[WARNING: Disturbing Content Ahead]
We’ve previously derived some must-see lists from the library of horror-movie streaming network Shudder, but I thought it was high time I explored their titles with an eye for extreme cinema… and unless you’ve done a fair amount of digging through their ever-expanding vaults, you might be surprised at how many boundary-pushing transgressive films are lurking in there.
But before I go forward with my own peculiar recommendations, bear this in mind (especially if you’re new to my EXTREMIS column): My definition of “extreme” may differ from yours. It doesn’t necessarily push excessive gore, sex or violence for its own sake; those elements are merely raw materials which can — with the right artist behind the lens — explore social, political, sexual and existential issues in an aggressive, confrontational way.
In other words, while they do have some ultra-gory exploitation titles on file (FACES OF DEATH, anyone?), I’m not focusing on those today. Instead, I’m listing ten titles from visionary filmmakers, whose films walk the razor’s edge between art and exploitation.
Virtually dropping off the map in the decades following its release, this haunting psycho-thriller from German music video director Gerald Kargl recently experienced a new cult awakening, thanks in part to the praise heaped upon the film from controversial director Gaspar Noé (IRREVERSIBLE), who backed the restoration of a complete print of the film — the same version Shudder is currently streaming. It’s harsh, brutal and unflinching, but also a tour-de-force of camera artistry, with a stunning performance by Erwin Leder as the nameless “Psychopath” — a human tornado of confused and conflicting impulses.
If you’re unfamiliar with ANGST, our own Rob Galluzzo provided an excellent, spoiler-free review of the film when it first arrived on Blu-ray — so be sure to visit that article for more details.
A floating, dreamlike exploration of grief, guilt and the emotional torment people often inflict on themselves and each other, this modern classic from the always-challenging Lars Von Trier is without a doubt the most beautiful film ever to feature graphic scenes of genital mutilation.
I understand that conflicting notion is probably tough for most folks to wrap their heads around… but we can help you out there, courtesy of Witney Seibold’s in-depth analysis of ANTICHRIST and its themes of feminism and body horror. It’s also a powerful statement on chronic clinical depression (a subject very personal to the director, and myself as well), and Von Trier purposely blurs the metaphorical border between the concept of mental demons and a much more literal kind.
Shudder features numerous extreme titles from Japan that are well worth watching, but where some of these are cartoony, over-the-top splatter fare like TOKYO GORE POLICE, torture-fests like GROTESQUE, or gory crime tales like I SAW THE DEVIL, Takashi Miike’s first internationally-infamous feature AUDITION is arguably one film which, along with the previous year’s RINGU, ushered in the “J-Horror” era, opening up a vast new world of hard-hitting Asian cinema to Western audiences.
If you’ve never experienced AUDITION, you may think you’ve stumbled into the wrong movie for the first 50 minutes, as Miike follows a middle-aged film producer on a rather unorthodox quest to find a female companion… but once the film’s tone shifts from quirky drama to surreal horror, there’s no going back.
BAD BIOLOGY (2008)
Few horror filmmakers can push the envelope like Frank Henenlotter — ever since he splattered screens with his feature debut BASKET CASE in 1982, his films have blended outrageous gore, body horror, twisted sex and all manner of weirdness, while maintaining a distinctive, incomparable sense of humor that lets brave viewers in on the fun.
BAD BIOLOGY is a romantic comedy at heart… but through Henenlotter’s warped lens, these star-crossed lovers have to work through some unique issues to find happiness: Jennifer (Charlee Danielson) is cursed with a hyperactive sex drive and a mutated reproductive system; Batz (Anthony Sneed) is burdened with a gargantuan penis which literally has a mind of its own. It’s a match made in heaven — at least in the mind of the guy who gave us FRANKENHOOKER.
Arriving amid a wave of shocking, hard-hitting films branded “The New French Extremity,” FRONTIER(S) stands alongside BASE-MOI, HIGH TENSION (also available on Shudder), CALVAIRE, INSIDE and MARTYRS as one of the harshest, most challenging works of transgressive cinema to emerge from France in the early-to-mid 2000s.
