They Won't Stay Dead

The Changing Guises of Horror Film and Censorship

by Sean Bell

27 May 2011


Not Simply to Censor, but to Punish

Throughout the short-lived kerfuffle, there was a weary acceptance amongst the more sober advocates of Captivity‘s punishment that, in the end, the controversy would probably attract more attention to the film than it would otherwise have received. Infuriated that their campaign might actually end up profiting Captivity, some took the view that its perpetrators had been insufficiently penalised; they had not been seen to suffer.

“Punish After Dark Films,” frothed screenwriter and Hollywood commentator Drew McWeeny at the time. “Refuse to give them a rating. Force them and Lionsgate to deal with the consequences of their actions.” The campaigners moved in this direction knowing well any movie without a rating would not be seen in many theatres, would have difficulty getting advertised, and would generally be under a crippling economic sanction. The message was implicit: Sure, you have the right to make this film. But good luck getting anyone to see it, or hear about it. Good luck making another. And let’s see how many friends you have after this.

Free speech in the arts—such as it is—will not be challenged; it will be circumvented.

I remember reading about the controversy with bemusement: the ad campaign sickens them? I can think of a dozen things I encounter without choice in my daily routine that sicken me. Vast swathes of popular culture seems intended to test the assumption of this whole ‘civilisation’ thing really being worthwhile, and it stuck in my craw a little that a few overexcitable bloggers could engineer the death of a tasteless ad campaign, but with all the will in the world, there’s nothing I can do to destroy, for example, any of Simon Cowell’s globe-straddling sideshows. Then and now, nobody asked the question I wanted asked: Why was their standard of disgust more relevant than mine?

Ask that kind of question in a debate over censorship and you’ll never get out alive. But the reaction against Captivity was shrill and petty and not even Jesus Whedon Almighty was going to change that. Censorship is not the hand of the righteous, in practice or in principle. It should not be wielded in anger. Neither should intimidation tactics designed to achieve the same ends as censorship. Yet that is what happened to Captivity, and what is happening with A Serbian Film. Only this time, it’s a man’s liberty rather than just livelihoods on the line. Beyond the purview and authority of national ratings boards, the growing intent among the pious and the priggish is not simply to censor, but to punish.

I mentioned Eli Roth’s comments on the Sitges debacle earlier. Thinking of the man who came to be seen as the golden boy of torture porn (and had to deal with the consequences), I invariably think of an interview with him I watched shortly after the release of Cabin Fever. The young man bounced with youthful enthusiasm, his face split by a constant grin, and spoke with sincere, joyous passion about his directorial debut, the movies that inspired it, and the genre he loved—even joking about his brush with a flesh-eating virus that provided the story’s inspiration. And it was clear, above all else, that this was a man who adored his work, with all the enthusiasm of an eight-year-old who has been given the run of a toy store.

By contrast, A Serbian Film‘s reasoning is ostensibly severe: “This is a diary,” said Srdjan Spasojevic, “of our own molestation by the Serbian government.” The effectiveness of that metaphor is for audiences to decide, but its serious purpose is a rarity in a genre and industry that, whatever they may claim, is rarely populated by totally serious men and women, staring into the dark side of human nature and pondering the character of evil. Far, far more often, there is a glee to what they do that seems almost childish in its innocence. And if they’re lucky, if the careers hold and the money is reliable, these are people who get to spend their lives playing at monsters. Which, beneath all the fake blood, is all horror really is.

I have never been able to hold that against them. To perceive horror’s pranksterish vaudeville as a nest of malignant degeneracy requires a coldness of spirit that I can never quite muster.

Others can, of course. Others, far from merely enforcing the seesaw of societal norms, will squash a film’s mere potential for success, try their best to ruin the careers of those involved, and brutally penalise those who offer their enemies aid and comfort. As their defenders will tell you, institutions like the MPAA have, grudgingly and for the most part, become more liberal in their criteria of judgement in recent years—meaning that the courses of action necessary to truly beat down an objectionable would-be cause célèbre have become evermore unorthodox and underhanded. Free speech in the arts—such as it is—will not be challenged; it will be circumvented.

