Today’s episode kicked off a month of Halloween related programming on Sounds of Cinema with a look at extreme and disturbing cinema. This is the first of two posts of commentary from the show. Read the other post here.
There are different types of horror. I prefer to categorize them based on the emotional and physiological response that the movies elicit or attempt to elicit from the viewer. The horror of fear incites anxiety. This describes a lot of mainstream horror and many classic titles like Psycho, Halloween, and Jaws. The horror of disgust intends to make us sick. It might not be scary necessarily but it will pile on gore to turn our stomach. Last is the horror of despair. These films might be scary and they might be gross but they mainly leave us with an impression of hopelessness or envision a universe that is chaotic and amoral. A lot of the most disturbing films belong in this third category.
Any discussion about extreme cinema must acknowledge the essay “Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made” by Stanley Wiater. Published in 1992, Wiater attempted to identify titles that he felt went beyond being frightening or entertaining and made the viewer regret having watched them. Wiater’s list included:
- Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom
- Man Behind the Sun
- I Spit on Your Grave
- Bloodsucking Freaks
- Last House on the Left
- Cannibal Holocaust
- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
- In a Glass Cage
- Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS
- Combat Shock
The first half of today’s show featured commentary on the titles in Wiater’s essay. Rather than going through sequentially, I’ll group the films together based on their subject matter but we’ll start with some the films that elude easy classification.
1976’s Bloodsucking Freaks is set in an independent theater where the illusionist Sardu and his assistant (Seamus O’Brien and Luis De Jesus) put on a Grand Guignol-style torture show in which audiences are amazed by the murder and dismemberment of young female victims. For viewers of Bloodsucking Freaks, everything on screen is dramatized but the joke of the movie—if you will—is that the in-film theater audience believes that these spectacles are illusions when they are in fact real. Sardu keeps a prison of abducted young women who are treated like animals and eventually slaughtered on stage. The style of the photography and the look of the effects is stomach turning. But what’s especially disturbing about Bloodsucking Freaks is its mean spirit. As Stanley Wiater notes in his essay, the conceit of Bloodsucking Freaks is reminiscent of the movies of Herschell Gordon Lewis such as Blood Feast and The Wizard of Gore and Bloodsucking Freaks is clearly intended to be a very black comedy. It’s just not funny. That mistaken humor adds to the disturbing quality of the film. Watching Bloodsucking Freaks is like being in the presence of someone who genuinely hates women. Not all depictions of misogyny make a movie itself misogynistic but there’s so little else in Bloodsucking Freaks that the violence against women comes across as an end in itself. If the movie had any thought put into it the picture could work as a satire of theater and violent entertainment but the only brains in Bloodsucking Freaks are the ones on screen.
Another of the unclassifiable titles on Wiater’s “Disturbo 13” list is David Lynch’s Eraserhead. This film could not be further from Bloodsucking Freaks in terms of artistry and integrity and of all the films on Wiater’s films list, Eraserhead disturbing status is most debatable. Eraserhead was Lynch’s first directorial feature film and it remains one of his signature movies. Describing Eraserhead is not easy. The film is surreal and possesses a dreamlike logic. Eraserhead depicts a man living in an industrial environment and he eventually becomes a father but his offspring is a mutant creature. Eraserhead may be described as disturbing because of its specific filmmaking choices and fantastic visuals. The use of sound is especially unsettling. The film is intended to be watched loud it has an audible texture that complements the grimy visuals. Eraserhead is less a story than it is a visceral experience. Like a lot of Lynch’s films Eraserhead’s ultimate meaning is open to interpretation but the visuals hint at fears of parenthood and the sometimes dehumanizing experience of life in an industrialized world. The film’s inscrutability combined with its grotesque filmmaking craft make Eraserhead memorable and impactful and, at least for some viewers, disturbing.
