Friday, 1 November 2013

Intro to Horror: Sam's 10 Essential Extreme Horror Films

This isn't a Top 10, nor an attempt at a definitive overview of the more extreme end of the horror genre, rather it's a list, in chronological order, of some of the key films of this kind.  Some are great, others less so, but they're all interesting and well worth seeing.

I've listed the films in chronological order.

Eyes Without A Face
If Psycho was the first slasher film (and it essentially was) then Eyes Without A Face is its extreme, Grand Guignol cousin.  In terms of its gore Georges Franju's film is still impressively icky after more than fifty years, with face transplant scenes that make Face/Off feel like a walk in the park, but the film has more going for it than that, chiefly Edith Scob, whose face is truly striking, whether it's covered with a blank white mask or not.  

The atmosphere of the film is deliciously creepy, the characters unhinged and the imagery as beautiful as it is, at times, disturbing.  Even if you find no other value in it (and you should) this is the film that, at least to some degree, birthed all of the others on this list and it deserves to be seen for that reason.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre ['73]
The extremity of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is deceptive.  Tobe Hooper is clever and tricks us into believing that this film is as gore soaked as its title suggests (as all the subsequent sequels and remakes have actually been, to largely diminishing returns) by creating an atmosphere that simply drips with dread.  Blood is seldom spilled, but that's not to say that the film isn't visceral, indeed this is one of the few horror films that really seems to hurt.  When someone is smacked round the head with a mallet we reel from it, when a girl is hung on a meathook it's almost a reflex action to reach up and rub your back.

Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a hothouse of a movie, you can feel the unpleasant atmosphere of the shoot and taste the rank odour that apparently pervaded the set (which was strewn with rotting food and animal carcasses).  By the end of the film it feels as though you are in Marilyn Burns' place; locked in this hellhole with a family of people that want to kill and eat you, and it's this, rather than gore, that makes it such a uniquely testing experience.

Island Of Death
It's no surprise that Nico Mastorakis' film ended up on the video nasties list, given that it had required extensive cuts for an X certificate on its cinema release (when it was classified under two alternate titles; Devils of Mykonos and A Craving For Lust) and was then released completely uncut on video.  It was promptly banned, and given the parade of perversion that unfolds (goat fucking, incest and golden showers all feature even before you take the several graphic murders into account) that's hardly a surprise.

Island of Death isn't a great film, but it's interesting for its total dedication to being as completely extreme as possible at every turn.  An early scene has the leads (Bob Belling and Jane Ryall, who may not be the greatest actors in the world, but throw themselves at the film with gusto) having sex in a phone booth while taunting someone on the other end of the line.  That someone turns out to be THEIR mother.  The murder scenes are just as nasty, one victim is forced to give a gun a blowjob, another is drowned with paint.  Ultimately, Island of Death is perhaps most interesting when seen as a film playing a game of perversion Top Trumps with itself.

Fight For Your Life
If there is any screening I'd have liked to be a fly on the wall for it's not the famous show where the public ran from a silent image of a train projected by the Lumiere brothers but rather a showing, in the USA of 1977, with a mixed race audience, of Fight For Your Life.  I can only imagine the ways that different types of audiences would have reacted to this incendiary twist on Last House on the Left in which the (white) villain (played by a very young William Sanderson) menaces a black family through the threat of violence and intimidation by way of his virulent racism.  It would be fascinating to see how an audience might divide while watching the film, along colour lines and along political lines and how it might go down in different parts of the US.

I'd be surprised if Fight For Your Life ever gained a certificate from the BBFC, uncut or otherwise, because while the film itself is absolutely not racist I suspect the board would be wary that viewers of a certain political persuasion might see Sanderson's Jesse Lee Cain as the hero.  Any good home invasion film creates a tense atmosphere, but by pricking at something that has only become more taboo since the film was made, and doing so in such an extreme and upsetting way, Fight For Your Life marks itself out.  This is a different kind of horror, somewhat more real than most, the horror of prejudice.  It's a powerful, intelligent and underseen film.

I Spit On Your Grave ['78]
From its (alternate) title on down, this film is a challenge.  Perhaps the most reviled and, for me, the most misunderstood film on the video nasties list.  I Spit On Your Grave deals, at least for the first half of its running time, with the horror of the real.  Director Mier Zarchi was inspired to make the film when he helped a woman who had been raped find her way to the Police and was disgusted by the way that she was treated when she reported the crime, spinning this outrage off into the revenge fantasy that forms the second half of the film.

Zarchi's outrage finds expression in the brutally extended rape scenes of the first half.  Across almost half an hour of screen time we are asked to watch as Jennifer Hills (an exceptional Camille Keaton) is raped, then left, her attackers returning again and again until they leave her for dead.  The brutality and the running time of this sequence has always been a bone of contention, but I've never seen the virtue in attempting to soften it.  I Spit On Your Grave is a sickening film, showing rape as a vile and degrading act.  I struggle to see why that's offensive.  It also needs to be extreme, because Jennifer's vengeance is brutal (but, vitally, cathartic rather than titillating; a balance the 2010 remake botched badly).  This is a deeply upsetting film, hard to watch, and I understand why people want to avoid it, but I actually think it's a much better and more important film than it is often credited as being.

Cannibal Holocaust
The video nasties list has a lot of schlock on it (Mardi Gras Massacre anyone?) and that has, unfortunately, coloured the perception of the list as a whole.  This is a particular shame because in amongst the crap there are many gems and among them the odd honest to goodness masterpiece.  Cannibal Holocaust may be the very best film on the list.  There are so many ways in which this film continues to stand out, but perhaps chief among them is the fact that it still feels truly transgressive, like you're watching something that you shouldn't be seeing.  This is largely down to the fact that with this film Ruggero Deodato at once invented and mastered the found footage film.  

