Some films are just not for everyone, no matter how hyped or critically acclaimed, and that is absolutely fine. It is something we are seeing now with Midsommar. The 2019 addition to a list of movies that had patrons leaving theaters in all kinds of states, from feeling entertained, perplexed, indifferent, absolutely #mindblowned and rushing to social media to let the whole worldwide web know, to feeling deeply frustrated, troubled or simply bored and uninspired. This sort of divisive reception is as old as cinema itself.
But when it comes to these kinds of films there is no such a thing as a “passive viewing” as they are meant to offend, repel, maybe even besieged you visually and auditorily, and do so with meanings. Quite often a lot of it! As they are also “homework” where every inch of every scene has to be analyzed in order to fully “get it.” Because perhaps, in the end, it might only come to those who – in vulgar term – “get it” and those who don’t, because for them there is nothing to get.
The following list could be classified as horror films but they offer so much more than simple horrifying shots being more so disturbing, weird, and making audiences extremely uneasy because of graphic contents or the overall weirdness they display. Being usually somehow abstract, they confuse – or annoy! – us as they tend to linger on for longer than wanted, haunting the thoughts of those who decided to let themselves transported to their worlds filled with gloom and doom…
This “genre” thrive on esoterism or eerie metaphorical narrative abundant of humiliating moments, claustrophobic isolation, sex and sins, crippling grief, mental illnesses and depression, intense personal drama, and striking violence with grim consequences. Of course, many titles pertaining to this category should come with some kind of warning as they touch subjects that could be triggering due to their extreme nature.
So let’s revisit movies from the last 10 years cherished as masterpieces by avant-garde filmmakers or labeled “deeds of deviants”…
It would totally be blasphemous to not start by mentioning a Lars Von Tiers film. The infamous Danish director may be born to shock, sort of unofficially became the “Saint patron of controversial film!” His 2009 film, like many in this category, centers around depression and grief. Ominously divided into chapters, it is the story of a couple, staying in a remote cabin in the woods, painfully dealing with their son’s death. The arty experimental horror film, with a bleak visual of many shades of grey, stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Although rewarding for those who appreciated the film for its “boldness” (that’s definitely a euphemism!), the experience is as excruciating as Gainsbourg performance of a character going through traumatic and crippling visions. Charlotte truly excelled by bringing her usual brand of depressive confusion as a grieving mother in a state of constant anxiety and guilt. She epitomizes the shy “it girl” gone dark. In a way, she became Tiers muse appearing in the entirety of his appropriately titled Depression Trilogy.
“Fun fact” about Antichrist, which was qualified by many as misogynistic (as is Lars von Tiers entire filmography to be honest…), it was awarded a special anti-award from Cannes as a film doing everything but promoting humanist values! Antichrist has become a canon of auteur extreme cinema and frankly its extremeness make the director’s latest film, The House That Jack Built – considered mildly disturbing to even unwatchable by some – look PG 13 next to it… So viewer discretion advised times 100.
Mother! is undeniably Darren Aronofsky and 2017 most polarizing film. It is a blend of all things esoteric, sacrifice, holy metaphors, surreal images, dramatic acting by a cast of dramatic actors and stark violence. Jennifer Lawrence, who gave herself 100% in this performance, plays the eponymous Mother opposite Javier Bardem, in a story about an expecting couple seeing their Eden-like world shattered to pieces by strangers gradually bringing the apocalypse to their doorsteps.
It would make little sense to read Mother! literally, and many interpretations have been made, but Aronofsky went full-on religious symbolism here, and he made sure to blur the lines between real and surreal elements. Reactions to the movie were as intense as Lawrence’s wailing and accordingly, it was the subject of discordance as it is a great demonstration of acting skill, but for many, it felt over-the-top and made the whole film, even less digestible.
