Monday, February 14, 2011

The Most Disturbing Films Ever Made- Part Six

At Left- One of the most unexpected, Surrealist and bizarre moments in any film I have ever seen. Trouble comes to town in the form of the lesbian seductress Alexandra Bastedo, uncovered nude on the beach by sexually violent and sadistic husband Simon Andreu. Things get, ahem- quite interesting from here.

A Woman Under The Influence United States, 1974 Dir: John Cassavetes
One of the landmark American films of an entire decade unique and rife with quality filmmaking and stories- a rare idyll of genius for the usually suspect and shallow American film industry- A Woman Under The Influence probably holds the title for the best mainstream movie you've never seen. Peter Falk may be remembered mainly for his work as slyly-obtuse detective Columbo on television, but he's ever bit the fine actor, and his work here as Nick allows him to really go deep and dark with a character portrayal. It is, of course, Gena Rowlands as Mabel who really owns the film, though; with Cassavetes so averse to intruding upon an actor really going to work, she has every chance to show the horror of madness in all of its enervation and torpor. Madness has always been shown as pure mania, shrieking hysterics; what makes Woman so disturbing is that the truth of a person going insane is that they simply stop being who they are. Its a highly Existential film exploring the solipsistic hell of Mabel without blinking, and certainly without cheap sentiment. I highly recommend this movie, especially because it is so comparatively unknown.

Save The Tiger United States, 1973 Dir: John G. Avildsen
One of the great performances in American movie history, Jack Lemmon's Harry Stoner is every disillusioned thought of American Exceptionalism and the toll it takes on normal men's lives compressed into 48 hours of bleak and sometimes comical failure. The two days of Harry's life that comprise this exceptionally mordant film are like any two days that have destroyed the lives of thousands of men in this country; all the more important because it is just this type of banal tragedy and low-level catastrophe that Hollywood usually won't touch, far preferring grander themes of greater men failing more flamboyantly. Harry's struggles are far more prosaic; he drinks too much, dallies with strippers and prostitutes, and his business is failing. Desperate for a way out, Harry arranges to have his clothing company's warehouse burned to the ground for the insurance. That's it. But what seems like a terribly straightforward plot leaves so much room for nuance that actors Lemmon and Jack Gilford (equally great, as Harry's business partner) can really work out just what all of this means- what it means to completely fuck up everything in your life, and have no other hope than destroying it all and counting on fraud. A genius commentary on American desperation and failure.

Mondo Cane Italy, 1962 Dirs: Cavara & Jacopetti
The original mondo (the title means "It's A Dog's World") and still the best. Not encumbered with so much of the staged footage that plagued the fifty or so knock-offs and pseudo-sequels to this very first "Shockumentary", Mondo Cane is amazingly real and takes the viewer to places, superstitions and rites that- even 50 years later- still seem pretty goddamn amazingly bizarre. The opening title sequence is still a classic of mood setting, and what is often overlooked is that- for all of their lurid and voyeuristic inclinations- Cavara & Jacopetti are amazingly talented filmmakers. A real treat for anyone looking for something authentically different.

Profondo Rosso Italy, 1975 Dir: Dario Argento
Move clever than Tenebre, more violent than Suspiria, this is the high-water mark for Giallo in terms of visual style, ingenuity of composition, and blood-curdling sadism and evisceration that make current "Horror" films look like sad, sick jokes by comparison. "Serious actor" David Hemmings provides unexpected heft to the oft-maligned Giallo genre, playing a musician who is caught in an intrigue of murder without apparent motive and seemingly as confused as the viewer as to what the hell is going on. Add to this the greatest soundtrack work of Goblin's career- the music adds so much to the overall theme of psychological dissolution and human removal on the part of the killer- and you've got a truly engaging Thriller that lays serious claim to title as Best Giallo Ever Made.

The New York Ripper Italy, 1982 Dir: Lucio Fulci
I've seen it all; clearly, if you've read the entirety of this List, you are by now well aware that this reviewer shies away from literally nothing when it comes to controversial cinema. But good lord almighty...Ripper is an intensely violent and brutal film, grimly nihilistic, beyond any question completely misogynistic. This is, by far, the most deplorable Slasher film ever made; the murders are sick, sadistic, graphic and pulsating with sexual fury. You are totally on your own with this one, and I'm not kidding; the fact that the killer seems to almost be played for laughs in this ultra-violent Fulci opus pushes it well into the realm of Disturbing.

