Tuesday, March 29, 2011

my TOP TEN shocking films

I have languished over creating this list for quite some time, but I felt it important. I am a devotee of genre, a lover of splatterpunk and slasher films. If I haven't seen it yet, it's probably in my Netflix queue. I relish in back-to-back (-to-back, as the case may be) brutal flicks at film festivals — and I'm specifically talking about genre-heavy fests, like New York Asian Film Festival and Fantastic Fest. I've yet to hit Sitges but believe me, it's way up on my list. So trust me when I write that I can "handle it". Been there, seen that. But there are occasionally those films that burn so indelibly into my retinas that I can't quite shake 'em, that I have to think thrice before viewing them again. Those films make up this dectet of shocking films I've seen, maybe once, maybe two dozen times, but regardless each time I wince a bit. You'll note the lot is from 2000 onward. That's somewhat intentional, though Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo is definitely one of those envelope-pushers. As is Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust — and I did consider adding at least one giallo film to this, but I can't help but love Dario Argento et al a bit too much. There are MANY honorable mentions to the below ten, which I'll mention later, and a few glaring omissions — mainly b/c I've not seen those films yet. More on that later as well. But first, a proper ranking of shocking films I've seen, from unequivocally MOST down to #10. Enjoy!

1. Martyrs (dir. Pascal Laugier, 2008)
Painfully terrifying and brutal. New French Extremity is one subgenre I drink thirstily from (see the proliferation of French films in this list), but Laugier pushed the limits, to nightmarish places that even Eli Roth hasn't approached. In very brief: something terrible happens to Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) as a child, harsh imprisonment and physical (but not sexual) abuse, and she escapes. She's haunted terribly by flashes of a wraithlike figure that continues to harm her, so she teams w/ friend Anna (Morjana Alaoui) to seek out her former abusers and exert retribution. But revisiting that former house, and its basement of horrors, comes at a dear price. Think of a train full of explosives. It screeches to a cumbersome halt when Lucie first frees herself, but it's ready to start up at the slightest push. Once Lucie and Anna return to that chamber, the train's already hurtling toward disaster and there's no stopping it until the final transcendently violent conclusion.

2. Philosophy of a Knife (dir. Andrey Iskanov, 2008)
A grueling four hours of unblinking violence await you, should you take Iskanov's offer and watch this monster. It's based in reality, following the Japanese Army's Unit 731, the covert biological and chemical warfare and research development unit during the Second Sino-Japanese War and WWII. That's something to think about when going in, as the b&w reenactments of atrocities on Russian or Chinese prisoners (nearly all young women and men), a daunting bazaar of pain, flood at you scene by scene w/ very little time to recover. I hesitate to spoil anything, but just to see if YOU can handle it, here's a typical moment: they bind a pretty girl in a chair, hook her up to a machine to monitor her brainwaves (and "pain threshold" before she blacks out), and proceed to methodically rip each and every tooth from her jaw. She doesn't fall unconscious until it's far too late. I could only just barely handle it myself, and I've only watched this film once.

3. Haute Tension (dir. Alexandre Aja, 2003)
Aja's early film sawed-off shotgun blasted New French Extremity as a reckoning force in contemporary genre film. And thanks to his makeup FX artist Giannetto De Rossi (favored by the late giallo master Lucio Fulci), the shocking intensity goes off the charts and left even me surprised. Lovely Cécile de France goes out to the French countryside w/ her girlfriend Alex's family — one of many reasons why I fear le paysage — but late at night a truck w/ floodlights drives up, carrying a boilersuited killing machine who brutally dispatches the family (he's got a penchant for his straight razor, but he'll use practically anything), kidnaps Alex and pursues Cécile. It's worth seeking out the international (i.e. NC-17) version, and if you caught Piranha 3D like I recommended, that's Aja too and the eye-popping gore in that is just a tease for the significant sequences in Haute Tension.

4. À l'intérieur (dirs. Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury, 2007)
This duo's debut film, along w/ Pascal Laugier's Martyrs, signified the second wave of New French Extremity, maintaining the intensity wrought by Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension. One point for brilliant casting of Béatrice Dalle as the nameless killer, cloaked in black and wielding a big-ass pair of scissors. One point for plot tension: Dalle's out to eviscerate Alysson Paradis and steal the unborn baby from her womb, so the action happens almost entirely w/in Paradis' house, at night. One more point for blood-soaked SFX, much of it from makeup and modeling that adds a raw back-to-basics intensity. This one was sort of a toss-up w/ Aja's for placement, but it's lower ranking should not dissuade you from passing it up as a "gentle view" by any means…wouldn't you be surprised!

