Slashers and torture films are all well and good, but sometimes your brain is looking for more than wanton bloodshed.
It’s an unfortunate fact of film criticism that horror is probably the most under-appreciated of all genres. Frequently considered trashy or lowbrow by moviegoers and almost completely ignored by the Academy, horror movies are usually considered cheap thrills for sadistic viewers.
Academics and scholars have repeatedly tried to save horror from its poor reputation by pointing toward the latent feminist motifs throughout the genre and noting the avant-garde aspirations of even the lowest common denominator movies. Meanwhile, true auteurs regularly look toward horror for inspiration and have turned out some of their greatest creations while exploring the darkness within.
With this in mind, we’ve curated a list of under-appreciated arthouse cinema for the more adventurous horror fan.
(Content Warning: All of the movies below depict extreme physical and sexual violence.)
Female-directed horror movies are unfortunately few and far between due to the rampant sexism of the film industry, but it’s obvious to anyone in the know that women have contributed as much as or more than men to the genre. French director Julia Ducournau’s melodramatic horror masterpiece Raw is an example of complete mastery over the genre: Set in a surrealist and futuristic veterinarian school, two sisters struggle against their inexplicable cannibalistic urges. Although the premise is wild, the story is creepily understated and thoughtful: Have the girls’ genetics damned them to become wendigos, or is it a metaphor for the unfortunate and inextricable interconnectedness we all have to our families?
Director Gaspar Noé became known for his psychedelic explorations of death in movies like Enter the Void and Irreversible. Climax uses much of the same camerawork and eccentric color palettes of his previous works but abandons the philosophical pretext, making this movie far less pretentious. The premise: A French contemporary dance troupe of ballroom battlers and breakdancers is celebrating the last night before a major performance when someone drops far too much acid into everyone’s drinks. The troupe begins to go insane while practicing their routines one last time. Then, violence breaks out — set to a soundtrack of bass-thumping French house music. It is the dancers’ bodies — contorting, twirling, and dipping into oblivion — that provide the haunting backdrop onto which the protagonists’ total breakdowns are transposed.
Director Lars Von Trier has certainly gone off the deep end with his more recent cinematic output, but Antichrist remains a deeply disturbing look into both extreme nihilism and depressive psychosis. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willam DeFoe play a married couple whose child has tragically died. They retreat to a quiet cottage in the woods where they begin contemplating the nature of evil. It becomes clear that neither ever really had a strong grip on reality, and they begin mutilating themselves — quite literally — as their sanity unravels. Von Trier’s thesis is that ultimately human existence is inherently hateful and disgusting, as is this film. But it’s also starkly beautiful, in the strangest and saddest of ways.
Inland Empire (2006)
David Lynch’s obscure and inscrutable cosmology is taken to its logical conclusion with his last feature-length film. This 3-plus-hour, non-narrative nightmare starts with Laura Dern, playing an actress who may or may not be losing her mind, accidentally uncovering a curse. What happens from there isn’t exactly explicable but it’s certainly horrific. Is she playing multiple characters or does she have multiple personalities? Is she having a nervous breakdown or is reality crumbling around her? Confusingly intercut into the movies are scenes from Lynch’s abandoned surrealist anti-comedy Rabbits, during which humanoid bunnies talk in disjointed and incoherent cliches paired with an unnerving laugh track. Lynch’s cinematography remains darkly lush throughout, despite the actual events depicted being entirely incoherent. It’s deeply frightening and — somehow — also quite spiritual.
Suicide Club, or Suicide Circle (2001) + Noriko’s Dinner Table (2006)
For a time, Japan’s suicide rate was one of the highest in the developed world — but due to cultural taboos, the subject remained under-explored in both psychological and artistic investigations. Suicide Club courted controversy by taking the topic head-on. In this dreamlike masterpiece, director Sion Sono explores a sort of pervasive cultural paranoia amidst a grotesque ghost story layered on top of a pop-culture conspiracy. The movie’s first sequence, in which an entire class of schoolgirls jumps in front of a moving train scored to optimistic city pop, is somehow both hilarious and traumatic. There’s definitely a campiness to the movie — there’s even a Rocky Horror-inflected musical number plopped right in the middle — but the story unwinds into something much more sinister by the end.