The Blood Spattered Bride Spain, 1972 Dir: Vicente Aranda
While the Spanish Horror/Giallo industry was always very much in the shadow of the Titans in Italy, there were moments when the Spaniards matched the intelligence, style, luridness and sexual license of the completely uninhibited Italians. Such is the case with Blood Spattered, one of the weirdest films I've ever seen and a completely original and enjoyable take on the Carmilla tale. Starring a splendidly lovely Maribel Martin and including a remarkable performance by the unearthly adolescent beauty of Maria-Rosa Rodriguez (and you just wait 'till you see what she is all about, buddy), this is a unique and upsetting film of sexual violence, grim abuse, male cuckoldry and cruelty and...scintillating lesbianism. Featuring one of the most truly remarkable Surrealistic scenes in Giallo-inspired cinema- one that literally comes out of nowhere like in a dream- the supernatural element to this film is so deftly handled that you almost can believe what your seeing could be real. And the final scenes, the pay-off as it were...I was just completely stunned by how all this ended up, and I promise that you will be too.

Daughters Of Darkness Belgium, 1971 Dir: Harry Kumel
One of the great psychological Horror films of all time. Lush, sensual, unbearably erotic- so much of what Jean Rollin wanted to do with his soft-core Vampire films was done so splendidly better in this incredibly gorgeous film. Only for the adults, and sure to raise the temperature between you and your lady friend, Daughters is all about seduction- an older woman for a younger man, a husband for his wife, the same older woman for her young and beautiful consort- and that same young woman for, seemingly, everyone else in the film. Set at a resort somewhere along the sea, every moment of this film seems ghostly, ethereal- for pure dream-like intensity, the only film I've ever seen that can compare to Daughters is Dreyer's masterwork Vampyr. What is remarkable are how good the performances are; Delphine Seyrig- well into her 50's, still beautiful and as seductive a demon as has ever been filmed- dominates every scene she is in, her allure on the young husband almost unbearably real. Andrea Rau- the consort of Seyrig's delightfully named Countess Bathory- is gorgeous, naked, doomed. A stunning treat that I was completely unprepared for when I first watched it, the horror of obsession and lust dominates this film and makes it a far-above-average intellectual treat; and of course, all of the naked women don't hurt.

Nosferatu West Germany, 1979 Dir: Werner Herzog
Horror as supreme High Art. Herzog's remake of the classic German Expressionist ur-Vampire tale is like a wondrously grotesque fairy-tale; the little town in Germany where Jonthan Harker lives and works in a kind of Kafkan stifling world for his punctilious boss Renfield, the manic and enthralling flight he takes to Castle Dracula upon horseback, the phallic, thanatoid countenance of Klaus Kinski's pestilential Count, the final dread horror that ends this film on a real twist unlike any in Vampire cinema- if this isn't the best film of all time, then it is surely one of the most poetic, and perfect, productions you will ever see. An absolute classic, and a total masterpiece.

Aguirre: The Wrath Of God West Germany, 1974 Dir: Werner Herzog
Klaus Kinski is the greatest actor in Cinema history. I am usually not one given to prises de position absolue, but there is no one who is so consistently perfect- even in sometimes seriously flawed productions- as the intense and utterly committed Kinski, who exudes a palpable menace very much like The Devil himself. He has been great, but never has he been greater than this amazing journey to the very heart of darkness. Herzog's story of the conquistador Pizarro and his fabled search for El Dorado is so much more than what so many critics have sought to make it, in some banal and overly-politicized effort to explore their own dogmatic and childish pseudo-Marxian agendas. A film so honest could never be shoe-horned into such kitsch-laden trappings; not merely a jeremiad on the evils of Colonialism, not some platitude-laden excursion into symbolist politics and grievance-art, Aguirre is nothing less than a meditation- gangrenous and absurd- into the very pointlessness of all human vanity, and, in the end, man himself. The final shots of the monkey-polluted raft is the greatest visual evocation of Camus' c'est le absurd refutation of the all-encompassing Hegelian dialectic and Heidegger's pompous Dasein theorizing ever filmed; Aguirre is, in this complete ruthless moment of crystalline hatchet slaying of myth and man, one of the truly great Philosophical films ever made.

