Here at The Fourth Wall, we’re spending the month of October catering to your every scary movie need. With only one Weekly Listicle left to go before All Hallows Eve, William Bibbiani and I (Julia Rhodes!) are tackling the most disturbing, most gut-wrenching, most f*%$ed up movies we’ve ever seen.
We friendly bloggers at The Fourth Wall are avid horror geeks (you’ll find this is often a common denominator for film nerds in general). We love the scary movies: B-grade, A-grade, atmospheric, gory, smart, satirical, and stupid. However, we’ve each seen movies that made our stomachs wrench, our arms break out in goosebumps, and our body parts throb empathetically. In this Weekly Listicle, we’ll cover rape, fetuses, torture, excrement, and brutal violence.
This is by no means a complete list; even we have drawn the line at certain movies (for instance, I have yet to make it all the way through Salò, and haven’t yet seen Lars von Trier’s Antichrist). As always, The Listicle doesn’t wish to rank these movies according to quality or content, either. That aside: join us for a journey into the dark side of horror film, where only the crazy dwell and even those with constitutions of steel may find themselves cringing. Warning: though this article is safe for work, it may not be for the faint of heart.
Irréversible (dir. Gaspar Noé, 2002)
A friend once told me he couldn’t get past the first few minutes of Irréversible because it’s “too pretentious.” What he meant, I think, is that Noé’s movie is the opposite of a typical Hollywood film: it plays out in reverse chronological order, relies heavily on dizzy camerawork, and is basically a punch in the face from the first scene.
Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and Pierre (Albert Dupontel) spend the movie searching for and eventually brutally beating The Tapeworm. Their search takes them through the dingy underworld of Paris–they track and violently question a transsexual prostitute and investigate a gay sex club called The Rectum. Bear in mind this is all told backwards, and at this point the audience has no idea why these men are urgently seeking (and beating the living hell out of) this mysterious character. Marcus and Pierre’s violence is startling and upsetting–and then you find out the reason behind it.
Marcus’s girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) accidentally stumbles upon The Tapeworm beating prostitute Concha in a pedestrian underpass. The Tapeworm then turns his attention to Alex, rapes her brutally then beats her into a coma. If you’ve heard of Irréversible before, it’s surely because of its gut-wrenching nine minute rape scene. The camera is completely unflinching and the audience is privy to each shriek, every punch and thrust. We learn after this scene that Alex was pregnant with Marcus’s child.
I pride myself on my ability to watch even the most horrific things play out in (fictional) film, but this scene plastered my hand firmly over my involuntarily open mouth and riveted my shocked eyes. I’ve spent more hours than I’d like to admit studying rape revenge movies, and rarely has a movie disturbed me like Irréversible did. Roger Ebert, who loved the original Last House on the Left despite its rape scene, and hated the original I Spit on Your Grave because of its rape scene, maintains that, due to its reverse chronological structure Irréversible is brutally honest, not exploitative. No matter which you consider it (I fall on Ebert’s side…in this battle), it is absolutely not for the faint of heart. Cinematographer Benoît Debie and director, editor, and co-DP Noé fashioned a merciless, unflinching movie that’ll stab you to the core, but it’s also a brilliant addition to experimental horror.
À l’intérieur (Inside) (dir. Alexandre Bustillo, Julien Maury, 2007)
In the last decade it seems the French are prone to making gender-specific horror. À l’intérieur was a breakout (though sorely underseen) hit in 2007. Artistic editing, fantastic cinematography, gory makeup, and brilliant lighting make for an unforgettable experience. Expectant mother Sarah (Alysson Paradis) is in a car accident that kills her husband. Four months later, an intruder attacks her country home with a sinister purpose: to cut Sarah’s baby out of her belly.
It’s rare for horror to feature women as both villain and victim–and Béatrice Dalle’s villain is among the most frightening to grace the screen. She is viciously violent, her attempts to pierce Sarah’s uterus with a scissors absolutely horrifying, especially for those of us equipped with ladyparts. The intruder murders police, visitors, and expecting mother without qualms.
My (male) roommate walked in while I was watching À l’intérieur, and I made a face like I’d been punched in the gut. “Are you okay?” he asked, concerned. I nodded that I was, but it was kind of a lie. This movie left me speechless. Humankind as a whole reveres pregnant women–and why not? Pregnancy ensures the continuation of our species. (Though six “Expectant Mother,” or even worse, “Stork” parking spaces at department stores is taking it a wee bit overboard.) Watching horrible things happen to those who are ready to give birth to a brand new human is something that’s hard to forget. À l’intérieur is bloody, ruthlessly violent, and shockingly scary. It doesn’t always make these lists, but it made an enormous impact on me.