Say what you want about Darren and some of his films like Mother!, Requiem For A Dream or The Fountain, but if you are not convinced, know that these movies, like pieces of Art, have to be seen for the exact reasons that make them “displeasing” to some. They provoke something strong and, in this day and age of numbing movies, it is praisable. So not only a project like Mother! is able to shock us, but it also provides a full experience of the highest quality being visually compelling, even mesmerizing, and/or presents a unique, intriguing and complex story.
Gaspard Noé latest film is about a troupe of dancers celebrating their last rehearsal night in an empty building in the middle of nowhere. What starts as a night of dance and drug-fueled wild party, turns into a gory bad trip with cabin fever mass hysteria. While it appears to be “Noé lite” we still have the usual violence, sex, more violence, deadly hallucinations, madness & mayhems… Expect this time there is a kid involved.
It is hard to choose Noé most disturbing project as they all feature ultra provocative scenes that make you want to crawl into your seat (especially if surrounded by strangers in a packed theater!) and enjoy it guilt-free alone. But such is the purpose and power of the cinematic experience, and maybe this is Noé genius trick. He knows his movies are even more unsettling in cinemas than from the comfort of a bed with a comforting on blanket!
Climax might be his most “accessible” film with a first act that will even enchant unfamiliar viewers (with one of the best dance openings in the history of Cinema!) but as everything starts to be disorienting, truly depraved with disturbing images, you know what you’re in for. Climax mixes the best of its director previous works, the tenseness of Irreversible, the trippiness of Enter the Void, the emotional intensity of Love, and the manic “Sorkin-ian” dialogue filled with colloquialisms used since his debut I Stand Alone. But here, it added something new thanks to a truly genuine cast of dancers and a documentary-like approach combining unscripted interviews and a compact narrative.
Sofia Boutella is magnetic showing off her dual talent and the fantastically diverse ensemble of non-professional actors was compelling. It is interesting to note that most of the film in this “genre” tend to portray middle-class, privileged white folk and it is very uncommon they add more than a token POC character… So Climax is proof that you can have it all! Some might say it could be a horror movie but it would be extremely reductive considering Climax could equally be a dance movie! So, in the end, there is no doubt it is a must-see Gaspard Noe.
The Lobster (2015)
As the saying goes: ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ (or one’s most awful movie of the year is another one’s best!), and The Lobster perfectly illustrates that. The less known about this 2015 gem, led by Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, the better, but it is a dystopian film set in a seemingly near-future where single people only have 45 days to get in a find a partner, if not, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing! This premise is silly, simple and frankly pure genius.
It is one for the cynics with a bleak atmosphere and a dark, offbeat sense of humor, bringing to mind Nordic films about despicable or obnoxious people, playing as a philosophical comment about the darkness of the human condition in modern societies. It also offers a singular nightmarish visual, not necessarily in a scary manner but, in a cringey one.
There is no half measure with Yorgos Lanthimos and The Lobster might be his most categorical movie with a very grounded surrealism trademark. It uses dark comedy with a lighter touch than Dogtooth, but is similarly rather low-key and, it is definitely not as riotous than his widely acclaimed The Favourite.
The Lobster is a film that fits this “genre” of features that are considered must-see because they offer some highly appreciated artistic elements but are equivalently branded “hard to watch” for one reason or another. In this case, mainly a freakish eccentricity and a violence that is more gross or suggested than horrifying or shocking.
There is nothing like it out there and its real bonkers premise will either delight you, disturb you, or make you wonder “why?!?!” (or all of the above!)
The Neon Demon (2016)
When watching Nicolas Winding Refn films, one quote comes to mind: “These violent delights have violent ends…” It is all about visual delights in opulence and hyper-stylized violence accompanied by dazing music, essentially putting receptive audiences in a state of trance. The Neon Demon is all that and more…
It is the story of a 16-year-old aspiring model trying to make it into the fashion world in LA. Her youthful, enigmatic, and perhaps naive look, makes her stand out and draw the attention of fellow models/competitors. She met a lot of bad people taking her on a strange journey and a dark path. Fanning is leading this random ensemble of actors, including among others, Jena Malone, Christina Hendricks, and even Keanu as a run-down motel manager.