Jörg Buttgereit is a German filmmaker who is still active but he’s best known for a series of grotesque films produced in the 1980s and 90s, the most infamous of these being 1988’s Nekromantik which places at number ten on Stanley Wiater’s most disturbing films list. The movie is about a couple living in squalor in West Germany who attempt to spice up their love life by bringing a corpse into the bedroom. Things go sideways when the woman prefers the dead guy. Nekromantik is an extremely low budget picture shot on 8mm film with crude special effects. The rawness of the film’s production adds to its impact. The premise suggests black comedy and the very last scene of Nekromanik plays as a punchline. But there is also a seriousness to the film as it explores the dark side of desire and the finite nature of love between mortal beings. Buttgereit followed Nekromanik with a sequel that was a little more polished and had more grotesque production values. The Nekromantik films along with Buttgereit’s movies Schramm and Der Todesking (The Death King) fetishize death and decay. That romanticized nihilism combined with the film’s organic visuals makes for an experience that challenges viewers as much as it repulses us.
Rape Revenge Films
The 1970s produced a large genre of rape-revenge pictures, many of them upsetting and two of these titles made Stanley Wiater’s list of the most disturbing films: I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left. I Spit on Your Grave was originally released in 1978 under the title Day of the Woman and was later rereleased with its more provocative title. The movie is about a woman who travels from the city to a cabin in the woods and is sexually assaulted by a group of hillbillies. This assault occurs in waves and constitutes about a third of the movie. She then lures the men into traps and kills them. I Spit on Your Grave is a stark and brutal film and it was blasted by critics and feminist groups upon its original release. Wiater doesn’t have much nice to say about this movie in his essay. However, opinions on I Spit on Your Grave has turned in recent years. Several feminist writers have defended the movie, arguing that the survivor’s vigilantism reflects the failure of institutions to protect women. Whatever one might feel about the politics of I Spit on Your Grave, it is an unpleasant experience. A remake of I Spit on Your Grave was released in 2010 and was as brutal as the original. Sequels followed the remake and a direct sequel to the original picture was released in 2019.
Another rape-revenge film on Stanley Wiater’s list of the most disturbing films (and another that was remade in the 2000s) is the original Last House on the Left. The movie was loosely based on Igmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring and told the story of a group of criminals who kidnap, assault, and murder a pair of young women. The gang inadvertently takes shelter at the home of one of the girls and when the parents discover what’s happened they take revenge. Last House on the Left is primarily remembered because it was written and directed by Wes Craven, who went on to helm A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, and produced by Sean S. Cunningham who directed the original Friday the 13th. As Wiater argues in his essay, Last House on the Left is probably remembered because of the subsequent careers of the people who made it. By Craven and Cunningham’s own admission, they didn’t really know what they were doing and Last House on the Left is a clumsy movie. The sequence of the women being tortured is brutal but the film also contains ill advised attempts at comedy and a folk music soundtrack by David Alexander Hess. That mix of tones is nauseating. But the awkward filmmaking belies an intelligence present in this film that would be evident in Craven’s subsequent movies.
Another subset of films in Stanley Wiater’s list of disturbing movies are character studies of deranged killers including Combat Shock, Maniac, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Combat Shock is a Taxi Driver-esque drama about a Vietnam veteran who is unemployed and unhappily married. The grind of living in squalor eventually leads the veteran to a breaking point that culminates in a murder spree. Combat Shock exists in a few versions. The director’s cut, alternately titled American Nightmares, runs ninety-seven minutes whereas the more widely available version distributed by Troma Entertainment is ninety-one minutes. In either version, Combat Shock is an unsettling movie in part because of its violence but also because of its nihilistic tone.
Maniac was a 1980 serial killer movie starring Joe Spinell. The film was released during the boom in slasher movies but it had less to do with Friday the 13th and more in common with Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. (Admittedly, that comparison is a reach.) Spinell’s character is a man who had an abusive relationship with his now deceased mother and spends his nights killing women. The movie is best known for its visual effects by Tom Savini and Maniac features some of Savini’s best work. As bloody as the movie is, Maniac is also disconcerting for the way violence occurs alongside the loneliness of Spinell’s character. New York City is photographed as an isolating and baren landscape where love and connection are impossible. Maniac was controversial at the time with some film critics railing against it and feminist groups protesting outside theaters showing it. A remake of Maniac starring Elijah Wood was released in 2012 and it was as bloody and disturbing as the original.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was originally shown in film festivals in 1985 but it didn’t get released until 1990. The movie was loosely based on the confessions of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas and was a dispassionate portrait of a psychopath. The filmmaking of Henry is quite good and Michael Rooker is chilling in the lead role as is Tom Towles as his partner Otis. Henry is disturbing because of its lack of a moral framework. Most movies about criminals include law enforcement in some capacity but they are basically absent in Henry. There’s no redemption or moral force in the world of this film which caused it problems with the MPA’s ratings broad. There is little in Henry that is gory or at least not gorier than other horror pictures produced at that time but the film’s rawness makes it disturbing.
