Porn, a child's exposure to porn, explicit sex, physical abuse and degradation, explicit sex in front of a child, pedophilia, forced drug use, rape, murder, necrophilia, more physical abuse and degradation, torture, more rape, more murder, yet more murder, more rape, and several other things too horrible to really get into here, truth be told, including more rape and murder. And that litany of incidents doesn't even begin to explain why Srdjan Spasojevic's 2010 A Serbian Film (Invincible DVD and Blu-ray) is so transfixingly disturbing.
Just relaying the premise leaves a bad taste. Milos (mop-topped Srdjan Todorovic) was once one of Europe's top porn stars but he's mostly left behind the stud-for-hire life to spend time with his lovely wife Marija (Jelena Gavrilovic) and their sweet young son. The promise of a role so lucrative he could retire for good tempts him to sign on with eccentric director Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), script unseen. What seems at first like just an arty porn shoot is soon revealed to be a next-level snuff film. As the star, Milos can't be killed, but neither can he be let out of his brutally enforced contract.
It would be something of a comfort to be able to dismiss A Serbian Film as exploitation trash, venal junk designed to shock and make a quick buck. But like recent outrage-cinema sensations Martyrs and The Human Centipede (First Sequence) before it, it's a bit too smart and well-crafted for that. Though A Serbian Film appears to be Spasojevic's first feature film, he pulls it off with evident skill and polish. This is no careless arrangement of 21st-century Grand Guignol set pieces; you actually start to care about aging, hangdog Milos, and you fear for no-nonsense, good-hearted Marija. Even more formidable than plot and characters, A Serbian Film comes armed with a few ideas, about film and other things. While all but the most jaded viewers will likely find themselves fumbling for an "unsee" button on the remote at some point, ultimately Spasojevic's film is more disturbing for what it makes you imagine/think about than what it actually shows you. And damned if the director (who co-wrote with Aleksandar Radivojevic) doesn't slap you across the face in a vulnerable moment with the thought that he's made you watch all this just to make a savage satirical point about Balkan victimhood.
Watching A Serbian Film might prove a little tricky. Netflix has declined to stock it, and neither iTunes nor Amazon offers it for download or streaming. And the (unrated) version released on disc in the States is apparently missing around 10 minutes of footage from the original cut. Which prompts a lingering and uncomfortable thought to chew on: What could be so awful that it got left out of this?
Copies of the 1932 chiller The Island of Lost Souls were hard to come by for many years, too, though mainly owing to degraded source prints, not scandalous content. But that's not to say that it wasn't disturbing in its time, or that it's lost its eerie power over the past almost 80 years. Fortunately, the folks at the Criterion Collection effected one of the company's painstaking reworkings/restorations, assembling a good print out of several partially damaged ones and reissuing journeyman director Erle C. Kenton's masterstroke on DVD and Blu-ray.
Even if you haven't seen it, it's probably percolated into your pop consciousness from some angle. New-wave band Devo took the film as one of its foundational texts (the refrain "Are we not men?" used as part of the title of the its first album came from here; members Gerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh are interviewed in the extras), and "the House of Pain" remains a durable pop-culture reference. Watching The Island of Lost Souls again reveals why it made such an impression on several generations.
The first (and still most successful) screen adaptation of H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, the film follows hapless shipwreck victim Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) as fate finds him dumped on the shores of an uncharted Pacific island occupied by Dr. Moreau (a devilish Charles Laughton). Moreau shares his tropical paradise with an assistant, a strange servant, a scantily clad naïf of a young girl named Lota (Kathleen Burke), and, as Parker discovers, a jungle full of bestial men—hairy, half-clad, with misshapen faces and shambling walks. Moreau is making these men from beasts through arcane scientific processes that physically torment the new beings and give them the power of speech and, to some extent, reason. But Moreau's cruelty and heedless arrogance eventually determine his ghastly fate.
Island of Lost Souls is "pre-Code," meaning it was created in a Hollywood a little less concerned about moral panic and what we might now call "mature content." Not that you'll see anything too racy or explicit here, other than more of Burke than you might expect for a film made in the '30s. But the scenes with the packs of animal men, led by a dog-faced Bela Lugosi as the Sayer of the Law (aka, the guy with all the memorable lines), still give pause. Shot in oppressive gloom, seemingly lit by flickering fires, these scenes retain their power to claw at the thin membrane between civilization and savagery. Sometimes it still feels like we're just hoping it holds.