Spider Baby United States, 1968 Dir: Jack Hill
Every so often a film comes out of nowhere and- while you haven't had a life-changing artistic experience- you walk away in love with movies again out of pure appreciation and enjoyment for the weirdness only film can express. Such is the case with this intensely bizarre story of a deeply inbred family living in a mansion far out in the California countryside, the "children" of the family's line possessed of a debilitating disease which causes them to mentally regress as their age increases. Lon Chaney Jr.'s last great role- and how shockingly dessicated and worn he looks, the ravages of alcohol showing themselves in their last stages- is the family chauffeur, who looks after the "children" and repairs the damage that they sometimes inflict on, say, unlucky postal delivery agents. At times truly creepy, this blacker-than-black comedy succeeds as Disturbing due largely to Jill Banner's depraved-Lolita turn as Virginia, a child-like seductress who is unbelievably good at depicting the sexual lust of a girl in a woman's body, yet still knowing what effect her charms would have on a tortured and desperate man, trying so hard to pretend that he couldn't be prey to the woman-child's affections. A lot of fun, and featuring an honest-to-god bang of an ending- Spider Baby is unique, and a total treat.

The Red Riding Trilogy I: In The Year Of Our Lord 1974 United Kingdom, 2009 Dir: Julian Jarrold
A pitch-perfect and brutal noir as nasty and nihilistic as anything penned by Jim Thompson or David Goodis, Red Riding I is the best of a trio of films produced by the BBC using the "Yorkshire Ripper" saga of Peter Sutcliffe as backdrop for a very blunt examination of press and police corruption in the mad, sideburn-adorned days of the early 70's. Andrew Garfield is so good in his turn as a young journalist sticking his nose in the power centers of England (with utterly disastrous personal results) that I honestly hope he has a long and productive career; I mean, this guy has got it. Completely redefining what television movies can accomplish in a way equal to another landmark BBC production- The Singing Detective, simply the best thing ever broadcast on TV anywhere, ever- Red Riding I is perfectly paced, unflinching in its inhumanity, loaded with violence and some rather explicit sex, and, all told, nails the noir formula like no film since Peckinpah's masterful The Getaway forty years ago. Magnificent, and offering real hope that real story telling is not yet dead in film- even if it happens to be on the tele.

Andrei Rublev Soviet Union, 1966 Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky
The greatest film ever made. An astonishing visual feast loaded with symbolism, misery, loneliness, despair, marauding Tatars and duplicitous Russian princes, and- in an ending that does the impossible, capturing visually every nuance of a great Russian novel of searching psychological probing- taking the viewer to the limits of human endurance with the Casting Of The Bell. I would dream of ruining it and telling you whether the bell will finally ring or not; but I can assure you, you will be feeling every inch of the agony the bell casting boy feels as his overwhelming project comes to final, perhaps fatal, fruition. What follows that- the glorious use of color by Tarkovsky to show you the actual glory of Rublev's ikons- reduced me to tears the first time I saw it, and has done so several times since. One of the great works of Art in Western history.

Pound United States, 1970 Dir: Robert Downey Sr.
Like nothing I've ever seen, Pound is the story of eighteen dogs in a Los Angeles walk-up waiting and hoping against hope that someone will come and take them home. The "dogs"- introduced as actual four-legged beasts and then their parts taken over by human actors- are in a hopeless fix and they know it, and much chagrined talk is exchanged about how the "people" will choose to execute their lost and worthless strays. Along the way, they fornicate, dream of escape, feud, snipe, philosophize and...wait. An Existential comedy in the best spirit of Beckett, the ending of Pound is as inevitable as it is shocking; and truly, truly Disturbing.

