Is this horror movie 2021’s Hereditary?

‘Censor’ is the chilling tortured family psycho-thriller premiering at Sundance.

by Douglas Greenwood
02 February 2021, 11:25am

Sundance Film Festival kicked off late last week, bringing with it the promise of a new season of buzzy movies for us to beat you over the head with until they eventually hits cinemas several months later. In the past, it’s offered up gems: Call Me by Your Name and Napoleon Dynamite found their first audiences here. It’s also a hotbed for hot new horror movies: Saw, Get Out, Donnie Darko and, most recently, Ari Aster’s Hereditary were Sundance-bowing projects that went on to become major cult hits. As of this weekend, it seems like we’ve seen the next project to achieve a similar fate, and it’s a British-made 1980s-set psychothriller helmed by the hugely talented filmmaker Prano Bailey-Bond. Enter Censor.

Starring Niamh Algar, of Calm With Horses and Raised by Wolves fame, Censor tells the story of a young woman living in 1980s London who works for a video censorship agency, deciding what cuts will be made on films before they get a wide release. It’s the height of the video nasties era -- a time when ultra violent horror films were being made, catering to the bloodthirsty masses -- and so she’s exposed to the most stomach-churning material. But her life soon spirals when she sees a film that strangely mirrors an unsolved tragedy of her family’s past. Do the answers to her grief lie in the celluloid frames of a bloody horror? 

In what feels like a strange twist of fate, this fairly unassuming British movie has become one of the most talked about films of the festival, and rightly so: Censor is a clever work of horror mindfuckery, burying a subtext of grief beneath a brilliantly formed and believable psychothriller. It flits between worlds -- within a B-Movie (expertly recreated by Prano Bailey-Bond) and within the mindset of a woman slowly being driven mad by the nature of her work. The streets and alleyways of London become creaking, shifty spaces of paranoia. The characters in these movies look oddly familiar, and soon, everything begins to blur. 

British horror has a patchy history, but here Prano undoes the low-stakes scares and meagre budgets most are made from. There’s a restless creepiness in Censor that never lets up, and the movies full-on embracing of B-movie video nasties, known for their crassness, means what’s usually comical is more macabre and gruesome. 

For those hoping to kickstart their 2021 watchlist with some spectacularly messed up movies, here’s the first critically acclaimed horror of the year. Censor hasn’t grabbed any distribution deals yet, but with some of the biggest buzz of the festival so far (“If this is the future of British filmmaking, it's looking brighter than ever,” Little White Lies said) expect it to be hitting cinemas as soon as we’re allowed back in.