Dumplings (dir. Fruit Chan, 2004)
Now we head East: Chinese film Dumplings released as one of three Asian horror shorts on the Three…Extremes compilation. And (drumroll, please) it also deals with femininity in more ways than one. Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) feels that as she ages, she’s becoming less attractive (check out any cosmetics advertisement to see why). She wants nothing more than to feel and look young again, and to be passionate with her aloof husband. So Mrs. Li visits Aunt Mei (Bai Ling), who reportedly makes and sells dumplings that are like an edible fountain of youth.
I’m not even going to skirt around this: the dumplings are made of aborted fetuses. Their immeasurable potency, their ability to incite lust, to rejuvenate the skin and muscle, comes from dead fetuses.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: horror is the most valuable film genre for subverting cultural norms. Dumplings makes a strong, stomach-clenching case for the lengths to which women will go to ensure their youthful appearance. The cannibalism in the film, taken to the extreme of course, mirrors the way our society focuses on youth and beauty. And boy oh boy, is it a rough thing to watch.
Cannibal Holocaust (dir. Ruggero Deodato, 1980)
Just to throw a wrench in the works of my ladybits-centered part of the Listicle, I’ll cover Cannibal Holocaust, an Italian exploitation flick that was as controversial for its exploitation of native Amazonian culture as it was for its horrific gore and animal killings. The movie is a kind of precursor to The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield: it features “found footage” of four documentarians who venture into the Amazon Rainforest to film indigenous tribes, never to return. When an anthropologist follows them later, he discovers their cans of film, which contain horribly graphic footage of cannibalism and the murder of the documentarians.
The movie makes an incredible point of the line between passivity and active interference. The documentarians film a rape and murder, but do nothing for the sake of their research. Then they start to interfere with the tribe: the documentarians burn down a hut filled with tribespeople, because of course this will make for a more exciting documentary. When the crew begin to perpetrate the most brutal crimes, the cameras capture it–and skew it. There’s a fine line between filming reality and spinning it (MTV knows this), between stepping back for the sake of research and actively participating.
Further, the movie makes a terrifying point about “civilized” culture: when placed in the midst of “barbaric” cultural mores, the “enlightened” crew turn into monsters themselves. To make it even more meta, Deodato himself was arrested after Cannibal Holocaust released because audiences really believed the actors were killed in the film.
Cannibal Holocaust has been banned in more countries than I care to list, and it contains six graphic, brutal, very real animal killings. In particular, a scene in which the characters kill and eat a tortoise makes my stomach churn. The film is also horribly insensitive to the tribes with which it purports to sympathize. While it is truly horrific to watch, it’s also a valuable addition to the horror genre–and all the more so since the recent trend toward documentary-style and “found footage.”
Audition (dir. Takashi Miike, 1999)
The other film I debated for this spot was “Masters of Horror: Imprint,” which is also a Miike film (and one that was banned from American television to boot). However, where “Imprint” is bizarre and makes my uterus hurt, Audition is a feature film unlike most others: it’s equally grotesque, boring, and utterly shocking.
Executive Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is lonely, and his friend sets up an audition, ostensibly for aspiring actresses but really for Aoyama’s new wife. This in itself is pretty gross: bring young girls into a studio on false pretenses when you and your friend are looking to get some. It’s like the worst of Hollywood’s lecherous photographers. Needless to say, Aoyama falls for the last girl they see on audition day, a sweet, striking young lady with ballet training. Asami (Eihi Shiina) isn’t all she’s cracked up to be, though. The first half to three quarters of the movie move really slowly, lulling the audience into a sense of security with the plot. Then: pow! needles in the gut.
Asami is a psychopath any way you slice it. She lives in an empty apartment with a dismembered, but living, man in a burlap sack. He gets his nourishment from drinking her vomit. When Asami discovers she’s not the only person of value to Aoyama, she tortures him brutally. Those of us with a fear of needles will be utterly horrified. Though I haven’t seen the movie in a number of years, I can’t get the cheery “kitty kitty kitty!” noise Asami makes as she’s torturing Aoyama out of my head.
Audition can be said to make a statement regarding the strength underlying passive Japanese femininity, or subverting the very stereotypical ways in which men and women are portrayed. Miike says it’s none of the above—he just set out to make a scary movie. Well, fair enough, sir. You succeeded.
Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)
Alfred Hitchcock wasn’t the first director to produce “shock” cinema, but he was the first critically acclaimed mainstream director to not only give it a try but make a classic in the process. It’s easy for audiences today to misunderstand not just the importance of Psycho, but also just how daring it was in its day. If reports are to be believed, the shot of a flushing toilet alone used to cause audiences to leave the theater in disgust. Times, they have most certainly a-changed.