Cannibal Holocaust's manipulation of fact and fiction and of us as an audience is near peerless.  By allowing us glimpses of real violence, be it the infamous scenes in which animals are killed or the genuine footage of Khmer Rouge fighters executing their enemies in Cambodia, Deodato allows us to question whether the rest of the film might also be real.  The found footage illusion of the second half also does this brilliantly, making the footage seem technically flawed to maintain that sheen of reality.  Beyond this, Cannibal Holocaust is simply a brilliantly crafted horror film.  Deodato builds the shocks one on top of the other, aided by Riz Ortolani's outstanding score, up until an unimaginably nasty final scene, while also finding time for (despicable) character beats.

The title and the spectre of the animal cruelty still conspire to keep people away from this film, but I wish that weren't the case, because Cannibal Holocaust is more, much more, than its notoriety.

Don't Go In The House
So far I've written about some of the best films on the Video Nasties list.  This isn't one of those, but it's still notable and essential for anyone with an interest in extreme imagery in horror cinema.  At a basic level Don't Go in the House is a proto Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, with a focus on Donny whose fascination with fire has led him to build an asbestos lined room in which he burns women to death.  There is, it has to be said, a curious satisfaction in the fact that this killer likely died as a result of building his fire room.  The character stuff is good, if a little slow, but it's one scene that marks this film out and that placed it on both the video nasties and on this list.

We only see one murder in any real detail during the film and the sequence is jaw dropping in its cold brutality.  A naked woman is chained up in the room, then Donny enters, dressed in an asbestos suit and wielding a flame thrower.  In a full length shot he then begins to burn his victim.  Director Joseph Ellison lets the scene play out for an uncomfortably long time, letting us watch as Donny enjoys his work.  The end result is perhaps the worst thing, and achieved in an intriguing way.  In order to get the shrunken look of a burnt body a dancer was substituted for the actress, her thinner build giving the impression of shrinkage.  It may just be one scene, but there really is very little quite like it out there.

For all their nastiness many extreme horror movies are, at some level, fun.  This is not one of those movies.  Scrapbook, more even than one notably disturbing film we're yet to come to, is a grinding, almost painful, experience.  Like Henry it's about a serial killer who seems to be under no threat of getting caught.  In this case the killer, Leonard (played by screenwriter and production designer Tommy Biondo) keeps a scrapbook of all his victims and it is suggested that when he fills it, ending with the death of his latest victim Clara (Emily Haack), he will stop.  Background is minimal and the film dwells almost completely in Leonard's house as he tortures and rapes Clara, until she eventually finds a way to turn the tables on him.

Scrapbook is one of the ugliest films ever made, but I mean that in a good way.  Its torture and rape scenes are so graphic that the film required over fifteen minutes of cuts before the BBFC would grant it an 18 certificate, but for me this is no exploitation film, rather it feels like a serious attempt to depict the depths of sickness to which a person can descend, something that Eric Stanze's camera and Tommy Biondo's remarkably loathsome performance absolutely refuse to flinch from.  For me this up there with the likes of Salo in terms of challenging viewing, but it's valuable and interesting for presenting a truly uncompromising look at the monster that might live next door.

Haute Tension [Switchblade Romance]
Of the recent wave of horror films known collectively as the new French extremity, Haute Tension (also known as High Tension or, notably inaccurately, Switchblade Romance) was one of the first and has  proven to be one of the most divisive.  I love it.  First of all I have seen incontrovertible evidence that it works brilliantly as a horror film, as a flat out terror machine.  When I saw it at the cinema I could hear whimpering behind me throughout the film, as I got up to leave I saw, still whimpering, a girl balled up in her seat, hugging her knees to her face.  That, I thought, is a horror movie that worked.

Fans tend to agree that the film works brilliantly up to a point; that Phillipe Nahon's stalking near mute killer is properly scary; that Gianetto DiRossi's make up effects are brilliant and that the dynamic between leads Cecile DeFrance and Maiwenn LeBeso is strong.  The twist is the thing that divides them.  I love the twist, it makes you go back and re-examine the film and see every scene from a different angle.  All that really happens in the last third of the film is a perspective shift.  There are many reasons that might occur, but the film isn't saying which is true.  Whether or not you buy into the twist though, Haute Tension delivers what it says on the tin, along with enough blood to quench any gorehound.

Whenever I watch Martyrs I'm freshly struck by its power on several levels.  The first and most obvious of these is the visceral level.  For the most part Martyrs has been discussed as an entry in the torture porn subgenre, but this ignores the many different styles of horror that director Pascal Laugier masters during the film.  In the opening few minutes there is something of a ghost story vibe to the film, with an apparition of a heavily scarred girl appearing to Lucie, one of the main characters.  After this, Laugier significantly ups the ante, going full bore for gore with some of the most brutal killings in any mainstream horror film.  Even when, in the second half of the film, the focus does turn to a torture sequence, Martyrs uses those images and the context of the images that have gone before to really say something through its brutality.

I could go on and on about the genius of Martyrs, about how it brings meaning to the torture porn subgenre, and in so doing lifts itself out of that subgenre.  I could talk about how at its heart there is a beautifully played and tragic relationship movie, powered by brilliant performances from Morjana Alaoui and Mylene Jampanoi.  I could talk about how it subverts, then redefines, the audience's typical relationship to the 'final girl'.  I could talk about how, through its open ending, it invites readings that tell you as much about the viewer as they do the film.  I don't want to spoil the film by going into detail, so instead I'll just say that for me it's the best horror film of at least the last 20 years and that if you haven't yet seen it you absolutely must.

In case that's not enough to sate you, here are a few honourable mentions that don't quite fit within the horror genre: The Piano Teacher / In a Glass Cage / Closet Land / Perfect Blue

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