Monday, May 2, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Strangler Danger

Year: 1984
Director: Slobodan Sijan
Cast: Tasko Nacic, Nikola Simic, Srdjan Saper
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes

Plot: Davitelj protiv davitelja or Strangler vs. Strangler is a film about the then-Yugoslavian capital city Belgrade and how it officially became a metropolis: specifically, by having its first serial killer. Pera Mitic (Tasko Nacic) is a down-on-his-luck carnation salesman who works for his Mrs. Bates-esque mother. The new generation of women who wear pants and listen to rock 'n roll hate carnations and he stalks and strangles the ones who tell him so. A David Byrne-esque rock musician named Spiridon Kopicl (Srdjan Saper) feels like he has a connection with the killer and writes a hit song about him, leading Inspektor Ognjen Strahinjic (Nikola Simic) to believe that he's the culprit.

Analysis: I don't think there's a single thing in cinema history that's like Strangler vs. Strangler. Sure, you can go for the easy marks and discuss the way that the plot is reminiscent of Bill Lustig's Maniac and obviously draws considerably from the Psycho well, but that would be minimizing the titanic creative achievement of this film, which is part madcap comedy, part diegetic musical, and part Brechtian theater piece on top of being a slasher.

The film opens on a chilly voiceover describing the violence and crime of a city in near-glowing terms, eventually opening up into the tale of Pera Mitic with a series of silent film style title cards that introduce new chapters of his life and the way it mirrors the development of Belgrade in the mid-80s. The film never lets up on engaging with its audience in this way. I wouldn't say it's "winking" at the viewer but it's certainly never afraid of letting you know that it knows you're watching. 

Unlike a lot of weird movies that are misattributed as horror-comedies, there is absolutely a vein of humor running through this movie. Moments like the old lady commandeering a police station's suspect lineup or Inspektor Strahinjic cracking under pressure and swallowing a cigarette like a pill are unmistakably comedic, and even successfully so in a broad kind of sense. However, it is also very much born from the gallows humor of Eastern Europe during the time of the Iron Curtain, and lines that float by like "That's life. Some stranglers are lucky. Some are not." are both amusing and deeply disturbing at the same time.

Strangler vs. Strangler is also reasonably effective as a horror film. Even though it's a "hero killer" film positioning the murderer as the main character, Nacic finds a way to align his body with the frame that he is constantly a sinister and looming presence when he's stalking his victims. The kills are pretty much all strangulations, which would be a bloodless and repetitive M.O. that would drown a lesser slasher, but there's so much here to keep an eye on that the lack of particularly satisfying kills is hardly a blip.

The film is so committed to an aesthetic sensibility of boundless imagination that even the strange, out of left field moments like a cat suddenly delivering a moving speech via title card or the montage where the film depicts every step of a letter being written, mailed, sorted, and delivered feel powerful and meaningful. Everything about Strangler vs. Strangler is understandably accomplished on a shoestring, which does provide a certain ceiling for how wild they are able to go. However, despite their limitations, the filmmakers have created a completely singular and fascinating film that any aspiring artist should feel very jealous of.

Killer: Pera Mitic (Tasko Nacic) and Spiridon Kopicl (Srdjan Saper)
Final Girl: N/A
Best Kill: Pera's semi-accidental hanging is the most slasher movie-esque kill in the entire thing.
Sign of the Times: Spiridon's band and their actually quite good hit song couldn't have come from a time that wasn't inundated with Talking Heads.

Scariest Moment: Spiridon approaches Sofija from behind, attempting to garrote her with a rope. When she turns around and notices him, he pulls back, at which point the looming figure of Pera emerges from the bushes.
Weirdest Moment: Pera sings an aria from Carmen with his mother while she gives him a bath.
Champion Dialogue: "Go home and bother your daddy with your pubescent foolishness."
Body Count: 9; not including about 8 people who are shot to death in an opening montage.
  1. Third Victim is strangled.
  2. Side Pony Girl is strangled.
  3. Opera Singer is strangled.
  4. Roduljub is strangled.
  5. Pera's Mother is smothered with his hand.
  6. Mrs. Dobrila is killed offscreen.
  7. Zorz the Cat is strangled.
  8. Sofija is strangled.
  9. Pera is hanged.
TL;DR: Strangler vs. Strangler is a peculiar and interesting bit of European cinema history.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 788

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