Not all of the aforementioned titles include the subtext that FRONTIER(S) brings to the game, but it’s just as relevant today as a decade ago: After fleeing a Paris riot instigated by anti-immigrant leaders, a young couple stumble upon a deranged backwoods family and their neo-Nazi leader, who abduct women in order to breed a new master race… but their newest “bride” is not so accepting of her fate.
IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)
One of the most disturbing entries on this list, this Spanish film takes a similar approach to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s SALÒ, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, in addressing the festering disease of fascism — or in this particular case, its lingering after-effects in the aftermath of World War II. But where SALÒ was based on the works of the Marquis de Sade, this film draws from the life of Gilles de Rais, one of history’s most notorious serial killers.
After a failed suicide attempt, a sadistic ex-Nazi doctor (Günter Meisner) is totally paralyzed, requiring an iron lung to survive. A twisted set of circumstances lands him in the care of a former concentration camp inmate (David Sust), who happens to be the lone survivor of this murderous pedophile’s vile tortures — but his plans go beyond revenge, and into a bizarre game of power exchange. Needless to say, this film is definitely not for all tastes.
ISLAND OF DEATH (1975)
I was initially hesitant to include this notorious “Video Nasty,” as it edges close to pure exploitation, with no goal other than to shock the viewer into submission. But a more recent viewing gave me a new perspective… and while it’s not a film I’d care to see again, it does carve out its own niche in renegade surrealist cinema — and director Nico Mastorakis actually went on to a mainstream Hollywood career.
Set against the ironically gorgeous backdrop of a remote Greek island, the film follows the horrific exploits of a batshit-insane couple who, unbeknownst to the local population, are serial killers on the run from the authorities of multiple countries… and for damn good reason: their warped hobbies include incest, murder, rape, torture, bestiality and a laundry-list of further atrocities.
As I mentioned in my first EXTREMIS column, you can’t talk extreme horror cinema without giving a bloody fist-bump to Jörg Buttgereit, who set out to challenge Germany’s strict censors and jump-start a new German cinematic underground, finding a receptive audience with a taste for the morbid and the macabre.
His first feature stars Daktari Lorenz as Rob, a highway worker tasked with cleaning up after grisly car accidents, who steals body parts — and eventually an entire human corpse — in order to spice up his relationship with his necrophile girlfriend Betty (Beatrice M). Not surprisingly, this turns out to be a major miscalculation on Rob’s part… and his already grim existence is about to get a whole lot grimmer.
If you’re on board for this one — or already a fan of Buttgereit’s work — you can also find his follow-up features NEKROMANTIK 2 and THE DEATH KING in Shudder’s library (though 1993’s SCHRAMM is absent).
THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS (2011)
While Shudder doesn’t currently include HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER in their lineup, this painfully intense Australian film is every bit as violent and nihilistic… and like HENRY, it’s based on a real-life crime spree; in fact, it adheres far closer to actual events than its US counterpart.
Lucas Pittaway stars as Jamie, an aimless and abused suburban teenager who finds a father figure in his mother’s new boyfriend John (Daniel Henshall), who eventually wins Jamie’s trust and that of his younger brothers. But as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, John is not the charmer he appears to be; in fact, he’s a sadistic, bigoted murderer, whose overpowering presence compels others — including Jamie — to join in his acts of brutal violence. Be careful going into this film… it’ll take weeks of funny cat videos to purge it from your psyche.
TROUBLE EVERY DAY (2001)
Since CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (also available on Shudder) blistered audience eyeballs in 1980, pretty much any subsequent film addressing the subject of cannibalism risks being accused of crass exploitation just by its very existence. There are many interesting exceptions, though… and French director Claire Denis is probably one of the few to tackle the topic through a more esoteric lens.
Denis’ fetishistic focus on the textures of the flesh adds a disturbing but powerful level of sensuality to the horrific premise, in which a newlywed (Vincent Gallo) is forced to stifle his physical urges thanks to a strange medical condition which transforms sexual desire into a taste for human flesh. The solution may lie with a French doctor, whose wife (Beatrice Dalle) is afflicted with a very advanced state of the illness and an insatiable, literal blood-lust.