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The Most Disturbing Films: Part 2

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 second 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.

Horror tends to work in cycles with certain genres or types of horror coming in and out of style. Body horror made a comeback around the turn of the century and the period of time between about 2000 and 2010 saw the release of a bunch of movies that rivaled at least half of the titles on Stanley Wiater’s “Disturbo 13” list.

New French Extremity

Quite a number of these movies came out of France. This wave of films was dubbed the New French Extremity movement and it set the tone for what would follow. One of the major figures in New French Extremity was Gaspar Noé. His second directorial feature was 2002’s Irreversible, a rape revenge tale told in reverse. The film has remarkable use of sound and camera movement but what’s most frequently discussed is the sexual assault scene which goes on for nine minutes in a single sustained shot.

Another notable New French Extremity title included Frontier(s). Very influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Frontier(s) was about a group of leftwing political activists who run afoul of backwoods neo-Nazis. Another slasher inspired French horror was High Tension in which a woman is stalked by a madman. High Tension was the breakout movie for filmmaker Alexandre Aja and it’s a violent and relentlessly paced chase film spoiled by an unfortunate ending. Inside is a home invasion movie about an expectant mother who is attacked by a deranged woman who wants the unborn child for her own and is prepared to perform a Caesarean section with a pair of scissors.

One of the most well regarded of the New French Extremity films is 2008’s Martyrs. It’s one of those films that’s best experienced with a minimum of foreknowledge so I won’t spoil anything except to say that Martyrs is a winding road of a film starting in one place and ending somewhere quite different. The gore and violence are horrifying and explicit but the film is so disturbing because of the way it combines images of torture with implications about faith and what people will do in the name of belief. An inferior American remake of Martyrs was released in 2016.

Torture Porn

The French weren’t the only ones producing extreme body horror films. Takashi Miike released Audition in which a film producer holds fake tryouts for a movie role but is really screening women to be his new girlfriend and ends up connecting with a violently unstable woman. Lars von Trier, no stranger to controversy, released 2009’s Antichrist starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple grieving the death of their child and who turn on each other while retreating in a secluded cabin. Von Trier later directed 2018’s The House That Jack Built which is an extremely violent serial killer film starring Matt Dillon. Australian filmmaker Greg McLean wrote and directed 2005’s Wolf Creek, a movie about backpackers who are tortured and killed by a psychopath. Wolf Creek was followed by two sequels and a television show. And Dutch filmmaker Tom Six released The Human Centipede trilogy. The original film is about a mad surgeon who operates on three victims, sewing their bodies together to form a single gastric system. Each sequel added another layer of diegesis; the second film is about a Human Centipede superfan who tries to imitate the original movie and the third film finds a mad prison warden inspired by the first two Human Centipede films applying the concept to his inmates.

Not to be outdone, American filmmakers got in on the act and this genre of extreme horror was derisively referred to as “torture porn.” The trend of American torture films is generally traced to the original Saw in the fall of 2004. Saw was a huge hit and it inspired a long running series of sequels. However, the bloody horrors of Saw were presaged by the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ which recreated the crucifixion of Jesus in agonizing detail. Those films were followed by several extreme horror pictures including Eli Roth’s Hostel and its superior sequel in which American backpackers in Europe are abducted and held for wealthy thrill killers. A similar scenario played out in Turistas which starred Josh Duhamel and Olivia Wilde. The 2005 picture Chaos was an unofficial but very obvious remake of Last House on the Left and it was gorier but also dumber than the original film or the official 2009 remake. A couple of films dealt with misogyny in ways that were thoughtful and provocative including 2011’s The Woman, in which a middle-class father captures a feral woman and attempts to civilize her in ways that become increasingly abusive, and 2009’s Deadgirl in which teenagers discover a female zombie tied up in an abandoned building.

Millennium Madness

It’s worth considering why these extreme horror films came out around this particular time. The simplest answer is cyclicity. Certain subgenres become powerful for awhile be it psycho killers or zombies or vampires. There hadn’t been these kinds of violent and gory films in about twenty years and it was simply time.

There is also the 9/11 effect. The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 resulted in an astonishing loss of life and a blow to American’s sense of security. It’s probably not a coincidence that several of these post-9/11 torture films were about characters traveling outside the comforts of home and getting killed by the locals. These films may have also filled a void in the public’s post-9/11 psyche. We all understood that many people died in some horrible ways but the most horrific imagery of 9/11 was not circulated. The same is true of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans didn’t see combat footage the way they did during Vietnam or even World War II meanwhile soldiers came back in coffins or with missing limbs. The subconscious understanding that violence was happening just out of sight may have created a need to see a representation of it.

This surge of violent, gory, and disturbing films at the beginning of the century also coincided with a meanness in the culture at that time. Reality television is still with us but the programs of the 2000s had a cruelty to them seen in Fear Factor, Jackass, and the auditions of early seasons of American Idol. Comedy of this time was also meanspirited and crude. One of the most popular figures on television at this time was Tom Green whose MTV comedy show was predicated on outrageous skits and obnoxious and occasionally abusive behavior. And the most popular pornography of the 2000s was especially degrading, so much so that producer Max Hardcore was convicted of obscenity in 2008 even though his movies contained adults engaged in consensual activities.   

A Serbian Film

A Serbian Film was the apotheosis of the so-called torture porn trend of the 2000s. The filmmakers take that term literally and apply it in a way that picks up on trends in both mainstream and marginal media from that period and then exaggerates it, taking the concept to its logical conclusion. The film is about porn performer who is lured out of retirement by a charismatic filmmaker promising an artistic adult film production. As shooting gets underway circumstances take a violent turn. A Serbian Film plays as a companion piece to earlier examples of extreme cinema, namely Cannibal Holocaust and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Like those films, the violence is not an end it itself and the filmmakers critique entertainment but also the culture that produces it and what the former reveals about the latter. Art is about the search for truth and some expressions of body horror look for the ultimate reality of our biological existence. A Serbian Film is about the horror of being a tool of that search in a way that robs us of volition and turns us into an object.