (Niamh Algar) is a British film censor charged with watching all the horror movies submitted for rating. She edits out anything that seems too graphic, taking her goal of “protecting” the public very seriously. One afternoon, she views a picture containing a scene eerily similar to something from her childhood – an event that resulted in the permanent disappearance of her sister. Enid can't shake the feeling that this is not coincidental. She goes in search of the director who made the film, leading to a situation that feels like a real-life version of the video nasties she chops apart.

Driven by Algar's strong performance, Censor often blurs the line between reality and cinema. Enid finds herself first drawn into the behind-the-scenes world of filmmaking, visiting a creepy producer at his home. Then, as she comes to believe her sister might still be alive, she warps into a movie-turned-real, slowly losing her ability to distinguish what's genuine and what isn't. This mind-bending quality leads us to keep guessing what might happen next. Of course, what does happen is suitably gruesome.

That might be the most creative aspect of the film. We know now that all those horror movies didn't warp anybody's mind, at least not in any kind of mass way. Censor, on the other hand, asks us to suppose that too much consumption of them could impact one's point of view. Even more chilling is the idea that it could happen without knowledge, thereby plunging a person into a hell they never see coming. Bailey-Bond is smart to marry that concept to the very human element of Enid never fully accepting her sister's likely fate. It grounds the story, causing us to fear for the character the further she goes on her quest.

Atmospherically photographed, effectively edited, and possessing several genuinely shocking moments, Censor is a terrific horror movie about horror movies. Do those of us who love the genre have a skewed perception of the world? Not necessarily, although we undeniably have an attraction to darkness. It's not because we like the darkness, it's because our fears are more intense than everyone else's and seeing them play out fictitiously brings a sense of confronting them. Enid confronts her fears, as well as some she probably didn't know she had, spiraling her down to the one place horror fans never actually want to end up: living their worst nightmares.

Censor is a smart, stylish, unsettling chiller with an irresistible meta twist.

out of four

Censor is unrated, but contains adult language and graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.