Because horror films are often imprinted with the traumas of their time, whether it’s the Vietnam War (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Last House On The Left) or institutionalized torture (Hostel, The Devil’s Rejects), it’s only natural to defend all manner of shocking mayhem so long as it’s couched in political metaphor. A Serbian Film seems designed to punish that instinct. Banned in several countries (Spain, Germany, Brazil, and Norway, for starters), censored in others (Great Britain, Australia), and given an NC-17 in America (where it isn’t available through Netflix), the film offers up an all-you-can-eat buffet of extreme horror taboos: Rape, torture, snuff, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, and many combinations thereof. As the title suggests, the whole gruesome enterprise is meant to be excusable due to its evocation of Balkan atrocities and the inhuman abuses visited upon innocent people. “This whole nation is a victim,” declares the film’s sadistic, brandy-slurping ringmaster, and it’s determined to rub our faces in it.
A Serbian Film carves out a place for itself alongside the outré ranks of Salò: 120 Days Of Sodom and Martyrs, two other notorious shockers that howled against fascism and the abuses of the rich and powerful, though its offenses are more juvenile than sophisticated. Directed by first-timer Srdan Spasojevic, who co-wrote the script with Serbian horror critic Aleksandar Radivojevic, the film occasionally feels like an elaborate practical joke or some ironic punishment for insatiable gorehounds. After earning renown in the porn industry for an endowment that’s more nightstick than velvet hammer—an attribute that, sigh, figures into the action later—Srdan Todorovic plays a retired stud who’s settled down with a beautiful wife (Jelena Gavrilovic) and young son. With his coffers rapidly dwindling and only one real skill, Todorovic proves receptive to a mysterious offer to shoot a movie that would give his family the financial security they need, but the shady investor (Sergei Trifunovic) isn’t forthcoming about the details.
When day one of the shoot sends Todorovic to the orphanage, that’s merely the first indication—to him and to us—that things are going to get a little unsavory. By having jackbooted thugs lead the star through increasingly horrific setpieces, Sposojevic evokes a particular strain of wartime powerlessness, and his villain’s proclamations about his film being like “life” underlines the point even further. But there’s little depth to the metaphor: An opening title that reads “The following repulsive images are totally like the Balkan War. Bon appétit!” would have been more succinct and not much less nuanced. A Serbian Film explores the outer limits of representation—the phrase “newborn porn” is uttered at one point—but it handles combustible material with distressing carelessness. It’s the film equivalent of 13-year-olds working through a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook.
Key features: Blooper reel? Unfortunately, no.