It’s fair to say that A Serbian Film is the most vilified horror movie of our generation. Other generations had Salo, Cannibal Holocaust, and The Men Behind The Sun, and A Serbian Film, made in 2011, joins the club of horror movies with scenes that are so extreme they come to define the movie itself. I’m willing to bet that just like those other movies, A Serbian Film is also one the most vilified horror movies that’s actually never been seen by its harshest critics. If you’ve heard of the movie, you’ve also heard of that scene, and you may have already made up your mind about it and decided not to see it – which would be a shame, because it’s a truly effective, character-driven horror movie. I don’t often review movies older than a couple of years, but this is an exception.
When you read the various comments online about people who have or haven’t watched it, there are two clear camps: those who have not seen it and condemn it outright, and to them, anyone who’s interested in seeing it are as sick as those who made it. Then you have the other camp who essentially justify the opinions of the first camp: those who can’t wait to see it because of the movie’s content. There is a very small group of which I and my pal Glenn Miller (check out his excellent blog) are settled into: those who actually have seen it, and who consider it a pretty good horror movie. One thing I agree with Glenn on is that the one scene in particular is clearly there for shock value. I’ve seen both the uncut, and four minute shorter uncut versions, and I prefer the cut version, because I’m a strong believer in how the imagination of the viewer is the best friend a movie director can have. Not that I don’t think there is value in shock, but sometimes subtler moviemaking is better. In the case of that scene (and yeah, I keep saying “that scene” because I don’t want to influence a decision to view or not to view – I’ll leave that up to some other online d-bag critic), a little better editing in the cut version would have resulted in something far superior to the uncut version. The other scenes are cut somewhat clumsily, but those are scenes a lot more familiar to the torture porn subgenre.
But what is so good about this movie? I’ll tell you why it works for me. Horror – effective horror – tells the story of an innocent protagonist who meets his slow, inexorable doom. Or hers, in the case of Bernard Rose’s terrific Candyman. Audience identification with the protagonist is nothing new – the Action genre is all about that – but specific to the horror genre is being seated comfortably watching someone else take the hit. It taps into the same fear and release of fear as that of being in a hostage situation, where the person right next to you is grabbed and shot. That could have been me, you sigh, But it wasn’t. The best horror movies are those that allow you to see the approaching precipice through the eyes of someone else, and they’re done well thanks to a combination of great writing, directing and acting.
A Serbian Film actually cleaves to a hoary old Hollywood trope: One Last Job. You’ve seen a ton of them. Someone strives to maintain their current retired status, but nobody knows they have a dark secret until someone comes along to offer them one last job. After that, the promise goes, you’ll be able to live in peace. Inception, Blade Runner, Midnight Run, Heat. The list goes on. In A Serbian Film, retired porn star Milos is struggling to make ends meet with his wife and child, and agrees to participate in an arty porn film directed by the shady, not completely sane Vukmir, for an amount of money that will allow Milos and his family to live comfortably. Milos doesn’t share the manic enthusiasm of Vukmir, and once things start to go south quickly, Milos wants to back out of the deal, but finds that isn’t so easy.
It isn’t until the movie is almost at the hour mark before the scenes of depravity kick in – before that, the writing (Aleksandar Radivojevic and Srdan Spasojevic), directing (Spasojevic again) and acting (Srdan Todorovic plays Milos) is of uniformly high quality. In particular, Todorovic imbues Milos with a deep undercurrent of everyman pathos. Unless you’re wealthy, how many of us guys in our middle ages have been concerned about suddenly being unable to provide enough income to pay the bills? It may not be in the forefront of our inner lives, but it’s always there, lurking in the shadows. In film and literature, the idea of going mad due to loss of money/relevance has been with us for a long time, from Death of a Salesman to Falling Down. Milos agrees to the offer of One Last Job, in order to not face the alternative that Willy Loman and William Foster succumbed to.
In the last half hour of the movie, you get the scenes that people are turned off by, as Milos descends into a hellish set of memories coming back to the forefront as he retraces steps he made while under the influence of drugs. In the cut version I saw, almost all these scenes are intact enough to not vary too much from the uncut version, though one of the most brutal being a beheading-by-machete that appears to have escaped the censor’s axe. These last 30 minutes are doled out very well, I thought, coming in the form of a series of reveals that up the ante toward the final big reveal. For anyone with a shred of morality, you’re bound to be shocked by this particular scene in a deeper way than the earlier scene – mostly because it’s a lot less abstract, and is a direct crossing of the line from normalcy to lunacy.
If I’m heard praising this “monstrously evil” movie, it’s because I am. Though to me, this is a movie that’s neither monstrous nor evil – it’s a character study about a man trying to do the right thing who faces monstrous depravity and evil, which is a totally different thing. I get that some people are unable to separate movie-reality from actual reality, but we live in a world where actual evil can be found with a few mouseclicks and keystrokes. If you want to see a child beheaded in the back of a Middle East pickup truck, you can find that. If you want to see a man burned to death in a metal cage until the body fat drips off his nose in close up, you can. A woman stabbed by multiple men with machetes before being beheaded after numerous strokes? It’s there. Two Mexican men chopped up by chainsaw while alive by a drug cartel – you can find that too. I’ve seen all of the above and more. Lined up against the real life evil and horror that we as a species can and do inflict upon one another, A Serbian Film doesn’t come close.
What it does do is deliver an intense, personal, descent into madness and hell in a compelling fashion. If you are a horror movie fan and you have decided not to watch A Serbian Film because of what you’ve heard, I will tell you to ignore the bullshit online from people who haven’t seen it, and make your own mind up. Is it the greatest horror movie ever made? Not at all, and not close, but is it an effective horror movie? Absolutely.