No Blade Of Grass United Kingdom, 1970 Dir: Cornel Wilde
One of the grimmest, bleakest and most unrelentingly Disturbing of the early 70's Eco-disaster films, No Blade Of Grass posits a near future where a world-wide grass fungus is destroying all vegetation, leading to drastic actions such as China nuking 100 million of her citizens in hopes of staving off complete catastrophe. Nigel Davenport is off the bloody charts as a man desperately trying to leave London in the midst of total chaos, and thence to the North where there is hoped-for sanctuary and- it is hoped- food. A brutal and horrifying rape by a marauding biker gang leads to Davenport's wife showing what bestial nature lurks in all mankind- and of course, you're cheering for her to kill the bastard who raped her daughter the whole time. The ending to this one is in perfect syncopation to all the grimness that preceded it; a daunting experience, Blade is truly unsettling, and Wilde directs all of this madness straight-faced, as if he really wants you to believe this could happen. That's what makes it, man.

Secret Honor United States, 1984 Dir: Robert Altman
Richard Nixon, alone, in his office late at night with a bottle of Chivas, a tape recorder, and a gun. Such is the setting for Secret Honor, an absolutely devastating look at Nixon as he ponders the wreckage of his politcal career, and all the while with a portrait of his partner in crime- Henry Kissinger- looming over his shoulder. Deeply paranoid, Nixon- played to absolute perfection by Phillip Baker Hall- works through the night and grows drunker and more pathetic, finally leading to the most disturbing moment of the film- the fact that, incredibly, the viewer has been lead to have sympathy, even for Nixon, even for this rancid monster he truly is on screen. Shot like a tele-play with virtually no intrusion of te usually pretentiously artistic Altman, the whole of this production is Baker Hall's career-defining work as a famous man dying an infamous, drunken death. An incredible, slow, deliberate and deeply intelligent film, you'll never think of Richard Milhaus Nixon the same way again.

Hotel Terminus France, 1988 Dir: Marcel Ophuls
The greatest biography ever filmed, Ophuls portrait of "The Butcher Of Lyon" Klaus Barbie is simply one of the most draining experiences of cinema I have ever had. Barbie's wickedness knows no bounds, and has few parallels in human experience. While his torture sessions at the titular Hotel Terminus in Lyon have appropriately been added to the very lowest rank of the panoply of human infamy, where the film takes a turn to the truly unsettling is after the war, when Barbie along with so many other monsters found protection from the Church, the CIA, other agents of Western barbarism, what have you. A grueling film, profoundly well done and perfectly conceived and executed, Hotel Terminus is one of the rare movies that you simply will never be able to forget, no matter how hard you may try.

Freaks United States, 1931 Dir: Tod Browning
The mother of all "sick" movies. Browning's amazing portrait of carny side show life is a morality and fairy tale, as well as a brutal revenge fable told with almost no judgment of the havoc-wreaking mob of freaks. Incredible that such a film was made in 1931, more incredible still that Browning could have ever thought this film would be allowed to be released and seen as is. Superbly well directed, all of Browning's foibles that mar other famous works such as Dracula are simply not to be found here; still one of the most shocking movies ever made, and clearly the impetus to a thousand nightmares launched from David Cronenberg to Herschel Gordon Lewis.

The Vanishing The Netherlands, 1988 Dir: George Sluizer
Yet another brilliant Euro-film utterly ruined by the preposterous, cowardly and vile Hollywood remake of same, The Vanishing is taut, scary, at times remarkably funny and ends with a crushing scene so claustrophobic and unsettling that you're going to be breathing just a little bit deeper for hours after the credits role. Young handsome Rex and young pretty Saskia are in love and on holiday in the country; at a busy rest stop, Saskia is abducted, and several years later Rex begins receiving letters from Raymond, her ice-cold sociopathic abductor. Upon meeting, Rex asks "to experience what she did"...and so he does. Smart, stylish and clever- everything the putrid remake is not, of all films that have ever been butchered by focus-group filmmaking, The Vanishing is probably the most brutally and pointlessly violated. Very scary, and with one of the great last-shots of all time.

