Cultural Extremism: A New Subgenre
Editorial by Kelly
CW/TW - incest, rape, violence, torture, derogatory words
Extreme cinema is often relegated to the backburner of horror fandom, and is a genre that is regularly belittled by other horror and non-horror fans alike. Fans of the genre are dismissed with statements like “How can anyone watch these?” and “You must be messed up to enjoy these films.” It’s true, these films are upsetting to watch as they depict the gravest of atrocities committed against our fellow humans and animals. They are visceral and intense leaving a mark on our psyche. They live within the confines of our minds left for our deepest, darkest secrets, where they stay rent free, despite our best efforts to forget. Yet, they have their place in cinema.
Many films in this reviled subgenre of horror come from countries foreign to our own in North America. These countries have cultures that see their people, women, and animals differently than we do. Although the wars that we fought in Canada and the US are long gone (in theory), some countries are still haunted by their past, and live in treacherous, constrained times. These films deserve recognition for their ability to portray these troubled times in their own home and native lands. Another descriptor (coined by Julius Kassendorf in their article ‘A Serbian Film is a temper tantrum posing as cultural critique’) for films of this nature, particularly ones with a strong cultural subtext, is “suffer porn”. Films of this subgenre portray the intense suffering of the people in the country - past and present - imposed on them by their society and/or government. It’s an eye-opening, educational experience even though they are unsettling to watch. The subgenre I am calling Cultural Extremism, or Cultural Extremism Horror, contains a variety of films, but three distinct films that come to mind as representative of it are Atroz (2015) from Mexico, A Serbian Film (2010) from Serbia, and Trauma (2015) from Chile.
Hailing from Mexico, Lex Ortega’s Atroz aka Atrocious, is a heavy hitter in the extreme cinema world. Though it is the lesser known film out of the three being discussed here, the levels of intensity and brutality are comparable. Cops led by commander Jaurez arrive at a car accident and discover the videotapes of murders committed by men Gordo and Goyo, currently in custody. They are sadistic and disturbing. We later learn that Goyo is gay, something his family discovered when he was a teenager, and something he tried his best to keep a secret. But, once his father found out, he berated and abused him. With an already fractured mind, this lead Goyo down a dark path of murder and mayhem where he brutalizes women and hates gay men.
Conservatism & Machismo
Mexico is a heavily religious, conservative, Catholic country with clearly defined and set roles for men and women. Veering outside of this specific box can lead to criticism, ostracization and even violence from the community. Family is very important to Mexican-Latino people, and within this, the generational concept of machismo is passed down from father to son. This exaggeration of masculine pride is harmful and predicated on the idea that men should be dominant and controlling, as masculinity is historically about power and force. Machismo and chauvinism (which are factors in toxic masculinity) is deeply entrenched in Mexican-Latino society. The men affected can be violent and aggressively sexual; as of 2020, at least 10 women are murdered daily in Mexico. And generally speaking, the more rural the area, the worse this can be as opposed to large diverse, more populated areas like Mexico City.
When we first meet Goyo, we aren’t aware of his past so we are led to believe he is just another violent, murderous man. He brutalizes women, calls men “faggots” and is seen killing a woman and continuing to have sex with her body. Later in the film we discover that his family life was more troubled than we could ever expect. When Goyo was a teenager, his Dad found gay porn in his room and this sent him spinning, calling his son a “fucking sissy”, “faggot”, and “princess”. Stereotypically, gay men exhibit more feminine traits, and in a culture where men are supposed to be strong, hyper-masculine and dominant, homosexuals are deemed the sinful opposite. This attitude allows for violence to extend to the LGTBQ crowd in Mexico, and as of 2005, 48% of Mexicans stated that they would not allow a homosexual into their home. Between the years of 1995-2005 there were 137 (and some resources say up to 387!) documented cases of hate crimes and there were sadly NO prosecutions. Also, between 2014-2016 there were about 202 deaths in the LGTBQ community.
