Beware the tapes.
Beware the tapes. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Set in the UK in the mid-1980s during the real-life moral panic surrounding the "video nasties," Censor is a horror film keenly aware of its genre.

It's the debut feature of director Prano Bailey-Bond, who also co-wrote the film with Anthony Fletcher. In many ways, the film creates its own tradition of horror. Even as it loves trashy horror flicks of decades-old, Censor becomes a beast all its own.

It stars a superb Niamh Algar as Enid, a censor tasked with watching more horror films than many would watch in a lifetime just in an average month at work. Enid is committed to this big task and takes the job seriously. She considers herself a protector of society's moral fabric. After all, she believes she's the only thing standing between the fragile minds of the world and the corrupt forces of graphic violence beaming into homes from the VHS era of horror.

Enid insists that "it's not entertainment" and that she does "it to protect people," which she convincingly says with seriousness. But when she screens a film that eerily seems to resemble a traumatic event from her past, Enid's life takes a sinister turn.

The film is most centrally about the stories we create for ourselves and how our brains can often reconstruct, edit even, memories to protect ourselves from our past. But what if that past haunts us? What if our minds can no longer separate the horrors on the screen from the horrors of the real world?

Bailey-Bond expertly crafts a series of surreal sequences that fold fiction and reality into one, with Enid unraveling as a consequence. She sees the same cabin in the forest, the same two lines on a notepad, and they all keep coming for Enid no matter where she goes.

The crackle of static on the screen of an old tube television becomes a portal into the deep recesses of Enid's subconscious. With every new tape, she plays a clue into what haunts her; with every film, a small part of her is peeled back and revealed.

Sundance is hosting post-screening Q&As after each film.
Each of the fest's films include a pre-screening intro plus a post-screening Q&A. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The film's visuals mixed with an atmospherically dreadful score make each revelation about Enid feel dire. It's hard to shake the feeling that her previously strict sensibility was less for the public's protection than for Enid's. It's a fun and frightening arc.

The fictional horror she watches blends with Enid's waking nightmares, so much so it's often indistinguishable. The blending reaches a fever pitch when she begins to go places that closely resemble film sets. The locations feel as dangerous as the scenes she's watched. A surreal and subtle reddish-pinkish hue lights these scenes, giving the film a dreamlike quality.

But Enid cannot fight this darkness forever. It threatens to consume her life and warp her reality. As she hurtles toward this doom, the film unhinges. It's an unsettling, fitting ending.

You can watch Censor on-demand via Sundance starting Saturday, Jan. 30.