Dahmer United States, 2002 Dir: David Jacobson
Films about serial killers fall into one of two categories: Inept and Trash. Often- as in the case of the gutter garbage churned out to capitalize on the serial craze, and centering on such figures as John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy- the two categories overlap, leaving the viewer with something both unredeemably sleazy and worthless as art. Additionally, there is the "serious" serial killer film, like ones dealing with Aileen Wuornos (Monster) that are barely above a TV movie and turn into some kind of quasi-feminist lynch mob party, or are just totally overated (Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, the kind of "shock" movie that shocks people who don't know a damn thing about Italian 70's gore cinema). There are exceptions; Zodiac, with the performance of Robert Downey Jr.'s career, was genuinely unsettling, and had one hell of a script, even if it appears said script played somewhat "loose" with the truth of the case. And then there is Dahmer, a delightfully wicked little film that has something most of these movies could only dream of having: one hell of a talented cast. He's a big name now thanks to The Hurt Locker, but years ago Jeremy Renner was just another young actor who had the guts to take on a role that asked him to inhabit the psyche of about the most fucked-up character in recent US pop culture history: a man who fucked, ate and tried to zombify a small army of young men, storing their bodies in his freezer, and then working nights at a chocolate factory, daily drinking himself into a stupor as his life went completely haywire. How easy it would have been to make a movie on this character that was just pure filth (like, say, the "other" Dahmer film, the rococco dreadfulness that is The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer) and not investigate the character- or what possibly could have turned him into what he was. David Jacobson chose another path; and what you have with Dahmer is an amazingly intimate film that also boasts Artel Great, a heart-breakingly gay drifter who seems to genuinely be in love with Jeffrey- and almost ends up with his guts in a box as consequence. The scenes between these two men are terrific, and incredibly intimate; and I'm pretty sure that it was this "gay" angle that absolutely doomed this film at the box office, and with the relentlessly "macho" types who like to watch films about serial killers- almost all of whom butcher women on screen. Virtually every part is played with chilling precision, from Dahmer's pedant/tyrant father to the poor young jock who ends up winning a tense wrestling match against the killer...and then gets butchered and eaten for his troubles. (The jock is especially good at bringing pathos and sympathy to a character who, quite frankly, could easily have been one of those guys you root for to get killed; it's a stand-out performance in a movie loaded with them) A clever film with a few genuinely tense situations (almost none of which involve actual bloodshed- a real sign of a solid, well-written script), Dahmer was a surpise for me, and I think will be for you, too.

Woman In The Dunes Japan, 1964 Dir: Hiroshi Teshigahara
Maybe the greatest Japanese movie ever made, taken from an equally brilliant novel- one of my very favorites- by Kobo Abe. What an absolute treat this movie is to look at. An amateur entomologist journeys to a small seaside town, and ends up lured into a sand pit with a beautiful and mysterious woman. Her whole life- and seemingly that of the entire town- is sweeping away the sand that accrues each night, and threatens their very survival. Sounds pretty basic, but then you have to consider the cinematography (glorious), the performances (riveting- the woman in the titular dunes, Kyoko Kishida, is absolutely beautiful and fiercely doomed) and the music (Toru Takemitsu, in one of the triumphs of his glorious career) and when you put this all together and all in dreamy, distant black & have a movie of rare power and vision, and also bursting with unbelievable erotic energy. Disturbing due to the endless despair the scenario purports to be the crux of the human predicament, this is a masterpiece and one no serious film viewer should ignore.

The King Of Comedy United States, 1982 Dir: Martin Scorsese
Might be Scorsese's best film. Certainly his most ambitiously different- DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin is unbearably schmuckish, a total loser who sits in his basement night after night fantasizing about being the world's greatest comedian and yucking it up with complete insincerity alongside other noodniks like Jerry Lewis' absolute genius Jerry Langford- a noodnik and a complete asshole, but a successful one, and a ruthless sonofabitch to boot. Incredible performances from DeNiro, Lewis and Sandra Bernhard- who almost steals the entire movie with her raucous "I want to be black!" half-nude seduction of the bound and gagged Lewis, King Of Comedy is the blackest American comedy ever made (no puns intended) and a perfect film about completely flawed people- it's also the underside of an old New York now completely ruined by Disney and other Times Square atrocities, and whether Scorsese meant to do it or not...he has given, contra Hannah Arendt, the perfect representation in Rupert Pupkin as banality not in evil, but banality in banality. One of my favorite films.

