Saturday, March 3, 2012

Serbian Film (2010)

Written by: Aleksandar Radivojevic, Srdjan Spasojevic
Directed by: Srdjan Spasojevic
Starring: Srdjan Todorovic, Sergej Trifunovic, Jelena Gavrilovic

I never thought it would happen, but it seems the king has lost his crown. For decades, Cannibal Holocaust was the end-all be-all of horror exploitation movies. Few movies even came close to it for sheer gut-wrenching power. It was banned more than almost any movie, and even landed director Ruggero Deodato in jail for killing his actors until he could round them all up and prove they were still alive. It was spoken of in hushed tones and for a long time was one of those movies you had to know a guy to know a guy who could get you a third-generation bootleg copy from a convention in Germany and then you sat there confronted by a blank VHS tape and had to wander around your living room slapping yourself in the face and telling yourself you could do it, you could sit down and watch the movie that even fans of Last House On the Left were afraid of. Of course, that fun, slightly frightening forbidden holy grail factor was removed when Grindhouse Releasing put out a spiffy special edition DVD, but even ready availability couldn't kill the power of the biggest, baddest horror movie of all time.

I wrote my senior thesis paper in college on Cannibal Holocaust and even showing some of the less nasty scenes from it in class made people uncomfortable. The professor, despite having gone to see Mondo Cane in the theater when it came out, thought there was something wrong with me. A few years back, myself, Malorie, Bob and Foy went to see a midnight show of Cannibal Holocaust in Minneapolis. We were the most innocuous looking group in the crowd, the rest being coated in spikes, leather, and multicolored mohawks. There were a few jokes tossed around during the first fifteen minutes or so, and I figured this hardcore looking bunch, at a midnight showing in downtown Minneapolis, would have known what they were in for. At a guess, I'd say we four were the only ones who had seen the movie before. As soon as that coatimundi got gutted at the riverbank, you could hear a pin drop in the theater. When the lights came up and we were all filing back out to the street, every one of those badass punks were pale and shaken and looked like someone had spent the last 80 minutes beating them with a pillowcase full of rocks.

It took over thirty years, but a worthy successor to the most stomach-churning movie of all time has finally come. It even has the added mystique of having to track down a bootleg (granted it's not quite the quest it was before the internet sucked the excitement out of tracking things down, but it still imbues the movie with a further touch of the forbidden) if you want to see an uncut version, as the official US and UK releases are missing virtually all of the really nasty stuff. And Netflix and several other retailers and services still refuse to carry even the heavily cut edit!

As you may have guessed (mostly because it says it right at the top there), I'm talking about A Serbian Film. The movie was made by two filmmakers who wanted to make a movie that figuratively, if not literally, shows what it's like to grow up and live in Serbia. More on the artistic side later. First, a bit of history.

Following the turmoil of World War II, Yugoslavia came under the rule of Josip Broz Tito. He had been something of a Communist folk hero, fighting the Nazis throughout the war. He became the prime minister of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1943, president in 1953, and ruled until he died in 1980. It was an authoritarian rule, but he unified the region and received nearly a hundred foreign decorations during his career. His leadership and diplomatic policies saw Yugoslavia into an economic boom in the 60's and 70's, but the lifestyle of the dictator really started to get to him toward the end, and one of his last major actions was to grant each of the six Yugoslav nations more autonomy of state before he basically ignored his duties to live it up, and died not long after.

The nationalism that was suppressed during Tito's reign started to tear Yugoslavia apart, and in 1991 the region disintegrated into a complex series of ethnically driven civil wars. They were the first wars to be officially considered genocidal since WWII, and many people were tried for war crimes. Around 140,000 people were killed. In the resulting negotiations, Slobodan Milošević , head of the League of Communists of Serbia, used his political influence to grab as much power as he could, causing the heads of several other delegates to walk out of the 14th Extraordinary Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.

One of the slimiest bastards to run a country in our lifetime (there are a good number who are directly worse in terms of threat to the U.S., but if we're talking just general slimy bastardry, he's right up there), he was in some form of power from 1989 til 2000, was arrested by Yugoslav authorities in March of 2001, stood trial for five years, and died in his cell before sentencing almost exactly five years later in March of 2006.

The country is still a mess. In 2003, Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić was assassinated in a plot led by mobsters and corrupt former security officials. Serbia was politically isolated for so long it provided a rarefied atmosphere of political corruption where organized crime ran virtually unchecked for decades. Serbia is currently trying to become a member of the EU, has been since 2009, and still meeting with opposition.