Women also perpetuate this machismo attitude as they are victims of a patriarchal society who deem men as superior - Goyo’s Mom blames his Father for his son’s homosexuality, saying that he didn’t make him a “real man”. His Father further humiliates and abuses him by gifting him high heels, a wig, and strap on that he anally rapes him with. Teenage Goyo was already in a fragile state having to suppress his sexuality, and this incident creates a monster. In one of his later sexual encounters with a woman, Goyo allows her to put makeup on him, he wears her bra and shoes and they have intercourse. In a constant state of confusion and repression, Goyo violently takes it out on a world that suppressed his own humanity and individualism. While being repressed by the surrounding culture of conservatism and machismo, and by being “protected” from becoming gay, Goyo twisted his own thoughts and sexuality into something deviant.
Director Lex Ortega has this to say about Atroz and Mexican culture:
“Violence is part of human nature, violence is part of Mexican culture, I think monsters are among us, I think we all have the possibility to become evil, we just might need an unfortunate event in our lives to detonate…”
A Serbian Film (2010)
The most well known out of the three films I’ll discuss is A Serbian Film. It has gone down in history as the most notorious and widely known extreme horror film ever made. Even Cannibal Holocaust (1980) has yet to reach the mainstream horror audiences. A Serbian Film chronicles the journey of Milos, a retired porn star, into his final film. Convinced by his agent to get involved in this highly secretive film that will make him a lot of money, Milos agrees, and is eventually drugged and forced into scenario after scenario of chaos and depravity. It ends on the most devastating note leaving the audience shaken to the core and wishing they had never seen this film.
Genocide, Militarism & Political Identity
On the surface, A Serbian Film is a well acted, brilliantly produced piece of exploitation cinema. Underneath the slick surface is a social commentary on the national identity of the Serbian people existing since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. It exposes the sadism, misogyny and shame that people felt, and feel, even now.
In the early 1990s, the Yugoslav Wars between Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia rocked the citizens as it consisted of torture, rape, ethnic cleansing and more. The crimes of Slobodan Milošević and General Ratko Mladic are forever etched in the minds of the Balkan people. Slobodan Milošević was the president of Serbia from 1989-1997 and during his presidency he successfully entrenched Serbia in a war between the surrounding countries. He also had controversial views on the civil rights of the people of Serbia with censorship laws and reforms against free speech, especially if any content went against his regime. Milošević was deemed a Serbian Nationalist and promoted xenophobia. Though there is little evidence of himself committing acts of murder and genocide, he did little to nothing to punish those that did. As the Bosnian Serb military’s leader, General Ratko Mladic has been accused of many atrocities, mainly the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 where over 7,000 men and boys were murdered, and 20,000 people were forced to leave their homes leading to Mladic being charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.
With this context in mind, it’s hard not to see the commentary in A Serbian Film. To care for his family, Milos finds it hard to say no to a massive pay out that will set his family up for the rest of their lives. They may not be poverty stricken, but they are struggling, and desperate times call for desperate measures. The filmmaker, Vukmir, takes advantage of this desperation and sends Milos into his own personal hell. With the controversial “newborn porn” scene to the final moment of necrophilia, the concept that you are raped at birth when born in Serbia -- and that even in death you will find no salvation -- is at its core. A Serbian Film is an allegory of historical events, and the aftermath that ensues. Families were destroyed during the Balkan wars; people went missing, were raped and tortured. There is corruption in the world that easily bleeds into a good intentioned family. Milos lives in a society that doesn’t care about him or his family; they are the new victims of this tarnished and troubled country. It’s an illusion of freedom. The cycle of abuse turns easily in a nihilistic world where the bottom line is the most important thing It's a broken system and most of us don’t make it out alive.
Director Srdjan Spasojevic has stated about A Serbian Film that:
“We just wanted to express our deepest and honest feelings towards our region and also the world in general — a world that is sugar coated in political correctness, but also very rotten under that façade — with a movie style we liked….. It’s all about expressing some recessed emotions about our region and the world also. If you scratch the perfect surface of society in today’s world, you will of course find bad things down there. You will find the living hell down there. I’m talking about Serbia, about Serbian problems….Our film treats violence as a way of communicating rage. We are trying through A Serbian Film to communicate our own rage and our own frustration.”
Written and directed by Lucio A. Rojas, Trauma is a spiritual sibling to A Serbian Film in many ways, including the high production value and intensely dramatic -- and traumatic -- scenes. Within the first five minutes you are subjected to military depravity, the likes of which we have not seen before and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. The young man in the beginning, Juan, grows up to be a very troubled adult, and he sets his sights on a group of women who have come to relax for the weekend at a relative’s home. Juan and his son brutally assault and rape the women, along with killing one of them. Trauma continues as the remaining women strive to get revenge and we learn more about why this man is so twisted.
