I am greatly excited by the return of the New Orleans Film Festival this month, since I’m finally feeling confident enough about the city’s vaccination rates to attend a few screenings in person (as opposed to last year, when I watched Undine at an outdoor screening and the rest of the fest on my couch). There’s a total immersion in low-budget, scrappy art films that I only experience at festivals, where I emerge forgetting what a well-funded, market-tested studio film even looks like. My standards of quality shift from questions of technical craft to genuine engagement with films’ intents & ideas. I imagine most of the ecstatic praise for the nostalgia-poisoned horror indie Censor was a circumstance of that immersion in the Film Festival Brainspace. Censor premiered to strong reviews at this year’s Sundance (the festival that’s most notorious for hyping up films that play much cooler once they reach the wider public), but it’s proven to be divisive & middling as its distribution has spread in the months since – culminating in a quiet streaming release on Hulu this Halloween season. Imagining myself in Film Fest Brainspace, it’s easy to see how that hype deflated so quietly. It’s a movie with strong ideas, weak execution, and a stunner of an ending that leaves you on a memorable high note despite the hour of tedium that precedes it. I assume that if I had seen Censor in a festival environment, I’d be much more gleeful about its merits myself. Watching it at home amidst a flood of other horror indie streamers this October, however, I’m struggling to drum up that enthusiasm.
If nothing else, it’s easy to see how Censor landed such a high-profile distribution deal while so many other high-concept horrors on its budget level never make it past festival programs. It’s got a killer hook. Niamh Algar stars as a 1980s film censor during the UK’s “video nasties” panic, spending most of her days watching (and rejecting for public consumption) over-the-top gore gags & simulated acts of misogynist violence. Never mind the anachronism of British film censors actually watching the horror movies they banned in order to Save the Children, as opposed to glancing at VHS covers and making a snap judgement based on the title & artwork. The movie is more of an intimate character study about this one specific film censor rather than a history lesson on her profession. She is haunted by scenes & performances in the films she screens not because of their brutality, necessarily, but because they evoke long-buried childhood memories of her sister’s mysterious disappearance (and likely murder). Questions of how “real” these connections between the violent art she watches and the violence of her life are remain unanswered. Instead, we lose sight of the boundaries between art & reality altogether alongside our doomed protagonist, until those two versions of the “truth” directly battle for supremacy at the film’s thrilling, psychedelic climax. The murder mystery portion of the plot directly recalls the art-imitating-life murders of the similarly styled Knife+Heart—a daunting comparison to overcome—but the video nasty setting & aesthetic help distinguish it enough for it to feel like its own thing.
My main roadblock to fully loving Censor is one that a lot of low-budget festival entries suffer; it just doesn’t have enough going on to justify being a full-length feature. Even with a delicious 80min runtime, this takes way too long to get where it’s going. There’s a version of this movie where its anti-heroine’s quiet brooding and hazy childhood flashbacks create a throathold tension on the audience, but in the version we got they just feel like treading water. The reality-meltdown finale is a stunner (as long as you can stay awake long enough to get there), but I enjoyed the destination more than the journey, which is never a good sign. The movie is okay over all but great in flashes, inviting you to assess it on its ideas alone instead of its execution of those ideas, which is the quintessential film festival experience. I did not attend this year’s Sundance Film Festival—either online or in person—so I did not get the perfect Censor experience. Personally, I cannot wait to “discover” and overpraise some misshapen, almost-great indie at NOFF once my own critical facilities are overpowered by Film Fest Brain. I wish I could live in that loopy brainspace all year-round.