Horrorland is a column within Cinema Quarantino, the Hassle’s ongoing series of alternative streaming picks for the self-quarantined and the socially distanced, in which Hassle film staff writer Alexis den Boggende delves into the ins, outs, and deeper meanings within the horror genre.
THE FILMS: Funny Games (2007) dir. Michael Haneke / I Spit on Your Grave (2010) dir. Steven R. Monroe / A Serbian Film (Sprski film) (2010) dir. Srđan Spasojević
THE STREAMER: Amazon Prime
Mainstream audiences prefer storylines that have happy endings and criticize those that deviate from the cinematic norm.
Your standard moviegoer enjoys films that feature protagonists who succeed. When was the last time you saw a film where they didn’t? When was the last time you saw the good guy lose?
We go to the movies to escape, to see films that take us out of our reality. Isn’t that what going to the cinema is all about, sitting back and enjoying what you see?
We like seeing heroes beat the villains. When we watch fictional stories, we love that surge of excitement and happiness that is otherwise not offered in daily life. We want to get away from the horror of the modern world. It’s our goal, whether you’re cognizant of it or not. We don’t want to think about the terrible news stories we see flashing across our screens every day, on stations like CNN or MSNBC.
That’s why extreme cinema is so highly scrutinized and controversial. Rooted in art and exploitation films, the genre has been called “threatening to mainstream community standards,” and is often highly debated by audiences and film critics. It’s a genre of film that you’ve probably heard of but rarely—if ever—watched. My guess is you’ve heard of grisly flicks like Cannibal Holocaust, Hostel, The Last House on the Left, or A Serbian Film, but never got the guts to watch the full thing.
I don’t blame you—not many people have, or even want to. And that’s the point.
These are difficult to watch and nearly impossible to stomach for your average moviegoer. These films use excessive amounts of violence, torture, and sex of extreme nature. It’s an unforgiving genre that constantly reminds you of the horrors of the outside world. Not only are they gruesome and brutal, but the protagonist rarely wins.
Unfortunately, however, that’s reality—the good guys don’t always win—and extreme cinema is here to remind you of that.
Here are a few films that aren’t afraid to smack their audience in the face with the truth by using a harsh narrative style.
FUNNY GAMES (2007)
DIR. MICHAEL HANEKE
A film I saw way too early, and a film I won’t ever forget—because its antagonists won’t let you.
An unnerving shot-for-shot remake of the Austrian 1997 original, Funny Games follows the Farber family—George Sr. (Tim Roth), Ann (Noami Watts), and George Jr. (Devon Gearhart)—as they begin their nightmarish vacation at their charming lakeside home in Head of the Harbor, New York. When their home is invaded by two charming strangers, they must try to survive until the following morning. A satire on the horror genre, Funny Games keeps you disturbed and entertained, all the while reminding you that you shouldn’t be.
The Farbers, wealthy and naïve, pull up to their pristine, gated neighborhood to see their neighbor, Fred, acting strangely, accompanied closely by two quiet but polite young men dressed all in white. He comes over with one of the men, Paul (Michael Pitt), who assists in setting up their sailboat.
Eventually, Fred and Paul leave, and George and his son finish setting up their sailboat, wondering why they had acted so oddly. Inside, Ann unpacks groceries.
She hears someone at the door, and goes to check; the other man, Peter (Brady Corbet), lurks outside the screen door and asks to borrow some eggs. Ann politely obliges but becomes irritated when he clumsily breaks them and “accidentally” knocks her cell phone into the kitchen sink that’s filled with water. She asks him to leave, but to her shock, finds that Paul has entered the home uninvited. Ann is disturbed by their confidence, smugness, and refusal to leave. When George Sr. tries to kick them out of the house, Paul beats him with a Calaway golf club, breaking his leg. Peter and Paul then take the family hostage.
With giddy, manic smiles on their faces, the two men force the Farbers to play sadistic, humiliating games in order to survive. As night falls and the Farbers’ hopes of escaping plummet, Paul suggests a bet to up the stakes: Ann and George will bet that they will be alive by 9:00 the following morning and he and Peter will bet that they’ll be dead.
The night explodes into gruesome, horrific chaos; George Jr. escapes into the dark, only to be brought back. Ann and George Sr. try to call for help on their broken cell phone. The family is tortured senselessly by Peter and Paul. Ann asks Peter why don’t they just kill them.