Dictatorship & Torture
Chile is another country with a controversial history. From 1974-1990 the country was run by a military government led by Augusto Pinochet, and though he might have improved the economy of Chile during his reign, he was also known for the malicious torture of those who opposed him. It is said that about 100 Chileans had “disappeared” in 1975 and it was confirmed that more than 35,000 cases of torture happened under his leadership. He executed 119 political enemies and had their remains buried in Argentina. Pinochet allowed a multitude of sexual abuse to happen to men and women in a place called “Venda Sexy”. And though he was detained on human rights violations in 1998, he was never tried by a court of law for his crimes. This kind of trauma crosses generations, and it never truly goes away, but hopefully as each generation is born, the after effects will lessen.
Trauma exhibits this historical context and runs with it as evidenced by its opening scenes. The Father/Authority figure in the beginning is reminiscent of the dictator Pinochet, and the boy, our villain, a victim of his sadistic regime. Juan grows up believing that human life doesn’t matter, that women are meant to be bound and beaten, and that incest is acceptable. It all boils down to control - who has it, who doesn’t. So when a group of women are in the wrong place at the wrong time, they experience the full scale of Juan's ingrained psychopathy. There are other, very disturbing scenes involving sexual abuse and rats, that are rumoured to be accurate forms of the torture done at Venda Sexy, making Trauma one of the most accurate portrayals of a country’s problematic past. Though Juan may be our deeply disturbed antagonist, at least in this film the power of female strength guides us to the unfortunate, but inevitable end of the film, where one of the women, gearing up to kill an infant related to Juan, says “You’re going to be just like them”. She was shot by the police before, we hope, she was able to finish the deed. The goal being that -- through generational trauma -- this currently innocent child would turn out to be just as depraved as his family, and the lineage needed to be extinguished.
When it comes to Trauma, Lucio Rojas had this to say:
“Trauma is born from rage. The impunity that exists in Chile rages me and all of us… the anger about social injustices and the violence towards human rights that my country experienced – that Latin America lived through – and the fact that, despite the years, nothing has really improved. In our country, torturers and criminals of the Pinochet dictatorship are still free or are being held in a jail with every possible comfort. The starting point to develop the project was to talk about issues that get us angry, and this was understood by everyone in the crew and cast who, from the beginning, were imbued with the film, understood that we had a great responsibility to deal with these issues and that it should be done with a lot of professionalism and respect…Everything is based on real events. That is the most violent of all, because the sadism and brutality that we show on screen, even falls short of what really happened in Chile. In this dictatorship, tortures and abuses were executed that far surpass what we have in the film. Sexual rapes of dozens of men towards the victims. Dogs were trained to rape women, relatives were forced to rape others, in front of other relatives. All kinds of abuse that occurs to them, were committed in those years. That’s why what we tell in the film is a small part and I assure you that it’s softened to show it on screen of what happened in Chile and in many Latin American countries during our dictatorships. That’s the saddest and most discouraging part of the movie.”
Cultural Extremism Horror
On the surface, Atroz, A Serbian Film and Trauma, are extremely disturbing exploitation films created to send viewers into a rage filled tizzy. They are there to provoke a response, which they excel at. Like a lot of extreme cinema, these films are subversive, transgressive and powerful. They evoke a visceral response from the viewer, and once you discover the realities behind the films, they are even more important, not only to witness, but to share with the world. These are politically charged narratives, not fictionalized cruelties like your standardized horror releases. They are the harsh realities from the country of origin, and something we can't just dismiss as simply “torture porn”. Historical trauma is re-lived, and purged, in the creation of these films by the people who live there; who live in places where the real horror is what happens when bad people are allowed to indoctrinate, dominant and destroy others in the name of religion, hatred and power.
These films, and others in this subgenre, are much more than that - they will leave you thinking and yearning for answers, that of which there are none. Cultural context is crucial when understanding films from countries outside of our own, as this may not be your reality, but it's theirs, and that deserves acknowledgement. Atroz, A Serbian Film and Trauma may not be for you, but they demand your attention, or at the very least, your respect. And whether you want to believe it or not, horror is political.
"Iz ove se kože ne može" (Serbian for "You can't escape from your own skin")