Noriko’s Dinner Table, which serves as both a sequel and a prequel to Suicide Club, completely abandons the humor of its predecessor. The film explores the grief felt by the family of one of the girls from the first movie’s opening scene. Through an obscure agency, they hire a young actress to play their daughter at dinners because they miss her so deeply. But as they mourn, their grief becomes increasingly delusional until it’s revealed that perhaps clandestine and apocalyptic criminal organizations were to blame all along. A truly twisted continuation of Suicide Club’s story, Noriko’s Dinner Table is a seriously morbid meditation on how bereavement can make someone feel totally schizophrenic.
The Cell (2000)
Don’t let the movie’s headliners (Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn) fool you into thinking this is lowbrow schlock. The Cell is a glamorous horror film costumed by the legendary Eiko Ishioka (often known for her custom-made couture frequently worn by Bjork). Director Tarsem Singh took a rather bland sci-fi/horror script about a psychologist traveling through the mind of a serial killer and turned it into an avant-garde experiment through opulent production design and an exquisite gothic imagination inspired by artists like Trent Reznor, Odd Nerdrum, and Damien Hirst. It’s a shame so many horror movies lack this kind of meticulous visual styling and imagination — as appealing imagery can turn even the most banal stories into enthralling fantasies.
When a rogue TV executive specializing in sensational material discovers an underground station playing videos of women being brutalized, he descends into a confusing secret subculture filled with sadomasochism. Things get weirder as his body begins morphing into something inhuman, until he famously develops a VHS player / vagina on his stomach. If the description sounds peculiar, the movie itself is even more unsettling. Cronenberg gives an update to Lovecraftian horror by blending it with Baudrillardian philosophy and the result is precisely as disorienting as that sounds.
Otto, or Up With Dead People (2008)
Gay pornographer Bruce LaBruce usually works in the medium of erotica, often turning the tropes of blue movies on their heads: Performers reciting the Communist Manifesto while having sex, or passionate explorations of the naked bodies of neo-Nazis. His entries into horror are strange and highly sexualized, but Otto is also awkwardly sweet. In it, the eponymous gay zombie ambles through wastelands until he meets a duo of avant-garde filmmakers who cast the undead hero as their leading man. Can he curb his addiction to human flesh — or is his zombieism just a metaphor for the loneliness of gay identity? With music provided by Cocorosie, Otto pushes the boundaries of both porn and horror — no wonder the director was spotlighted in a MoMA retrospective only a few years after this film debuted.
A family portrait gone terribly wrong: what happens when a controlling and violent father keeps his children locked away from the world and feeds them years of misinformation about what happens outside? And then what happens when those kids start discovering sex? What appears in moments as a peaceful — if somewhat offbeat — nuclear world is punctuated by outbursts of extreme viciousness. There are a handful of truly comedic moments, too: what does dancing look like if you’ve never seen anyone do it? It’s unclear what moral message director Yorgos Lanthimos was trying to express with this hideous visual poem: Is it a warning about the inherent hostility of fatherhood? A rejection of heterosexual procreative practices? The movie was hailed by critics and nominated for an Oscar — an extreme rarity as far as Greek cinema goes — but didn’t win. The Academy probably wanted something a little less … disconcerting.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom AKA Pasolini’s 120 Days Of Sodom (1975)
Widely respected Italian director Pierre Pasolini ventured into the depths of human cruelty with his adaptation of the Marquis De Sade’s 120 Days Of Sodom. In his re-interpretation, the indignities depicted in the book are transplanted into the world of fascist-occupied Italy. Madness takes over as a group of evil libertines kidnaps young men and women to use as objects of their sexual malice. The movie is mostly a ceaseless march of torture scenes, interspersed with dark surrealist fantasies: A troubling contemplation of the depths of evil and the sexual politics of authoritarianism. Although frequently (and understandably) deemed completely unwatchable, the film faced a critical revival after director John Waters described it as a personal favorite.
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