Taxi Driver United States, 1976 Dir: Martin Scorsese
After a dry-run for a lot of his ideas of movement, light and sound (principally the use of music to drive a narrative) with 1973's Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese put it all together with the best American movie of them all from the 70's- the exhausting, overwhelming, incredibly violent experience that is Taxi Driver. Suffice to say that the name "Travis Bickle" has become a shorthand reference to all that is paranoid, psychotic, insane and dangerous in American society for over thirty years- he may have become a joke in the hands of putrid and middle-mind stand-up comics, but re-watch the film again and tell me you're not completely chilled by the master actor inhabiting a role that only he could have played. Superb smaller roles from Jodi Foster and a repulsive Harvey Keitel complete the ensemble, not to mention Scorsese's own violent and paranoid appearance as a cuckolded husband out to extract his revenge- plus, of course, the mind-blowing violent finale, drenched in blood and insantiy, not soon to be forgotten by anyone who has seen it. Incredibly powerful stuff, and a film that sees into the mind of every Tea Party psychopath stalking the Corn Belt metropolises to this day, Taxi Driver is sui generis and not likely to be equalled for narrative impact.

The Deer Hunter United States, 1978 Dir: Michael Cimino
Still holds up after all of these years as a document of pure, destroyed Americana. Like a Don DeLillo novel, Cimino's film explores the losers of American society not with vitriol, but with something very close to pathos- pure pathos, not a fraudulent twenty-hankie kitsch-fest like some garbage from the odious Ron Howard. Unfortunately best known for the harrowing "Russian Roulette" sequence, what makes The Deer Hunter truly disturbing is that all of the characters return home to Pennsylvania as mere shells of men- spent and used up by a cataclysmic act of aggression on the part of America against a small, impoverished Asian nation which had the temerity to seek its independence. Not anti-American, but merely anti-American nationalist, this is a great and terrifying movie and another one pretty much everyone should see before they die.

Joe United States, 1969 Dir: John G. Avildsen
Another paranoid winner from the criminally underrated Avildsen, Joe was ridiculously far ahead of its time and almost European in its treatment of violence, use of sex and nudity as a purely salacious entertainment, and above all the incredible cynicism the script treats the titular Joe with- Peter Boyle (a truly great actor) is just vile as a loutish, big-mouth racist who holds court day after day at his loser blue collar bar, condemning virtually all of American society which is not white, straight and male as uniquely responsible for his failure in life. Joe's intial soliloquy is still totally shocking- even more so in that after forty years, he still represents the world view of probably half of this goddamn country. And while "downer endings" became all the rage in the 70's, Avildsen's expertly-shot massacre at the end of this film is the one by which all the others must be judged- and the final image is, like the perfect irony of an O. Henry story, totally devastating.

Johnny Got His Gun United States, 1971 Dir: Dalton Trumbo
A rare Surrealist American drama, Johnny Got His Gun is- along with Paths Of Glory and J'Accuse!- one of the truly great anti-war films ever made. Joe is the all-American boy; he loves his girl, his dad, his country. Off to fight The War To End All Wars, he is blinded, mutilated, and all of his appendages are blown away by shell fragments on the very last day of the war. What follows is an endurance test of suffering for the poor wretch, as he lies in bed, concious, but unable to tell when he awake or when he is asleep. An absolutely apallingly depressing movie shot with great skill by neophyte director Trumbo, from his own novel- Johnny Got His Gun is war as it truly is: Hell.


  1. My favorite serial killer - and one firmly entrenched in the 'trash' category - is The Secret Life of Jeffrey Dahmer. It's so ineptly shot and the action blocked out in such a way that it looks like a low-budget sitcom, made worse by some unbelievably stilted dialog and poor acting. I once made a dub of it with canned laughter and applause, with titles burned in the beginning and ending ('Oh, That Jeffrey!'). Wouldn't be surprised if bad bootlegs of it are floating around, since I gave a copy to a notorious bootlegger.

  2. I'd love to see that- the original, by itself, is a total monstrosity- about as cheap looking a movie as I've ever seen.