The 2016 film received the now standard NWR reception almost everywhere it screened (a mix of standing ovations, awe exclamations, repulsed “hell no”, boos and outraged walkouts) and is one of the most divisive of Refn filmography along with his brutal yet still mesmerizing Only God Forgives, or, the over-the-top violent, unhurried and “dialogue shy” Too Old To Die Young Amazon show (or 13 hours movie!).
The Neon Demon is a Refn film alright, with all the colors of a neon rainbow, consisting of gloriously pompous shots, meditative filming of city streets and landscape a la Terrence Mallick, the occasional cringing or even barf-inducing scene, and “glamorized” blood. In any case, The Neon Demon offers, without a doubt, incomparable style and substance…
Under the Skin (2013)
Under the Skin seems like an exemplary one-of-a-kind at the crossroad of the rise of independent sci-fi and “nu hybrid sci-fi/horror.” The 2013 eerie slow-burning film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien roaming the streets of Scotland bewitching men so she can consume them during a bizarre supernatural ceremony. Things take a nefarious turn as she starts to understand and “connect” with more humans.
This Jonathan Glazer movie is possibly less schismatic, yet equally as underrated or easily dismissed, as films such as Annihilation by Alex Garland. In fact, these two directors, along with Dennis Villeneuve, are at the forefront of this cerebral science-fiction renaissance “all about those dreadful feeling”!
Glazer sure is a master of dread and mysteries, and he proved it via his eclectic filmography of high-end commercials, music videos for the likes of Radiohead, Jamiroquai or Massive Attacks, and his 2004 acclaimed Birth.
For better or worse, Under the Skin’ dreads stick way past the normal “expiry date” of any basic movie with a touch of evil, and that is also thanks to a hauntingly splendid soundtrack by Mica Levi. Mica, or Micachu, is a musical genius and undisputable talent from the new wave of multi-talented film composers. Also, sadly, she is one of the very few renowned women composer AND one of the only six ever nominated for an Academy Award – in nearly 10 decades! – for her Jackie masterpiece…
Apart from being possibly too slow, weird or “messed up” for some, the film is quite fun. Under The Skin is for sure an oddity with unscripted dialogue, strange acting, even stranger events, but the alluring monotonous aesthetic accompanied by hypnotizing VFX and a transporting score, makes it a definite must-see.
Goodnight Mommy (2015)
Goodnight Mommy, by Austrian directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franzan, is a psychological thriller with a twist that makes the movie more intriguing in hindsight. Audiences are lead to expect some kind of supernatural element that turns out to be something quite different, but saying more will be major spoilers. Although some might rightfully say it is not as clever as it thinks because viewers quickly understand the tricks, it doesn’t take anything away from the story.
The ingenious premise is that of a set of 9-year-old twin staying in a remote country mansion with their convalescent mother, a TV presenter recovering from major plastic surgeries. The boys are frustrated of not being able to see her face and find her behavior strange since her arrival from the hospital, therefore are convinced the woman is, in fact, an impostor.
The children are truly at the center of the film and so the visual violence, or disturbing images, are kept to something fairly “soft” until the end. But the scattered outbursts are rather effective and the whole suspicious atmosphere is anxiogenic and suspenseful. Goodnight Mommy might suffer from a suggestivity that makes it quite predictable, but it nevertheless accomplishes its mission of being a compelling twisted thriller with splashes of mystic and horror. It swaps scary feels for something creepy and affecting in its depiction of isolation, trust issue, and loss.
Borgman is another one fit for the ‘Reddit-hole’! The 2013 film by Alex van Warmerdam got audiences thinking and trying to decipher its meanings.
