The paradox to being a critic is that, because you end up seeing/experiencing a lot more of whatever it is you’re critiquing than the average consumer does, you wind up a bit detached from their perspective. I can’t tell you what the average filmgoer would think of this or that movie because I am not the average filmgoer. And while I’ve said in the past (and continue to hold) that I consider this detachment to be an asset rather than a liability, I do sometimes have to step back and take note that I find myself unable to easily relate to questions asked of me vis-à-vis films, most specifically in the realm of content.
See, when people ask me “Is it scary?” “How violent is it?” “How much sex/nudity?” etc., I find myself unable to offer much real help. When it comes to those things, just about any given film that gets released wide to theaters (i.e. 90% of what will wind up as episodes of Escape to the Movies,) is going to pale in comparison to some of the more obscure and extreme cinematic images I’ve spent a life/career seeking out and absorbing. To use an almost offensively extreme metaphor, when people tell me they’re genuinely, physically horrified by the Saw movies, or Hostel, or The Hills Have Eyes, I feel like a P.O.W. listening to someone tell me how trapped they feel in their dull office job.
Violent/depraved endurance test movies are a tradition among movie geeks and horror movie geeks in particular. Just for fun, here’s a quick list of some of the most notorious films that have made film nerds like yours truly numb to pretty much any horror that mainstream film can throw at them. Seek them out, if you dare.
Note I: This is a sampling. If people like this piece I may do more at some point. It’s in no way meant to be definitive, as I’m choosing to limit it to films that are not difficult to find but less recent than current entries in the subgenre like A Serbian Film and Human Centipede 2, which by now everyone has heard about. I’ve also limited it to films I’ve seen all the way through myself, which is why some of the most infamous possibilities like Philosophy of a Knife or Men Behind The Sun (both pseudo-documentaries about WWII Japan’s Unit 731, incidentally) didn’t make the cut yet.
Note II: I am not joking around here, a lot of this stuff is really, really, really depraved, well beyond the bad taste fun scale and straight into the “Why would someone even think to make this?” realm. Don’t blame me if you seek them out and end up seeing something you wish you’d never, ever seen. Just to be safe, links to actual clips/images to these films will not be provided (though rest assured you can hunt most of them down on YouTube if you so choose).
This is probably the tamest entry on this list (and given that it features a guy being, literally, pulled inside out, that should tell you something), if only because the big stuff doesn’t kick in until the very end. But oh, what an ending. A pseudo-successor to the suburban cannibal satire Parents (also very much worth seeing, though not quite visceral enough for this particular list), our hero is a high schooler who’s beginning to suspect that his wealthy adoptive parents (and sister) are keeping creepy rich people secrets from him. At first what he uncovers makes it seem like they (and other local members of The 99 Percent) may be involved in some kind of elite orgiastic sex cult, but the truth is much, much more bizarre and requires much, much more stage blood and foam latex from cult horror FX legend Screaming Mad George. Made in 1989, it was considered so hideous (and difficult to market) that it wasn’t released in America until 1992, though it was a hit in Europe and Japan.
The Horrors of Malformed Men
This is primarily a videogame website, so I’m going to assume most of you have a pretty good frame of reference for the extremes of depravity that cut it in the Japanese entertainment spectrum. Well, here’s a movie from 1969 that is still effectively banned in Japan. Essentially a mashup of stories and characters by Japanese horror/mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (a pen-name meant to sound like a Japanization of “Edgar Allen Poe”). It follows an asylum doctor who impersonates a dead man to seek answers about his past, leading him to an island where a mad scientist rules over a society of people he has transformed into grotesque human art projects (humanoid animals, living furniture/decorations, etc.) through radical surgery. The dated late 60s effects blunt some of the impact, but once they get to the island the one-horrible-thing-after-another parade is relentless, made somehow worse by the mostly daytime shooting and the bright, glossy color palette indicative of Japanese genre movies of the era.
Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS
The annals of extreme cinema are packed tight with films using historical or quasi-documentary subject matter as an excuse for their shocking imagery, and the Ilsa movies (beginning here) are some of the best examples. The title character (Dyanne Thorne) is a female Nazi officer obsessed with proving her male superiors wrong about the physical effectiveness of women in combat. To demonstrate her point, she conducts horrific and elaborate pain endurance experiments on female inmates at a prison camp under her supervision. For good measure, she also forces herself (sexually) on male inmates, and kills the ones who finish before she does (read: pretty much all of them). Hilariously, the film was shot on the same prison camp sets as the TV comedy Hogan’s Heroes. There were many subsequent Ilsa knockoffs, and Thorne returned in a spiritual sequel titled Ilsa, Harem Keeper of The Oil Sheiks (yes, really).
Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom
Not all of these are low-rent grindhouse fare; this one is a well-regarded European art film by Italy’s Pier Paolo Passolini (who also made The Gospel According to Saint Matthew). Based on a work by the Marquis de Sade, it moves the action to Fascist Italy in 1944. A group of powerful, wealthy men abduct sixteen local teenagers (eight boys, eight girls) to use as game pieces in four months of ritualized torture and degradation. Some of it is still hard to watch, even today.
Japan’s Takeshi Miike could fill this entire list on his own with seminal strong stomachs only classics like Audition, Ichi The Killer and Fudoh, all of which feature onscreen imagery so gruesome I don’t even think I’m allowed to describe it here. But often overlooked is his ultra-perverse Visitor Q, a brutal satire of Japanese middle class family life that makes up in squicky plot turns what it initially lacks in actual gore. A mysterious stranger insinuates himself into the lives of a ridiculously dysfunctional ordinary family (incest, drug abuse, physical abuse and other sundry unpleasantness are all on the menu) and somehow nudges them toward improvement by making everything worse (read: necrophilia, murder coverups and a verite documentary about the son being brutalized by school bullies). Amazingly, Miike, who at one point was averaging 2 to 3 new movies a year, has lately expanded his range into making family films like Great Yokai War and the live-action Yatterman. He just recently helmed the Phoenix Wright movie due to hit the U.S. sometime later this year.
Cannibal Ferox (aka Make Them Die Slowly)
This is probably the second most notorious of the Italian cannibal epics of the 70’s after Cannibal Holocaust, which I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone seek out because it substitutes a (relative) paucity of fake human gore for very real wild animal slaughter. (Even I have my limits, I watched it once, won’t watch it again.) Ferox finds a group of American/European travelers in South America pushing deep into dangerous native territory, some having come to expose cannibalism as a myth pushed by colonialists, others to exploit the natives for treasure. That second motivation brings the ire of a cannibal tribe that is very much real, and leads to the heroes getting put through what has to be some of the least efficient meal preparation rituals ever devised. As you’ll surmise, just about everything going on is in the worst possible taste, but I can’t say it isn’t effective.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.