Film Comment: Suffer The Little Children Of Modern Horror Cinema

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I first need to warn readers that this article will contain plot spoilers. I usually avoid doing this, but since this is a comment piece with a clear focus, and not a general review, I ask for your forgiveness this time. I will be discussing the endings of two recent horror films: A Serbian Film (2010) and Kill List (2011). If you do not want to know how these films conclude, I suggest you stop reading now.

Up until this week I had avoided Srdjan Spasojevic’s gory horror thriller A Serbian Film. I am in the process, however, of researching my dissertation on the subject of ‘torture-porn’ cinema, so watching a film that couples gruelling violence with, yes, pornography is required viewing. I didn’t much like the film. There are some good things about it – it’s well shot, and there are one or two rather effective scenes – but generally it’s exploitative nonsense masquerading under thin political metaphors. The acting isn’t great either.

But one thing struck me as particularly interesting: the film’s resemblance to a British horror movie called Kill List that was released in cinemas in the autumn of last year. That film, directed by the intelligent and talented filmmaker Ben Wheatley, was also a disturbing experience, but had a lot more going for it than A Serbian Film. I didn’t think it was the masterpiece some said it was, but it did have some alarmingly clever scenes of viewer manipulation. As film critic Tim Robey perceptively put it in his review for the Telegraph, Kill List makes the viewer feel as if they have been ‘shoved head-first down a rabbit hole.’ The Lewis Carroll analogy is perceptive, and works well with both films being debated here. Kill List is about two contract killers who suddenly find themselves mixed up in something far more outlandish and terrifying than they could have imagined. A Serbian Film (which was heavily cut by the British Board of Film Classification) follows the awful ordeal of an ex-porn star who is hired to make an extreme adult movie. Both films have central protagonists who are not only thrown into a rabbit hole, but are brutally dragged by the ankles through a dark and sickening wonderland. In each case, the viewer is made to go with them.

Kill List (pictured left) delivers the same kind of reveal, but in a different setting. Our leading man (Neil Maskell), one of the two hitmen, is made to fight a hunchbacked figure. He is in the woods at night, surrounded by people wearing wicker masks and holding burning torches. He is at the mercy of these sinister people and has to fight the creepy figure in the centre of the circle in order to save himself. He stabs at it with a blade. It makes little cries like a wounded animal. When it finally collapses to the ground and the sheet is pulled off, the hunchbacked figure is in fact his wife with his young son clasping to her back.But this similarity could be spotted in a lot of films. The thing that really linked the two works together for me was a scene that occurs near the end of both pictures. These two respective scenes depict harm being done to a child. In A Serbian Film, our porn actor Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) is forced to anally penetrate two bodies hidden under sheets. One of the two bodies is evidently smaller than the other, but our protagonist continues anyway, forcing himself into the anonymous human underneath him. Moments later, once he has climaxed (and another man has joined him in the rape), it is revealed that the smaller of the two people under the sheet is in fact Milos’s innocent little son. It’s a devastating moment and hits the viewer hard.

Of course, the two scenes have their obvious differences. One is sexually violent, the other is just plain violent. But both involve a main character who has been dragged through hell. Both films contain a repulsive, nausea-inducing final reveal where the protagonist realises he has brutalised his loved ones, including his own child. Both films are so unflinching on the subject they have the power to seriously disturb viewers.

I am not suggesting that Ben Wheatley stole material from A Serbian Film (I dare say his picture may have already been written before that film hit the cinemas), but it is interesting that two sets of writers decided that the penetration of a child was the final destination for the story of their motion pictures. Does this suggest, then, that we have discovered that last thing that we find so shocking we are only just coming to terms with the idea of seeing it onscreen? As it happens, neither film offers up any substantial answers to this question, nor the narrative questions posed within their respective films. But as a viewer and a horror fan, I find it troubling that filmmakers who deal with horror are ready to go to these extremes without much justification. I do not think A Serbian Film or Kill List should be banned. It is important, however, to discuss why we have got to a point where the big horror pay-off is the rape or stabbing of an innocent child. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this discussion.

A Serbian Film and Kill List are available in the UK on blu-ray disc and DVD from Revolver Entertainment and StudioCanal, respectively. Both are Certificate 18. 

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Second year BA Film & English Student. Watches too many films and enjoys good novels.

2 Comments

  1. avatar

    Dark post Barnaby! I haven’t actually seen either of these but have read the full plots of both (as I tend to do on films I’m too much of a wimp to watch!). I’ve been thinking for a while that the horror genre is really interested in characters being forced into behaving like violent animals and as a result hurting loved ones. To me it seems like the crux of a lot of horror right from early stuff like ‘The Shining’ to pretty much all zombie films (man loses control and eats family etc.). With ‘A Serbian FIlm’ and ‘Kill List’ the pressure of the menacing onlookers (and if I remember right drugs in ‘A Serbian Film’) cause them to act like paniced animals but i think using the children is a new ploy by directors and writers. Perhaps its because its the starkest contrast they can think of between roles: the violent animalistic man compared to the paternal socially conscious father. By juxtaposing the two they highlight the distance into depravity the protagonist has travelled.

  2. avatar

    I find the use of rape particularly, whether of a child, woman or man, extremely difficult to justify the use of in horror films. It is hard to stomach in such a sensationalist context. Great article.

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