Pushing the boundaries of cinema appeared to be the trend in 2010, with directors daring to test the limits of genre fans while raising the stakes on what we are shown on screen. First-time filmmakers have decided to go down the tried and tested route of shock and splatter to make their name. Tom Six’s The Human Centipede boasted it’s ‘100% medically accurate’ claim proudly on the poster, delighting in the joys of stitching three people mouth to anus and letting their crazed creator poke them around the garden with a stick. Old video nasty and scourge of the BBFC I Spit On Your Grave underwent the remake route, getting a glossy makeover but upping the already high level of violence shown in the original, with an extended rape sequence that’s hard to watch and a second-half revenge plot that revels in pain. And although few of us have even seen (at least, not legally) A Serbian Film it has already become the most notorious film of the year, perhaps of many years. This Eastern European sicko concerns a former pornographic actor who, desperate for work, accepts a role in a hardcore art flick that quickly turns from sex to snuff. Graphic sex, extreme gore and a rape of a newborn child have ensured the film’s notoriety in online communities, and have made A Serbian Film the must-watch title for those who believe they have seen it all.
Obviously Liberal Dead readers aren’t distracted by the horrific – it’s the reason you’re here – but where does it end? How far do directors need to go before the sex and violence go from offensive to ludicrous, when wall-to-wall gore becomes an excuse to forego quality? Years ago old trash master John Waters was asked how he was going to top the climax of Pink Flamingos, his ode to bad taste that concluded with transvestite Divine (for real) eating fresh dog shit. Waters replied that he wouldn’t bother, that if he was to try he’d have to have 80 year old women eating the contents of colostomy bags, and where was the fun in that? He has a point. Bad taste, when handled correctly, is as much fun as you can have with cinema. But when it’s overused, when it’s expected, it becomes boring. The August Underground series of pseudo-snuff pictures are prime examples. This zero-budgeted, shot-on-video series follows the exploits of serial killers in a documentary style, wallowing in extended sessions of torture and murder that become excruciating to watch only because of the ineptitude of the filmmakers to handle anything resembling suspense or fear. Those who watch A Serbian Film are preparing themselves for an ordeal, based on hype and word of mouth, and are daring the film to shock them. In most cases the anticipation of what is to come can rarely compete with what is imagined. With A Serbian Film, it may be exceeded.
Of course, shock cinema is nothing new – Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou showed an eyeball being split with a straight razor way back in 1929 – but the way it was presented was different. Firstly, the Internet was pure science-fiction, so there was no mass sharing of information, no trailers, stills or the detailed plot synopsis and spoilers now taken for granted. It meant that sitting down to watch a new horror movie guaranteed some real surprises. Certainly that pesky little Xenomorph bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien would have had far less impact if we’d all known it was coming. Secondly, a certain amount of restraint was shown with areas of the film, which meant that when the violence did arrive it had the desired effect on the audience. When Leatherface appears for the first time in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, bashes the kid over the head with a mallet and slams the steel door shut in that justifiably famous scene it’s a slap in the face to anyone watching, a sharp shock that guarantees an unforgettable film. It comes after a first act that cares for the characters and builds the suspense up to breaking point. After a brilliant first outing the Saw series has become a joke of it’s original self, with each new entry now nothing more than a framework to hang a series of torture scenes on, the virtually transparent plots existing only to get from one splatter scene to the next and bludgeoning the audience into submission. With each release the producers promise ’bigger and better traps’. Maybe it’s too much to ask to promise a better film.
The seventies was the period that cinema went extreme. America was taking a huge beating in Vietnam and the decade long summer of the sixties was a distant memory. A new generation had become disillusioned with the American dream and were ready for entertainment that was as cutting edge and radical as they were. The door was opened for filmmakers like Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and William Friedkin to bring their nightmares to the screen. After years of parody, urban myths and cheap imitations it’s easy to forget the cultural impact The Exorcist had in 1973, the absolute horror that came from a possessed little girl spinning her head around, puking on Damien Karras and telling him that “your Mother sucks cocks in hell.” George Romero turned consumerism into the nightmare of Dawn Of The Dead and graphically ripped bodies apart, Cronenberg wallowed in the body horrors of Shivers and Rabid, Halloween introduced the iconic serial killer Michael Myers and passed the bloody machete to Jason Voorhees to take into the Eighties. These films become favourites for millions not just because of the extreme moments presented but because of the exceptional quality of the pictures themselves. As the eighties became gripped with the video phenomenon, as budgets got cheaper and movies became easier to produce and market, slasher films were being released every other week, each inevitably featuring collections of anonymous teens being slaughtered in ingenious, gruesome ways. But as the bloodletting increased, the suspense decreased. Throwing a kill on screen every fifteen minutes was a guarantee of a decent opening weekend, not a guarantee of quality.
It’s easy to be nostalgic for Cronenberg and Carpenter classics, which could be a mistake, because this last decade has bought some exceptional films and directors to horror. For every unwanted remake an original and fresh alternative has been offered in it’s place. Alexandra Aja showed his Gallic giallo chops with the stunning Switchblade Romance. Horror went underground with the constantly surprising and genuinely frightening The Descent, and Adam Green bought good old fashioned terror and suspense back with Frozen. Even British comedy embraced the splatter with Edgar Wright’s brilliant Shaun Of The Dead, a film that not only wore it’s influences on it’s sleeve but threw in a ton of in-jokes to satisfy the hardcore horror freaks.
But the past few years have also increased the level of violence and depravity. Some would say that was a necessity, that for the horror genre to thrive and survive it needs to keep re-inventing itself, needs to adapt to the period. This is a time when anyone can, with a few clicks of the mouse, find websites that show actual footage of suicides and road accidents, the real faces of death available streamed direct to our laptops. There’s the old argument that people have become desensitized to violence, and perhaps that’s true. However, others would say that certain filmmakers are running short of ideas, that if the surface of the gore is scratched to peer beneath the sheen of violence there’s nothing else there. A Serbian Film shows the violation of a baby that is still attached to it’s Mother by the umbilical cord. There may be a genuine artistic reason for the scene, or it may be that director Srdjan Spasojevic tried to think of the most shocking images that he could in an attempt to guarantee his work notoriety. Either way, the job has been done.
Back in 1987 Nekromantik showed a couple having sex with a corpse and climaxed (pun intended) with a bloody carving knife in the genitals of the film’s anti-hero. Seems kind of tame by today’s standards. Superb horror has been rife in 2010 and will continue into next year, but it’s hard to know where the real extremes will dare to go. If it goes too far, if it’s chooses splatter over substance, will fans be turned off? A Human Centipede sequel currently in the works promises a whole new centipede of twelve victims. And as John Waters said, someday we’ll all be watching people eating shit…