One can watch examples of the trend develop and multiply across the globe, details depending on regime: Nobel-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk was recently convicted in a Turkish court for ‘insulting the Republic’ by making mention of the Armenian Genocide. Tokyo’s recently reelected governor Shintaro Ishihara (who characterised the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami as “divine punishment”) will continue his advocacy of the Orwellian-sounding Youth Healthy Development Ordenance, a Tokyo amendment that greatly expands the amount of anime and manga made illegal as ‘harmful publications’.

With their ‘moral’ authority ever-weakening, the censors of our societies and their dubious allies now increasingly seek any measure available, however punitive or spurious, to achieve their ends. Robert Bloch once said that “Horror is the removal of masks.” Instead of the mischievous purveyors of cheap scares and rubber monsters, look instead to those people who would see Sala imprisoned, and ask yourself who truly has the appetite for human suffering? Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

“When we use normal language we can defend ourselves because our society is a linguistic society, a semantic society. But when you start to speak, not with words, but only with images, the people cannot defend themselves.”
—- Alejandro Jodorowsky

John Carpenter once made an underrated little frightener called Cigarette Burns, under the auspices of the Masters of Horror series. As a plot point, it revived the charming old idea that a film, in and of itself, could be actively, uncontrollably dangerous; that the mere act of watching it could do some kind of damage to the viewer (the deviant collector who eventually tracks down the one remaining copy ends up threading his own intestines into the projector).

It’s a quaint notion, strangely enticing as horrible fantasies often are, but I’ve never been sure how much faith I have in it. I believe in cinema as, among other things, a weapon; Jean-Luc Godard and Jodorowsky felt the same, I think. And as with any weapon, I believe it should be treated with appropriate respect. But the question of how much ammunition it carries, and the temptation to find out, offers a certain challenge to the kind of filmmaker who, in another lifetime, might be playing God with corpse-bits and lightning rods. And you can take my word for it when I say, those who hope to discourage them might as well try to hold back a storm.

I can practice the free speech arguments again, but I know why the lawsuit against Sala enraged me. There is a deranged breed of horror enthusiast that regards each and every head-fucking extreme of cinema as a new and glorious mountain to climb (I should know, I’m friends with some of them), but personally I doubt a big-screen portrayal of necrophilia and baby rape is a proud step forward for free expression and the breaking of artistic boundaries.

It’s been a few years since I gave up obligingly watching films purely because they were banned, and I appreciate the spare time. However, I know I have a visceral dislike verging on loathing for those who would ally themselves with censors of any stripe, however heartfelt their intentions. My view on the majority of the shakily-defined ‘torture porn’ subgenre, with which A Serbian Film has widely been associated, never really became anymore complicated than this: I don’t enjoy it, but I’m glad it exists… because it upsets the right people. I know it’s emotion as much as principle, but I believe dearly that such upset does this world more good than harm.

Is that right? Is that even healthy? Is there something vaguely sociopathic in drawing satisfaction from the existence of cinematic unpleasantness, purely because I know it will cause pain to those whose perceptions I find sterile, whose views I find insulting, and (hey, why not) whose faces I don’t like? Maybe, maybe not. I work under the general assumption that, as the saying goes, if they’re shooting at you, you’re doing something right. Another assumption I work under is that horror, however unpalatable, is necessary to a culture. And a culture cannot progress when it is restricted by its narrowest minds, and the mere, mundane act of being disgusting is a thrill.

You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to watch it. For most of us on this side of the argument, that much was obvious from childhood onwards. But freedoms that are too often treated like a debate club talking point are always on the line when the line is so vaguely defined, so insidiously open to interpretation. And a lot of the time, when they are tested day-to-day, it isn’t by our noblest iconoclausts, but by wilfully offensive comedy, unimaginatively graphic pornography and unashamedly blood-soaked horror. To defend the rights by which things like A Serbian Film exist is not a matter of taste. Like it or not, these are the battlefields where the wars over what film is allowed to be are fought. And they produce casualties.

No, you don’t have to like it. But, occasionally, think of Angel Sala.

“The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.”
—Howard Phillips Lovecraft

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