This feature can easily captivate the right viewers and have others in complete disdain over its restrained attitude. In addition, it exhibits the sort of twisted humor about people mechanically performing disturbing abhorrent acts all while extremely rationalizing the whole process, as seen in The Lobster mentioned earlier. Borgman starts with a story yet ends with another, with very little to no information, but in a nutshell, it is the story of a hobo, lawless, and almost otherworldly man, named Camiel Borgman. After he and his acolytes are chased by a religious group from their underground habitat, they go on a mission of some kind hiding in plain sight, taking different identities, committing numerous crimes and lying their way into the lives of a wealthy family.
This Dutch film shifts between dark comedy, mystery thriller, and horror without ever losing track of its objective and being constantly wrapped-up an eerie atmosphere.
With some fun moments, Borgman is not necessarily your typical “hard-to-watch”, but it is very unforthcoming thus, often gets tedious, exasperating or “unwatchable” for some. On top of the many obscure religious readings (or even possible cult & ritual connections), the fact that it makes you want to sympathize with stone-cold devilish characters can also make few uneasy.
The Act of Killing (2014)
Joshua Oppenheimer controversial 2014 award-winner is a beautiful contradiction. Presenting a Jodorowsky-like visual, the experimental docu-drama is unequivocally a sight to behold, yet it is unforgivable, raw and its inconceivable depiction of terror is like rarely seen in this context.
Everything is unaltered, unfiltered, therefore the result is something unthinkable that makes you realize that Sartre was right: ‘Hell is other people…’
We enter the unimaginable but very real world of Indonesian mass-murderers gone unpunished and living their best lives as corrupt politicians, celebrated gangsters or local heroes while reminiscing about times when humans rights were nonexistent. All the men agreed to reenact their most gruesome killings from the 1965 purge where millions were tortured and massacred.
From the first scene, we instantly get the vibe that these heinous criminals are the worst kind of people, abusing their powers, intimidating and harassing everyone, making Don Corleone and other infamous mobsters’ deeds look like child’s play… Admittedly it is really revolting to realize most show very little sign of remorse.
The Act of Killing is 100% a ”feel bad” movie. It makes you uncomfortable and maybe scared for those coerced into participating in the horrific reenactments alongside their culprits. It is all real and surreal at the same time, and as many were quick to point out, it poses a moral dilemma. It was rightfully argued that it gives a platform to violent extremists almost glorifying them, and, if it was not, perhaps, for bias reason it would have sparked massive outrage.
Whether you think it is an immoral and/or pretentious artsy documentary that does not really say anything, that the violence suggested is too difficult to watch, or if you appreciate it as a disturbing yet captivating retelling of traumatic events, The Act of Killing is important and unique in illustrating the banality of evil.
Last but not least, a film that probably has the “best” ratio of having people sick, faint and puke in theaters – and definitely not in a Gravity motion-sickness way! Raw by Julia Ducournau might also be more of a conventional high-art-horror movie with a story about raw meat and cannibalism. But it is unlike everything you’ve seen about these subjects and definitely not like anything you might expect.
It is the story of Justine, a second-generation vegetarian and a veterinary school freshman. She is anxiously navigating her new life in a new school where hazing is compulsory. Stories of school rite of passage gone wrong are a dime a dozen these days, and although they share important commonalities, this Belgian title is notorious for presenting, not necessarily a violent form of hazing, but obviously, a bloody one focusing on the “revenge” part.
Additionally, it is one of the rare films mixing psychological drama and horror with functional realism to perfection, and, as stated earlier, might actually be the most physically sickening movie ever. Many of us have absolutely no problem watching things like Human Centipede or A Serbian Film – or similar movies full of over-the-top unbearably fake or unbelievable ultra-gross scenes – leaving our eyes wide open (while possibly eating cinema-junk-food!) because we can tell it is all for show with very little depth. But even the “strongest” one of us had to concentrate and try not to miss a precious second of Raw. It is definitely not for the faint of heart…
On the other hand, the psychological or dramatic elements are likewise absolutely mastered making Raw a compelling psychological suspense movie with a solid narrative. In a way, it is a peculiar study of young woman psyche, hence, quite shamefully, no wonder it is one of the very few of this “genre” made by one…