One of the most consistently citied titles on lists of the most disturbing film is Cannibal Holocaust. The movie is one among many cannibal films that were produced in the 1970s and 80s, many of them about white western characters who travel into the jungle and meet native cannibals. These films were extremely violent, often including sexual assault and sequences of real-life animal slaughter. Cannibal Holocaust has these features as well and it goes a bit further than any of the other movies in that subgenre both viscerally and intellectually. The movie has a frame narrative with an anthropologist seeking the whereabouts of a film crew that disappeared in the Amazon jungle while shooting a documentary about cannibalistic tribes. Upon finding their remains he returns to New York City and screens the footage only to discover that the documentarians themselves were as violent as the native people they sought to film. This inner frame has a remarkable cinema verite quality and Cannibal Holocaust is one of the most effective uses of the found footage gimmick. It’s also an intelligent picture. Cannibal Holocaust is an angry political film that has broad implications for anthropology, media, and even the nature of civilization. This film is upsetting in part for its excesses but also because of Cannibal Holocaust’s audacity to break out of the expectations of an exploitation film and say something provocative about the world.
The 1970s and 80s were a period in which filmmakers started to wrestle with the legacy World War II and in particular the atrocities committed by fascists. These attempts came with mixed and frequently disturbing results which are reflected in several of the films on Stanley Wiater’s list of the most disturbing films. The most disreputable of these is 1975’s Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. An exploitation film in every sense of the word, Ilsa is a softcore sex movie set in a Nazi concentration camp. The movie is about as classy as that sounds. Ilsa the warden was played by Dyanne Thorne who reprised the role in a series of sequels. This film is notable for being the most notorious title in the disreputable subgenre of Nazisploitation but that’s about it.
More reputable but also more grotesque is 1988’s Man Behind the Sun. This was the first in a series of films about the war crimes and medical experiments carried out by the Japanese at Unit 731. The movie is unrelentingly grim and has some apparently medically accurate recreations of the experiments. Unlike a lot of the other titles on Wiater’s most disturbing films list, Man Behind the Sun shows evidence of being a rather well budgeted production with the money invested in the sets and physical effects. The film is executed with a documentary-like style which gives it a horrific reality.
Stylistically opposite of Man Behind the Sun is 1986’s In a Glass Cage. This is an art film about a Nazi war criminal who is confined to an iron lung. A young man who was victimized by the now incapacitated Nazi takes on nursing duties and torments the man and his family, gradually turning their home into something resembling a concentration camp. In a Glass Cage is artfully produced and it doesn’t have nearly the level of violence and gore seen in some of the other titles on Wiater’s most disturbing films list. What makes In a Glass Cage so disturbing is the atmosphere of perversion. The former Nazi is rendered a victim and the former victim becomes an abuser and the film dramatizes the cycle of abuse.
This brings us to the film that tops Stanley Wiater’s list of the most disturbing films ever made: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Adapting Marquis de Sade’s unfinished novel, Filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini used Sade’s concept and applied it to fascist Italy. Four government officials abduct a group of young people and subject them to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Pasolini’s Salò is a political film and the tortures and indignities are staged through that lens. The filmmakers create their own mini fascist state within the confines of the mansion where most of the movie plays out. What’s dramatized is the total domination of the individual by the elite.Like many of the most disturbing films, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is not pleasurable to watch. That’s a deliberate choice, not a filmmaking flaw, and the violence is extreme but it exists within a purposeful context and is therefore not gratuitous. Nevertheless, the extreme imagery and oppressive atmosphere make Salò an endurance test of a movie.
Listen to this Sounds of Cinema interview with Stanley Wiater in which he discusses the legacy of his “Disturbo 13” essay and what makes a film disturbing.