For the three of you who haven’t seen Psycho or at least had it ruined for them through cultural osmosis (the final twist isn’t so much a twist these days as a pop culture milestone), the film stars Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, a frustrated office drone who one day ups and steals $40,000 from one of her boss’s clients. (That was a lot of money at the time. It’s still hardly pocket change.) She spends the day on the road, suffering from paranoid delusions about every individual she encounters, wondering when her indiscretion is going to catch up with her. It’s only after she takes shelter at the Bates Motel that she befriends the charming but shy proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), who unintentionally convinces her to go home and fix the problem she’s caused. Then Norman’s mother brutally stabs her to death in the shower, and the actual movie begins.
Among the then-shocking aspects of Psycho (besides the toilet): The protagonist is killed at the end of the first act, which is still pretty daring today but outright unthinkable back in 1960. A movie star is murdered in the nude, and although there isn’t actually that much violence (or nudity) in any given shot, the editing and sound design imply a level of explicitness that still chills today. Psycho deserves credit for even showing an actor in the shower. Then of course there’s the whole matricide, transvestitism and multiple personality thing, but there’s that twist ending for you so let’s not dwell. Suffice it to say dressing up as one’s mother wasn’t exactly a subject for polite conversation back in 1960… or in some circles right now.
There were more shocking films before Psycho and there have been more shocking films since, but Psycho deserves credit not just for blowing audience’s minds but also paving the way for such flagrant displays of depravity in the years to come. Psycho was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Hitchcock’s last nomination for Best Director. It legitimized the kind of “Holy Crap” cinema so many people value today, and remains one of the very best in the subgenre.
The Last House on the Left (dir. Wes Craven, 1972)
I was debating between both The Last House on the Left and the arguably-feminist horror classic I Spit On Your Grave, since both films share certain similarities (bleak visual style, victimization of women followed by cathartic revenge murder sprees), but the choice actually came down to one of my ex-girlfriends. She loved I Spit On Your Grave but couldn’t get fifteen minutes into The Last House on the Left before somehow morphing into George C. Scott in Hardcore: “Turn if off. TURN IT OFF!” So I turned it off. We broke up a few months later, but that may be unrelated. The point is that The Last House on the Left is apparently the more screwed up of the two films, at least from one highly opinionated woman’s perspective.
And it’s easy to understand why. The Last House on the Left remains powerful to this day, even though more horrific acts of violence have been captured on film. Violent horror movies were fair game at this point in film history, so Wes Craven decided to make his mark in two unusual ways: 1) He remade the Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring as a splatterhouse horror film (pretty bold, Wes), and 2) he made the ugliest film possible. It’s been said that the film evokes raw footage of violence from the Vietnam war, and whether this was a fully intentional artistic decision or not the interpretation seems fair. None of the acts of violence in this film seem fun or even sensationalized. They are unpleasant acts that even the killers don’t always seem to enjoy, even though they clearly aren’t going to stop any time soon.
The Last House on the Left is an almost plotless sequence of horrific scenes in which two teenage girls are kidnapped by murderers and then pursued, humiliated and ultimately killed in the woods not too far from their home. (All they wanted was to buy some pot.) Only the film’s audacious climax can be considered “satisfying,” as the parents of one of our hapless protagonists mete out inhuman vengeance upon the murderers who by sheer chance wind up taking shelter in their very home. But even that catharsis fails to end the film on a positive note, and the over-the-top nitwit sheriffs impotently searching the woods for the bad guys is the exact opposite of comic relief. The oppressive atmosphere is palpable, and it’s understandable that The Last House on the Left (a title which means nothing, by the way) would be best remembered for its tagline: “To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie… only a movie… only a movie… only a movie…”
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (dir. John McNaughton, 1986)
Like Psycho and The Last House on the Left, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer isn’t the most violent film on this list. (I’ll get to those, I promise.) But it’s still shocking, because what Henry lacks in explicit violence, sexuality or gore it more than makes up for in sheer nastiness. Like most monsters, serial killers tend to get glamorized when they’re turned into the protagonists. “Dexter” is a lovable maniac, for example, while Hannibal Lecter went from charismatic antagonist in The Silence of the Lambs to outright superhero in Hannibal Rising, a movie which borrowed so much from Batman Begins that it’s worthy of clinical study. Henry on the other hand, is merely a soulless monster. It’s his movie, but he’s not the hero. He barely qualifies as a protagonist.
