A movie having a knockout premise can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the creative team gets to work from a great starting point, and that initial elevator pitch is enough on its own to get people interested enough to buy tickets. On the other hand, there’s now pressure to live up to that premise, because viewers that imagine a better movie than the one they ultimately see are guaranteed to leave disappointed – even if the movie is actually good. That was my experience with Censor, the feature debut of British writer-director Prano Bailey-Bond, which I have been eager to see since it premiered at Sundance back in January. As much as it is a good film that suggests Bailey-Bond could be an exciting new voice in horror, I can’t help but wish she’d held onto this idea until she could really do it justice.
In 1980s Britain, when the release of low-budget horror and exploitation films on video cassette caused a very publicized period of moral panic, Enid Baines (Niamh Algar) is a dedicated censor assigned to review these so-called “video nasties.” After getting heat from the press for having approved something that was said to have inspired a recent murder, Enid sits down to review a re-release from the infamous horror director Fredrick North (Adrian Schiller), only to find it eerily reminiscent of her sister Nina’s childhood disappearance. Believing that North holds the key to finding out what happened to Nina, Enid decides to track down his previous work and falls down a rabbit hole that erodes her grip on reality.
Bailey-Bond has spoken about the inciting idea behind Censor being this question: If watching these schlocky films can really make someone commit horrific violence, then what about the people who watch them all, raw and uncut, for a living? It is, quite simply, an excellent premise for a horror movie, and she gets a few things very right in its execution. The production’s period specificity is a major strongpoint, alternating between a drab ‘80s aesthetic and a colorfully artificial homage to films like those of Dario Argento, and their collision is visually quite interesting. The cast give strong performances, particularly Algar in the lead role, and the ending is delightfully chilling.
The plot, however, feels disappointingly thin, especially for something with a runtime under 90 minutes. Much of the film is dedicated to painting a picture of Enid’s career, but the basis for her fading sanity is more about her past, and her being a censor gradually becomes less and less relevant as the film progresses. By the end, I was unsure if it had anything to say about censorship at all. Despite expressing Videodrome-like aspirations at times, Censor ultimately plays things a bit too subtle, and would have benefitted from really leaning into the potential of its premise – let’s just say if something in the ending instead occurred around the middle, and the film doubled-down on Enid’s censorship mentality, I’d be writing a much more enthusiastic review. There are flashes of that potential here, though, and I’m eager to see what Bailey-Bond does with the bigger budget that she hopefully gets for her next project.