He responds with a smile, “You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.”
Funny Games is, like most extreme cinema, not a film for everyone. In fact, most reviews I’ve read or people I’ve spoken to about this film hate it. Why? Because it’s not fair. Not in terms of the cinematic norm, anyway; the protagonists lose and the antagonists win. George Jr., the child (a character who is never murdered in your standard film), is slain with a shotgun. George Sr. is stabbed viciously and then shot to death. Ann is tied up, forced to pray, and drowned in the lake.
The film ends with Paul and Peter moving onto the next house, ready to begin a new killing game with another unsuspecting family. The two men never receive punishment for their crimes, nor do we find out anything about their origins or their motives. They are senseless, smug killing machines.
Funny Games pretty much tells you throughout the whole film with fourth wall breaks (done with unparalleled creepiness by Michael Pitt), that you’re not going to like the outcome, yet you keep on watching. You as the viewer know what your watching is abhorrent and disgusting, and yet, Paul continuously asks you, “Why are you still here? What is wrong with you? Don’t you want to watch a happy movie with a good plot and character development? You know they’re gonna lose this bet, right?”
He gives you chances, but you keep watching.
Funny Games, in all its eeriness, refuses to adhere to the rules of cinema. Not only does the fourth wall break, but when something happens in the Farbers’ favor, it is rapidly taken away. In one of the scenes that I hear people most complain about, Ann gets ahold of the shotgun and shoots Peter clean through the stomach. Paul whips out a remote—one we never even knew he had—and rewinds the scene, instantly reviving Peter. There’s no more hope for Ann or her family, and now that we’ve seen this psychopath with a remote, we know that even if they did escape, it can all be undone.
The number of times I’ve heard people say that it’s “a stupid scene,” is endless. The thing is, it’s not stupid—it’s frustrating as hell. We think that the good guys are going to win, and then, surprise! They aren’t, because life just sometimes doesn’t work that way.
Hey, Paul warned us.
Haneke created Funny Games not to strike fear into the audience, nor to entertain, but to self-reflect on and criticize the use of violence in media. You as an audience member watch this film and you are warned that it’s repulsive by the characters themselves, and yet you keep watching. You’re enjoying the brutality on the screen; you’re using it as a source of entertainment. You are actively participating in the spread of violent media by continuing to watch the film.
That leaves the question: what does that say about our consumption of violent media and our numbness to it, even when it’s practically slapping us across the face?
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (2010)
DIR. STEVEN R. MONROE
I Spit on Your Grave is not for the faint of heart, but brings up one of society’s biggest issues: the mistreatment and dismissal of women and sexual assault survivors.
New York City writer Jennifer Hills (Sarah Butler) rents a home deep in Lousiana to finish her book in privacy. When gas station attendant Johnny (Jeff Branson) hits on her and she rebuffs his advances, he deems her an arrogant city girl and rounds up his group of friends to “teach her a lesson.”
After breaking in and brutally assaulting her, Jennifer flees into the dark through the woods. She bumps into the sheriff, elated that someone will help her; instead, the sheriff brings her back to the cabin and joins the group of men in attacking her.
When she escapes for a second time and cannot be found, the group tries to erase all evidence of their horrific attack, but one by one, Jennifer comes back, stalking and killing them while taunting them the same way they taunted her.
As a result of her attack, Jennifer is distrustful of men, disillusioned with society, and the law. She gets a newfound taste for blood, revenge, and vigilantism, as no justice will be served, as the police are in on it, too. Jennifer is haunted by how her attack was unprecedented and she was innocent, as she was only there to try and write. Just because she turned down an advance from a man she did not want, she was assaulted. What we must understand as a society, and something we may learn from I Spit on Your Grave is that all assaults are unprecedented.
I Spit on Your Grave is a severe film that sheds light on violence against women in modern society. Think to yourself: how many news stories have you seen or read where a woman has been attacked, and her assailant has not been punished the way he should be, or even punished at all? Think of the notorious mistreatment of sexual assault cases and victims by college campuses and court systems.
Think of a case like that of Brock Turner. He was indicted on five charges: two for rape, two for felony sexual assault, and one for attempted rape. Then, he was convicted by a jury trial on three counts of felony sexual assault. He got six months in prison but got out in three. What?
