They Won’t Stay Dead: The Changing Guises of Horror Film and Censorship

[27 May 2011]

By Sean Bell

“I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”
—Mae West

Think of Angel Sala. Before we dust off old arguments and rev up our chainsaws, spare a moment’s consideration—take two, even—for the beleaguered director of the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya, better known internationally as the Sitges Film Festival. For anyone who might assume what follows is safely academic, Sala is a man who could spend the next year in prison.

Now think of Spain, which wears some scars publicly, some privately, and forgets none of them. The context is interesting, because the comfortable notion of shared cultural norms in the West does not apply; the nation has not forgotten Franco, or what he wrought, or what is, in the grand scheme of things, truly offensive. Nearly 40 years of fascism’s thuggish, paranoid narcissism, cinematically accompanied by a state subsidized stream of gaudy costume dramas and pseudo-religious pablum, engendered an almost psychological resistance to film censorship in much of the Spanish national character. Understand: the country of Luis Buñuel and Pedro Almodóvar does not take such matters lightly.

cover art

A Serbian Film

Director: Angel Sala

And yet, via a provocatively dubious interpretation of Article 189.7 of the Spanish penal code, Sala was arrested early in March of this year, at the behest of a Barcelona prosecutor and a vocal Catholic family group, and accused of exhibiting child pornography. What he actually did was screen A Serbian Film. This is not a matter of interpretation, or semantic debate—whatever else one can say about Srdjan Spasojevic’s wilfully distressing polemical horror, A Serbian Film is not child pornography.

The predictably grisly details of the scenes in question are not worth reviewing here; those whose curiosity extends beyond morbidity will be able to discover them easily enough. The point is simple: It was staged. It was fake. It was not real. If it was, a conspiracy of unimaginable proportions would have been necessary to disguise it as a professionally realised, internationally distributed motion picture. All those involved, from director to best boy, would now be in police custody. This should—note the grim emphasis—be self-evident. So what’s the story?

There is a counter-argument of course, of a kind instictive to the censorious mindset, that says if a fabricated article of fiction looks like child pornography—kind of, if you squint a bit—and could conceivably fulfill the same evil function as child pornography, then it is, in all the ways that matter, child pornography. This is what’s generally called an ‘intuitive truth’, and what those of us who once studied philosophy call ‘bullshit’. Speaking to El Pais, the Spanish director and novelist David Treuba succinctly observed that by the prosecutor’s logic, “Christopher Lee will be arrested one day [and] accused of biting young virgins’ jugular veins.”

Enthusiastically disturbing exhibits from horror’s murkier depths are, if nothing else, always useful in the wider debate over censorship. It clears the argument of dead weight, as it were. Or maybe it’s easier to say that there will always be more high-profile controversialists ready and eager to defend extremes of satire, political speech or ‘high’ art than those willing to do the same for the manufactured shocks and juvenile excesses of gory schlock. When a horror movie finds itself under fire, its defenders tend to come, sometimes exclusively, from within the insular worlds of film and horror themselves. Perhaps bearing a certain quotation by Pastor Martin Niemöller in mind, they look after their own.

Such has been the case with Sitges. Ten Spanish film festival directors declared in an open letter their support for Sala and condemnation of his arrest, implicitly and pointedly invoking the darker chapters in Spain’s history in their criticisms of the Barcelona Office of the Public Prosecutor. Eli Roth, who is as protective of horror as he is passionate about it, took to Twitter to remind us that Sala was a man with a family, and cut to the terrifying nub of the matter: “It’s the subject-matter they are prosecuting him for.”

Along with the outrage came the nauseous realization of the implications that follow. Mindful of the genre’s gritted-teeth relationship with censors down the decades, there are some, both in and outside of the industry, who will be wearily familiar with its various narratives. They will, likely as not, be aware of the manifest hypocrisies of the anonymous, unaccountable MPAA in the US, or the depressing legacy of the ‘video nasties’ hysteria that solidified British film censorship into a prosecutorial bureaucracy and imagined a link between movies and murder.

They might recall more recent tabloid hyperventilations over Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (the publicity surrounding which was a work of art in itself). They may even know the absurd travails of Cannibal Holocaust, the 1980 Italian gorno which entered legend as the movie so gruesomely convincing that director Ruggero Deodato was charged with making a snuff film, and had to hastily produce several members of his cast to prove to a court’s satisfaction that he hadn’t killed them on camera. Which, when you think about it, is a huge compliment to the special effects team.

Knowing all of this, they will know how it usually goes: the movie is targeted sometimes through the director, but ultimately through the distributor. That bans are rare and usually temporary, and prosecutions almost always unsuccessful. But the case of Sala is different—it was an experiment with a relatively fresh tactic, and an escalation. Going after the head of a film festival is profoundly unusual, not to mention counter-productive. The deed is done, so to speak, and Sala’s conviction cannot hurt A Serbian Film (now buoyed by a fresh wave of scandalous publicity) unless the intention was to send an unspoken message. This is where the portents become ominous.

“Assassination is the extreme form of censorship.”
—- George Bernard Shaw

Now, an interlude to kick a sleeping dog: the lawsuit against Sala reminded me of an argument, long since concluded and all but forgotten, that I have never been entirely able to let go of. It concerned a film almost nobody (including myself) actually saw, and which even fewer people seemed to enjoy. Roland Joffe’s Captivity didn’t exactly shake the pillars of Heaven on its release in 2007. I only think of it now because its own sad little controversy was where I first detected the kind of message that I believe has been sent with the arrest of Sala.

Captivity was, by all accounts, an ugly little waste of celluloid, lacking the apparent thought and serious intent that lies behind A Serbian Film, and concerning the lasciviously portrayed kidnapping and torture of a young fashion model played by Elisha Cuthbert. The debacle began with the ad campaign—a lurid four-panel billboard grimly detailing via ham-fisted implication the stages of ‘abduction’, ‘confinement’, ‘torture’ and finally ‘termination’—which incurred the ire of a vocal minority, mostly middle-class Los Angeles parents, who were bolstered when Joss Whedon released a public letter to the MPAA asking for the ads to be removed, comparing their effect to that of “being mugged”.

Almost uniquely among horror controversies, this seemed to be one where everybody was on the same side, and their complaints were reinforced when it became apparent that After Dark Films, the company behind Captivity, had not cleared the ads with the MPAA. So, the campaigners kept repeating hysterically, this had nothing to do with censorship. Rather, the crime in question was failing to abide by procedure. Which was odd, because this certainly didn’t seem like a campaign intent on upholding the sacrosanct name of bureaucracy. However, they recognised a means to an end when they saw one. The billboards were quietly removed, and that should have been an end to it.

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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