Basically, being just a regular citizen is a daily life-and-death struggle against the corruption and ethnic and political strife that continues to run rampant. It ain't a fun place to live. Fortunately, the current government at least isn't a censor-happy bunch of artistic party poopers, so while toeing the party line and having any kind of commercial success may mean making heart-warming movies about heroic refugees, if you want to make the nastiest exploitation movie to hit screens in thirty years, no one is going to stop you.

The plot, whether intentionally or not, appears to be loosely based on Last House on Dead End Street. Retired porn star Milos has a wife and young child to support, very little in the way of savings, and no prospects for being able to change that any time soon. When one of his old co-stars calls him up to tell him there's a new guy on the porn scene making great art and tons of money, and wants Milos for his newest project, the offer to come out of retirement is too good to pass up.

Now if you ask me, the fact that this filmmaker's name is Vukmir Vukmir should have been the first clue he was trouble. I mean, even if you speak Serbian that must sound like a supervillain name. Of course, trouble he is, and the rest of the movie will follow Milos trying to piece together what happened during several days missing from his memory. Before it's all over, he'll wish he never figured it out.

As far as story goes, that's about it. Anything more, and I'm going to end up spoiling everything that any other online reading may not have spoiled for you already. Describing all the horrifying setpieces would be pointless and masturbatory, and would ruin their virtually unparalleled shock value if you do decide to watch this movie for yourself.

The filmmakers have said in interviews that the reason they chose to include the two really controversial scenes was to show that to live in Serbia is to be, “fucked from birth until death”. The movie is a primal scream of rage and frustration with a completely intractable situation that you have no control over. They have also said that their main inspiration was the American grindhouse movies of the 70's, like Last House on the Left. The important distinction that makes this such an authentic addition to that genre, is sincerity.

Ever since Eli Roth and Quentin Tarantino said all the cool kids love 70's exploitation and started trying (and mostly failing) to copy it, almost any horror flick has been trying to copy that aesthetic style. Unfortunately, that's all most of them have been. Sure, they slavishly ape the look of those movies, down to artificially producing film grain and artifacts to make it look aged, but that's about all most of them can do. Tarantino and Rodriguez's Grindhouse was a blast, and there have been several other mostly successful attempts to recreate the look of that era. But only during the greatest moments of Rob Zombie's brilliant Devil's Rejects has that feeling of grit and grime and danger come close to being resurrected. People may try to copy this movie now -- with so much controversy around it, that's good publicity for this kind of movie. But unless they come from similar socio-political circumstances, they're just going to end up making a silly Troma movie with no power other than maybe eliciting a few chuckles.

The thing that's mostly been missing is the anger and frustration of the Viet Nam era. No one has fully been able to reproduce that feeling of needing a shower and some therapy after watching a movie, because the filmmakers now aren't in the same dark psychological place the whole country was in then. Of course, you'd think there would be a lot more powerful and unsettling horror flicks made about religious fundamentalists and insane right wing lunatics these days, but the only one I know of to try is Kevin Smith and he biffed it pretty hard.

Every time something like The Human Centipede comes out, it's surrounded by a wave of internet hype. “Oh my god, it's so sick!” “This is the most brutal thing ever!” “There's so much gore and you'll never sleep again!” And every single one of them has had me wondering, hasn't anyone who is writing these words of high praise ever seen any 70's genre flick? Even the lamest of the cannibal flicks are more violent and disturbing. And the movies being hyped never live up to it. You can almost hear the filmmakers trying too hard. There's no anger, no sense of purpose, no fury.

Serbian Film has that fury in spades, and that's definitely what's provoked such a reaction. The reviewers who've been calling it a, “nasty piece of exploitation trash” for “mouth breathing gorehounds” wouldn't give a Lloyd Kaufman movie the time of day. Granted, you can't make a movie that contains the stuff this movie contains without it being exploitative and trolling for that kind of reaction and publicity.  Expecting everyone to turn to each other as the credits roll and say, "wow, what an eye opening experience that was!" is just naive.  Of course people make movies with the end goal of turning a profit.  As my good friend Tim Lehnerer said, movies are business first and art by accident. I'm not completely sliding into hippy art poof territory here, it's still a horror movie, and a goddamn nasty one at that. But it also is genuinely art. It's very well made technically, with great performances from some of Serbia's top actors, and very well plotted and written. It's not sloppy, it's not full of holes, there are lots of little nuances that pay off later in the movie. That technical polish combined with the genuine ferocity and seriousness with which the horrible elements are handled are what make this a true exploitation classic that gets under your skin and in your brain and sticks, and all the reviews dismissing it as crass garbage have to my ears the distinctive sound of whistling past the graveyard.

No comments:

Post a Comment