Michael Rooker stars as the titular character, and gives not just the best performance of his career but also one of the best performances of the 1980’s. Henry is a passionless killer. He enjoys murder but he never lapses into giddy supervillainy. Imagine if Michael Myers was able to pass as normal and you’ve got the right idea. Henry’s staying with friends over the course of the film: Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Becky and Henry have a little chemistry, but they’re so damaged it never comes to be. The closest they come to bonding is when Henry tells her that he killed his mother because she used to beat and humiliate him, and that’s how he met Otis in jail. Becky responds to his shocking story – the details of which he can’t keep straight, just one of many red flags – by confessing that her father molested her as a child. Henry responds to her own shocking tale with one of the most callous lines in film history: “So you and your Dad didn’t get along then?” Smooth…
Henry and Otis are in the process of sleeping with prostitutes when things get out of hand and Henry kills both women, and the plot really kicks in when Otis confesses that he has no problem with it. And so an unholy union is born, and Henry and Otis embark on a master/apprentice killing spree with no rhyme, no reason, and little passion. One of the most horrifying moments in film history is a home invasion scenario that Henry and Otis film on a stolen video camera, shot in the starkest style possible, which they later watch together in complete silence. That’s pretty much the only way to watch Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. It’s a brilliant film, but it’s not meant to illicit any kind of joy or even disgust. It challenges you to accept the reality of this situation. Most people can’t. It’s one of the scariest movies ever made.
Samurai Princess (dir. Kengo Kaji, 2009)
I was pretty drunk when I saw this one so bear with me. Samurai Princess is the story of a young girl who was raped and murdered along with a whole bunch of her friends, who was then reassembled from pieces of all of her friends’ bodies – and their souls – by a mad scientist roaming the woods with his groupies. She’s given chainsaw attachments and hand grenade breasts and sets about the task of vengeance. She teams up with a guitar-playing cyborg and they fend off hoards of rapists, monsters and monster hunters, ripping off limbs and yanking out brains and occasionally having sex. It’s over the top and ridiculously ultraviolent. It’s also entertaining. If you’re drunk.
Samurai Princess, a title which really does sound too benign for the veracity of the film’s tastelessness, comes from a long line of “Kitchen Sink” movies from across the other pond. Versus, Battlefield Baseball and many other films of this ilk are a veritable cacophony of outlandish experiences tied together with only the thinnest veneer of plot. These types of movies may appear more cohesive overseas, where this sort of thing is pretty much a genre unto itself, but in the Western world movies like Samurai Princess, which flit from genre to genre and gross-out to gross-out more often than you can blink, are sometimes difficult to grasp. At their best, they’re challenging films that force the audience to keep up. The inanity of the Samurai Princess‘s plot is appropriately balanced by the mental gymnastics necessary just to follow what the hell is happening. I still don’t know what eating brains has to do with Buddhism, for example, and I really, really tried to figure out it. That’s something that brainless (ahem) entertainment in America like Transformers 2 just can’t boast: narrative ambition.
But by the time the Samurai Princess is beating up some kind of weird naked Mayor of Halloweentown you probably won’t care, if indeed you ever did. This has to be one of the most outlandish films I’ve ever seen, and unlike many of the other films on this list is more interested in entertainment than actual revulsion. It’s crazy, disgusting and inherently watchable. Take that, Transformers 2.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (dir. Tom Six, 2009)
As I’ve written before, The Human Centipede is one of the most powerful movies of the year. Not because it’s particularly good, although it’s a damn sight better than anyone could have imagined (which is a nice way of saying that it’s pretty mediocre), but because it boasts a rarity in filmmaking of any kind: an original idea. The Human Centipede is about a mad scientist (one of those again) who plans to connect three separate individuals into a conjoined triplet, joined through the digestive tracts. He calls the result a “human centipede,” because they are connected from mouth to hindquarter and thus are forced to move in tandem horizontally along the floor.
It’s a pretty disgusting idea, damn it.
Actually, it’s a really disgusting idea. So disgusting, in fact, that many people refuse to watch the thing just based on how unpleasant this concept sounds. I myself had no interest, although it had nothing to do with how gross it was. The Human Centipede, I surmised, wasn’t so much a movie as a geek show. You don’t go to a geek show for enlightenment; you go to a geek show to see if someone’s actually going to bite the head off of a chicken. Likewise, you don’t watch The Human Centipede for the subtext (director Tom Six even states in his commentary track that the film is essentially about, and I’m paraphrasing here, “poo”). You watch The Human Centipede to see if somebody actually made this movie. And clearly they did. There’s a trailer and everything. I knew people who’d seen it. My curiosity had been sated and I slept peacefully knowing I’d done all I needed to do.
But like a good soldier I did eventually review The Human Centipede on Blu-Ray and found the film to be surprisingly mild. Oh, certainly it’s still grotesque, but the fact remains that whatever horrifying images run through your head when you first hear the concept are infinitely more terrifying that what actually gets put on film. The highlight of the movie isn’t even the human centipede: It’s the wonderfully-named actor Dieter Laser, who plays the movie’s villain with such passion and panache that, if he weren’t in a movie about a human centipede, it might have been an enormous career boost for him. It’s like watching an alternate reality version of Udo Kier. But of course it’s also like The Human Centipede. It’s a shocking and really rather icky film, but the best way to get over your fear of The Human Centipede is to watch it: Like most monsters, it’s really not so bad once you get to know it.