Raving Mad Masercola: How far is too far? When disturbing violence becomes exploitive

Originally posted on 2010-09-15 15:45:06 by Nick Masercola

Holy shit.

Those were the two words I uttered upon reaching the end credits of A SERBIAN FILM. Actually, that’s a lie. I looked at the screen stone-faced for several moments, barely able to comprehend what I just watched, like I just got cracked upside the head with a sledgehammer and my brains were still rolling around my head. Effective? Yes. Disturbing? Without a doubt. It’s climbed into the infinitesimally small category of movies that truly were hard for me to sit through, with one scene in particular nearly causing me to turn the movie off.

I won’t describe the scene in question—that’s what a Google search is for—but anyone who has seen the film will probably stand behind saying it’s the most depraved sexual act imaginable. It’s absolutely repulsive and sickening, and I honestly couldn’t believe it went as far as it did. In fact, this scene in particular is what got the gears turning with two questions: What are the movies that’ve truly left an impact on me due to their violence, and how far is too far in the depiction of atrocious acts in cinema?

To date, there are only two films that’ve shocked and disturbed me the same way: LUCKY and THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. For the first half of LUCKY I was having a ball, laughing at the jokes and intrigued at the philosophical rambling of Millard Mudd…and then comes a near 7 minute scene of him tying a girl to a post, strangling her until she passes out, reviving her, and then strangling her again. As for THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, I caught it on a whim at the NYC Horror Film Festival and was completely blindsided by how hard of a film it was to sit through (then again, the sadistic torture of a teenage girl by small children isn’t exactly light material). And now comes A SERBIAN FILM, the latest movie to make me struggle to finish it. 

The thing is, I’ve been debating—at great lengths—to figure out what makes these films so disturbing, and whether or not any of them go too far in their depiction of violence and debauchery. Now while I would never claim to have as much experience and knowledge as most of the writers on this staff, I have seen my fair share of exploitation and generally f***ed up films, though none have really left an impression. CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST? Outside of the turtle scene, I yawned my way through it. FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD? I found it hilariously bad. MEN BEHIND THE SUN? Definitely messed up, but I still stomached it pretty well. In fact, the only really “hardcore” exploitation films I haven’t seen are the AUGUST UNDERGROUND series (just because I don’t care to), and THE DEVIL’S EXPERIMENT (same reason). However disgusting the films I’ve seen, they’ve never really left an impression on me the way these special three have. 

Why is that? Well number one, most of them were trying too hard. I know that sounds ridiculous, but if I can feel something desperately trying to shock me, it won’t. It reeks of a bad filmmaker trying furiously to get a rise out of his audience. It’s the movie equivalent of an overly macho guy incessantly trying to brag and show everyone else up in order to prove something to himself—a pathetic display if there ever was one.

But that’s only half of it. The other issue at hand when I take a look at what has truly disturbed me is that most of these films I listed are just focused on the gore, which I’m highly desensitized to. You can throw as many entrails as you want at me, but I won’t even bat an eye—it doesn’t upset me anymore. 

What upsets me is suffering. 

For example, FLOWER OF FLESH AND BLOOD is an incredibly graphic film, the entire movie being a killer’s slow dismemberment of teenage girl. Why didn’t it affect me? Well, besides the fact that the killer wears a ridiculous samurai outfit (not the most frightening attire), the girl is asleep during the whole ordeal. So yes, he cuts her apart graphically, but as far as I can tell, she doesn’t feel any pain. The same with most of these films—the emphasis in on the effects, not on the people. 

For LUCKY, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR and A SERBIAN FILM, the emphasis is on the suffering. A woman tied to a post screaming and crying, strangled and revived, strangled and revived. The slow and horrible mutilation of a teenage girl. The…well, let’s just say A SERBIAN FILM’S infamous scene inflicts pain on the most innocent of victims. 

So if this is what shocks me, where do I say enough is enough? How much is too much suffering? When does necessary, sadistic, plot-progressing violence veer into lurid and pointless exploitation? The line is different for everyone (and I would certainly like to hear where it lies for other genre fans), but regarding A SERBIAN FILM, it occurs toward the end of the movie. While the scene that occurs midway is indeed ghastly, it is, I feel, a necessary shock for the audience, violently throwing the film into its unimaginable last act. Where I think it goes overboard is in the very last minutes, where (MINOR SPOILER) someone is skull-f***ed to death. Why does this step over the line for me? Well, without giving anything away, the character who does the skull-raping could’ve just as easily have killed their enemy with there bare hands, if not easier. Instead, they decide to ram their erection through the face of another character. It’s ridiculous, doesn’t make sense given the situation, it’s uncalled for, and it was an obvious attempt at trying to shock for shock’s sake. 

In fact, I think that’s where my true instincts lie in this debate. If the violence is necessary in advancing the plot, no matter how stomach-churning it may be, I’ll allow it. But the moment I feel a movie is trying to shock me just for the sake of it, I tune out. Great suffering is acceptable in film if it has a purpose, not when it’s for some director’s masturbatory thrill of just seeing how much it takes to get their audience to vomit into a toilet. 

At least, that’s what I believe. What about you?

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