Where is the justice?
Crimes like these were not given the justice they deserved. The law failed these survivors, as it failed Jennifer in the film; what does that say about the way we treat those who have been assaulted in our society?
What does it say about our justice system?
A SERBIAN FILM (SRPSKI FILM) (2010)
DIR. SRĐAN SPASOJEVIĆ
A Serbian Film is, by far, the heaviest film on this list. You’ve most likely heard of it if you’re a cinephile; for a long time, people couldn’t stop talking about it and the abhorrence that was reportedly shown on screen. No other film had done it. Topping almost all “most disturbing films ever” lists across the internet, it does not fail to live up to those claims. However, it should not be taken at face value.
Despite its reputation as a senseless story drenched in sensationalistic violence and extreme sexual content, director Srđan Spasojević spins a dark, horrifically symbolic narrative of a manipulative, cruel and oppressive government, and how it treats its inhabitants.
Miloš (Srđan Todorović) is an aging and depressed former adult film star who is struggling to support his family, wife Marija (Jelena Gavrilović) and his young son, Petar (Luka Mijatović). Knowing that Marija is concerned about their family’s welfare, Miloš hesitantly connects with Lejla (Katarina Žutić), a former co-star from his past about possible new jobs.
Lejla offers him a leading role in an upcoming art film directed by enigmatic director Vukmir (Sergej Trifunović), but Miloš is still hesitant to accept, as he would like to leave his adult film career behind him. Urged by Lejla that this one last role would have him set for life, he accepts but remains wary of the situation.
After a series of horrific experiences and disturbing conversations with Vukmir, Miloš’ suspicions rise and he asks his brother, Marko (Slobodan Beštić), a police officer, to look into Vukmir. Marko’s search on the director comes up completely clean, but Miloš can’t shake the feeling that something is frighteningly wrong.
Vukmir is consistently drugging and forcing Miloš to do unspeakable acts for the art film, most of which he does not remember and only finds out about after watching videotapes; one video includes the murder of Lejla. Disgusted and horrified, Miloš runs off but is captured by Vukmir’s men.
He is brought to a warehouse, where two bodies wait, along with a masked man he recognizes from Lejla’s murder scene. Miloš and the masked man assault the bodies and Vukmir reveals Marko to be the masked man; his victim is Marija and Miloš’ is Petar. Revolted and in a blind fury, Miloš murders Vukmir. Marija kills Marko.
Dazed, the couple brings Petar home. They agree that they should commit suicide; together, they lay in bed and Miloš fires the fatal shot.
A Serbian Film has nothing uplifting about it; it is miserable and brutal and grotesque. It’s also a stab at films in the Serbian film industry today, for their political correctness and their strict adherence to please the government to secure foreign funding for film production, thus taking away directors’ artistic freedom.
When asked about the film in the UK’s Electric Sheep Magazine, Spasojević explained, “We have become synonyms for chaos and lunacy. The title is a cynical reference to that image. Srpski Film is also a metaphor for our national cinema — boring, predictable, and altogether unintentionally hilarious which throughout our film to some extent is commented on and subtly parodied. We are in a pathetic state, with financed films made by people who have no sense of connection to film but are strongly supported by foreign funds. Quality of the film is not their concern, only the bureaucratic upholding of the rule book on political correctness.”
Spasojevič also alluded to the film having postwar themes, where a man has to go to extremes to fight for the survival of his family, as Miloš does for his.
A Serbian Film comments on how society and its governments are able to stifle, oppress, and manipulate people, their creativity, their livelihoods, and their chances of survival.
So, let’s be honest—these films offer no light-hearted moments, no happy conclusion, no escape from reality within the narrative. They’re typically outright miserable to watch. But that doesn’t mean they should be disregarded.
Extreme cinema is a unique genre that is cold and cruel. They’re often written off by audiences and critics alike, but they’re important films to have—no matter how unforgiving they may be. Symbolically, they tell us hard-to-swallow truths about society, bring to light issues that need to be addressed, and show us who we instinctually are as humans.
dir. Michael Haneke
I Spit on Your Grave
dir. Steven R. Munroe
A Serbian Film (Sprski film)
dir. Srđan Spasojević
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