No Escape from the Body: Bleak Landscapes of Serbian horror film
This paper aims to investigate the body of Serbian horror film, which is slim in number of titles, but rich and diverse in their accomplishments.
Looking at them from the standpoint of the body's role and presentation, new perspectives are opened for understanding the impressions of bleakness and doom which hang over most of these films. If body gothic may provide for temporary and imaginary escape or release from the constraints of embodiment via fantastic re-shapings, transformations or hybridisations, in Serbian horror films there is no transgression nor transformation – corporality seems inescapable while characters are constrained and doomed in vicious circles of repetition.
More specifically: sexuality leads to damnation or is damnation itself in Djordje Kadijević's The She-Butterfly (Leptirica, 1973) and A Holy Place (Sveto mesto, 1990); there is no escape from the body and the autopsy, with which the film ends, reduces its protagonist to dead meat in GASP! aka The Backbone (Kičma, Vlatko Gilić, 1975); Variola Vera (Goran Marković, 1982) uses the smallpox disease as a metaphor for the unhealthy system of the socialist Yugoslavia and sees the virus as eternal, inescapable, constantly mutating; in The Life and Death of a Porno Gang (Život i smrt porno bande, Mladen Djordjević, 2009) there is no possibility for real, lasting emancipation: transgressive individualists' bodies are sold for fun and profit; finally, A Serbian Film (Srpski film, Srdjan Spasojević, 2010) presents its characters as literally and metaphorically raped from birth; it depicts body as a pleasure dome, as Hell, and as a weapon which is, ultimately, self-destructive. Close reading and motif analysis of representative Serbian horrors prove that the bleakness in them is more than a mere genre trope: the darkness in these films is rooted in a cultural and spiritual crisis which is not alleviated by the change of system (from socialist to neo-liberal capitalist state) but is even more pronounced.
Keywords: Serbia, horror, film, body, sex, disease, metaphor, transgression, transcendence, pessimism
Before investigating representation of the body in Serbian horror films, it should be pointed out that the notion of genre cinema in a country whose cultural and production context is vastly different from that in the Western Europe or USA may present problems if taken without some precaution. First of all, this paper shares the assumption "that genre is a categorizing tool emerging from historically shifting accretions of discourses; while texts may contain qualities which are associated with certain genres, a film's reception through culturally situated discourse primarily determines its generic status" (Church 2015, 75). This categorizing tool can be helpful for new researches, but it should be stressed that it was mostly not used when the films to be discussed below were originally released. In other words, films selected for this analysis made during Yugoslavia were rarely, if ever, advertised or discussed as horror films. This is not an exception particular only for Serbian cinema, but can be found in other Eastern European countries as well, where production and reception are dictated by different cultural context than the Western one, which birthed genre cinema. For example, the editors of European Nightmares remind the reader that "Taxidermia itself was described by Channel 4 as 'horror' for its UK screening, but is not referred to as a horror film anywhere on its own website, or in Hungarian reviews.
The grotesque and surrealist aesthetics which characterize Taxidermia locate the text firmly against a background of high art rather than the popular/trash culture usually associated with horror" (Allmer, Brick and Huxley 2012, 222). Christina Stojanova, in the same anthology, addresses this issue when she says: "Due to the traditionally uneasy relations of Eastern European cinema with genres and entertainment, and because of the specificity of its perception of horror, predicated on over-investment in Hegelian rationality – 'What is real is rational, but not everything that is rational is real' – the paradigmatic darkness, mystery and violence of the horror genre has migrated to the experimental and art cinema" (Stojanova 2012, 230). As argued elsewhere (Ognjanović 2008, 69), in the days of socialist Yugoslavia, Serbian filmmakers prevailed in the open application of genre models in their works in comparison to colleagues from other republics. However, the dominant Marxist aesthetics and ethics in the best case underestimated such films or regarded them with contempt, or, in the worst case, with open animosity. In Tito's Yugoslavia genre was considered a Western concoction which did not have anything to do with our society of self-management, the original economic concept of Yugoslavia.
One of the most influential domestic theorists (Severin Franić) claimed that genre is inherently alien to our experience of the world and the values of our society. In the local setting, according to him, it can only exist as an intruder, as a foreign body violently incorporated in somebody else's milieu. This was especially true regarding the beginnings of horror genre in Yugoslavia, which posed several problems: 1) it did not have a strong basis in local literary or cinematic tradition; 2) it did not have a significant popularity among domestic audiences even concerning foreign titles of this genre; 3) it had a strong ideological stigma (designated as a Western product improper for local, socialist consumption); and last, but not least: 4) it had a strong aesthetic stigma, since it was perceived inferior, either as puerile ("boogey tales"), dirty (equated with "pornographic") or dangerous ("sick, depraved, corrupting"). For these reasons, horror was not welcome within Yugoslavia's socialist system of values, it was not popular with the audiences, and ultimately not even with the filmmakers. In the few instances of what can be retroactively labeled as horror (due to recognizable motifs, themes and genre rhetoric) the films were neither advertised nor analyzed as horrors at all.
One further reason for this was that local critics mostly lacked the critical apparatus to approach such works, and this started to change, slowly, only in the early 1980s. Because of the above problems attendant to horror films made in Serbia, a clear division is obvious between those made while Serbia was still a constituent republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1991) and those made after the country fell apart in civil wars and Serbia became an independent state. In the former, genre was disguised as adaptation of recognized literary classic, as satire and parable and/or as experimental and art cinema. In the latter period, younger filmmakers dispensed with the stigma of the genre and embraced it fully, paying homage to Western European (especially Italian) and American horrors of their youth while, in some cases, also attempting to implement the Western tropes into personal stories rooted in the local tradition.
This introduction regarding the cultural context of Serbian films made in Yugoslavia and afterwards is important because "body horror" has usually been theorized with references to Anglo-American cinema, where horror was famously labeled by Linda Williams as one of the "body genres", together with pornography and melodrama: "The body spectacle is featured most sensationally in pornography's portrayal of orgasm, in horror's portrayal of violence and terror, and in melodrama's portrayal of weeping" (Williams 1995, 142). For Williams, horror is defined as one of those "genres whose nonlinear spectacles have centered more directly upon the gross display of the human body" (Williams 1995, 142). Those films "privilege the sensational" and deal with "the spectacle of a body caught in the grips of intense sensation or emotion" (Williams 1995, 142). Williams's definitions, however, were largely based on then-popular slasher films, with the unfortunate result that they equate the rich variety of horror genre with only one of its recent subgenres. As such, they can be helpful for understanding those horror films which tend towards slasher, but significant modifications are required for older films belonging to a different aesthetic background which is very distant from sensationalism and spectacle in presentation of the body.
The tradition of films made in Serbia which can be construed as horror is a relatively recent phenomenon (the first genre title is a TV film from 1973), and while its numbers are still slim, fewer than twenty, the accomplishments of the most significant films are surprisingly stellar within such an undernourished context. Not numerous, but still important, these films have been made by some of the most recognized Serbian directors like Djordje Kadijević, Slobodan Šijan, Goran Marković, and are among the most successful, talked-about and analyzed recent Serbian titles even abroad (especially A Serbian Film and The Life and Death of a Porno Gang). In all of them, as befits the genre, presentation of the body offers a fresh perspective from which they can be (re)evaluated.