5. Audition (dir. Takashi Miike, 2000)
I have lovingly referred to Miike's surrealist shocker as the scariest film I've ever seen. And it totally ranks up there — hell, it's #5 on this list! — which may be due to my fears as a straight man pissing off some mystery woman, who returns with piano wire and a strong sedative. But the real reason is Miike's brilliant orchestration of good-natured date film that, like 75 minutes in, suddenly cartwheels off the road into very brutal territory, very very quickly. Audition marked my tentative, then deep, affection for lead Eihi Shiina (who shocked me years later in Yoshihiro Nishimura's Tokyo Gore Police). There's one scene in particular, which I'll not spoil here, that still makes me noticeably flinch, or scream, depending.

6. Red, White & Blue (dir. Simon Rumley, 2010)
This was top on my anticipation list at Fantastic Fest 2010 as a VERY heavy film, like you're not prepared for it. And brother, was it ever…left me winded in the end. I compared the three leads to spinning tops, each doing well enough on their own in downtown Austin, TX, but you put 'em together — or worse, send all three coursing into each other's orbits — and they'll collide and fracture off into opposite directions. Like a match to kindling, when the killing begins, it doesn't cease until retribution has thoroughly, exhaustively concluded. Wow.

7. Frontière(s) (dir. Xavier Gens, 2007)
Damn - another heavy New French Extremity feature, another shocker from the countryside, and yet another instance of torture-porn and revenge that one-ups anything created stateside. Gens doesn't shy from the gore incurred upon lead Karina Testa and her young friends as they fight to escape psycho neo-Nazis, but he does an exceedingly good job of blanketing the grime- and rust-encrusted farm compound with inescapable dread. I felt like taking a long, hot shower after viewing this one.

8. Irreversible (dir. Gaspar Noé, 2002)
You've probably heard of Noé's notorious film even if you've never seen it. So you may be wondering why it's not higher on my list. It still remains a challenging film for me to sit through, and believe me that fire extinguisher bludgeoning at the beginning (coupled w/ the spinning camerawork and infrasoundtrack) is fatiguing, but it doesn't hold a candle to Monica Bellucci and her rape. Since the film moves in reverse, her "first" onscreen appearance is virtually unrecognizable, a battered and bloodied stand-in for her striking self. It's the aftermath of the daunting rape scene, which is so unpleasant I've only seen it once. And I'm in no hurry to sit through those nine minutes again. Though I'll admit the unpleasantly fresh and blissful denouement (i.e. the beginning, before the long night of horrors) is a great middle-finger to "Hollywood endings".

9. I Spit on Your Grave (dir. Steven R. Monroe, 2010)
Have you seen the original, uncut, one-time banned rape/revenge film, cut over 30 years ago? This nearly shot-by-shot remake takes the violence, humiliation and revenge even further, if you can believe it. Jennifer's kills are so satisfying, exerted w/ ingenuity, decisiveness and definitely without mercy (unlike the original's sex-appeal tactics), but the disgusting "good ol' boys" put her through hell first. Only way I made it through was knowing those bastards were getting theres in hell.

10. Ju-on (dir. Takashi Shimizu, 2003)
The original filmic version of Shimizu's The Grudge franchise, scares the hell outta me for three reasons: 1. the first time I saw this film, I had a bad copy so the beginning kept skipping, which I thought was intentional and was so freaked out I never watched it. 2. the haunted kid in the closet (you know what I mean). 3. the ending, not so much the ghost of Kayako creeping down the stairs to nail Megumi Okina once and for all, but who follows her, the blood-streaked figure of the murderer, Takeo, source of the grudge.

I've necessarily left many films from this list, including Srdjan Spasojevic's sickening A Serbian Film, which I've not seen. That exercise in hell almost absolutely "deserves" a spot, but it's currently so banned I may never see it. Maybe that's a good thing? Also, for films I have seen: Eli Roth's Hostel; Tom Six's The Human Centipede (you're shocked, right, that I didn't include this on my list? Only reason: I attended premiere where Six and the entire main cast attended, which did wonders for "humanizing" a film about a sicko German doctor grafting three people to one another); Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure (super scary); Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer; Kim Ji-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters and I Saw the Devil (the former remains the best K-Horror film ever, IMO, and the latter receives honorable mention for being one of the heaviest revenge films out there); Kim Jin-won's ultra-indie and ultraviolent The Butcher; Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism; Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms (trust me, wait 'til the last 10 minutes); Kiim Chapiron's Sheitan; Coralie Trinh Thi's Baise-moi; Ilya Khrjanovsky's 4 (incredibly his 1st feature film); and basically anything scary from John Carpenter (to be perfectly honest, his Prince of Darkness still gives me the heebie-jeebies). I caution you from seeing anything I've listed, either in this honorable mention section or specifically my top ten, unless you know you can handle it.