American filmmakers like to fancy themselves at the vanguard of every cinematic trend, but when it comes to sex, gore and extreme violence in films, it sometimes seems as if they just stepped off the Mayflower. That’s because so many American horror movies of the past thirty years took refuge in the relative comfort of easily identifiable icons like Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers —off-the-rack maniacs who inspired a pallid slate of slasher wannabes that grew predictable and stale with repetition. Not surprisingly, a backlash led directly to the subgenre glibly known as “torture porn.” But even that grew wearisome with its Rube Goldberg-like exercises in how outlandish to dispatch people, courtesy of franchises like the Saw and Final Destination series. It’s small wonder, then, that American horror producers have gone back to the drawing board, with a minimalist approach – otherwise known as the micro-budgeted franchise (e.g., Paranormal Activity, Last Exorcism). When in doubt, always start over.
So, while our horror films attempt to re-establish the genre’s footing, where do red-blooded gorehounds go for their fill of carnage? Those in the know have been casting their eyes to the east, where Europe and Asia have been churning out brazen, challenging, no-holds-barred films for years, ones that marry ultra-violence, sex, beyond-belief gore and, in many cases — gasp! — even social commentary into a heady brew. Many of these foreign flicks have become underground cult items whose notoriety became legend thanks largely to the internet, although a handful have popped up on domestic screens, either in midnight screenings, or blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bookings in larger cities like Los Angeles or New York.
Below is a list of the twenty-five most audacious examples of what the majority of American horror films have been lacking over the years — namely, balls. Be warned: these are the most depraved, debauched and NSFW attempts to throttle those seeking to be treated like a James Bond martini — shaken, not stirred. A good number are available through the usual channels — Netflix, YouTube and DVD — but many have been edited. Always seek out the unexpurgated versions, if applicable. Not all are traditional horror films, per se, but psychological horror can be just as disturbing, and all are safe bets to challenge even the strongest of stomachs. So go ahead and watch, if you dare…you sick bastards.
A SERBIAN FILM (2010)
This is the current titleholder as the most insanely twisted, deeply disturbing film in recent horror history. The fact that it’s banned in numerous countries, and that Netflix won’t even carry it, confirm how messed up it is. The setup is fairly simple: a former porn actor desperate for money to support his family is coaxed out of retirement to do a new film. Little does he know that the director of the film has some troubling ideas about what constitutes “art.” The film knows no boundaries, and goes places no film has ever attempted. The director has defended it as a response to Serbian government oppression. That’s open to debate, to say the least, but to brave this well-made but totally insane journey through the rigors of human hell is a trip that will never be forgotten. See it at your own peril.
One of the best and most unsettling of Japanese horror films, Takashi Miike’s tale of loneliness and revenge is a slow build, but once it hits the point of no return, it becomes certifiably whacked. A middle-aged widower takes some bad advice from a friend and starts screening women for a nonexistent film he’s casting. Not a wise choice. He winds up becoming infatuated with a quiet girl who is harboring more than a few secrets. The deliberate pace sucks you in, but once the unspeakable starts happening, even the strongest of resolves will be tested. It’s basically Misery on ’roids, and it contains one of the greatest scares in recent film history revolving around a burlap bag. Torture, not for the timid.
BAISE MOI (2000)
Thelma and Louise with hardcore sex, ultra-violence and a shoestring budget. If you like your female empowerment stories crudely done, with no punches pulled, this nasty little French thriller might be your cup of poison. Two friends fed up with basically everything, decide to hit the road, randomly killing and having sex — sometimes at the same time. Guns are inserted into nontraditional areas, and as bodies pile up like cordwood, you know it’s not going to have much of an optimistic end. The two leads (Karen Bach and Raffaela Anderson) were actual porn stars at the time, so the sex scenes weren’t faked, although the gore could’ve used some sprucing up, because it looks downright amateurish at times. The raw, anarchic spirit is what gives the film its juice. Just don’t expect much in the way of subtlety or insight. If The Sex Pistols had pooled their talents into making a snuff film, it would’ve looked a lot like this.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980)
How’s this for a marketing coup? Ten days after the premiere, the film’s director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested and charged with murder. That’s how realistic the deaths in this landmark horror film appeared to the Italian courts. It’s also one of the very first — if not the first — film to introduce the concept of “found footage,” as it details the misfortune that befalls an American film crew on location in the Amazon. Impalements, beheadings, cannibalism and amputations ensue, plus a lot of other heinous behavior that decorum prevents us from detailing here. Offensive and savage, this was for many years the litmus test regarding what boundaries could or could not be crossed in a film. Deodato has long protested that Cannibal Holocaust is a reflection of society at large, but with that sociological protest aside, he should take solace in the fact this remains one of the most banned films ever.
This is an anomaly among the other titles mentioned here, because for the most part it is a horror film that you create in your own mind. Thanks to the power of suggestion, a brilliantly sick sound design and great cinematography that makes you think you may be seeing something revolting, this is cerebral terror that eschews the usual buckets of blood and guts. The only plot point necessary is that a middle-aged woman, fearful of losing her looks, begins a most unsavory dietary program that involves the consumption of dumplings. To know any more would be to ruin it, but you’ll think twice about ever having potstickers again. Brilliantly conceived and expanded from by Hong Kong director Fruit Chan’s own short film, this is proof that less can be more — much more — especially when you add a little sweet-and-sour sauce.
Another mordant gem from the French horror renaissance, this is basically a redressing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but with a large political axe to grind. Fleeing from protest riots in the city, four friends reunite at a country hostel/farmhouse run by a clan of neo-Nazis. More tools are put to good use than at a Black and Decker convention, as the pals try to stay alive and keep all their body parts intact. If the setting seems a little familiar, writer-director Xavier Gens (Hitman) at least gives it a patina of social comment amid all the flying entrails. The ending might seem a little anti-climatic, but between improper use of table saws, severed tendons and fricasseed faces, this should assuage anarchists everywhere.
A lot of Asian horror has been associated with kids wearing Kabuki makeup or dripping-wet girls crawling on the floor. But thanks to directors like Takashi Miike, there’s a group of filmmakers who not only push the envelope, but shred the whole damn thing entirely, harking back to the “splatter eros” of Japanese horror of the ’80s. Grotesque is one of the most discomforting Jho experiences of recent years, combining elements of a three-person chamber drama, sadism and unsettling mind games. A young couple is kidnapped and strapped to metal slabs in the basement of a man with obvious medical knowledge. What unfolds is grisly mayhem that earned it a ban in Britain, and Makita should pay royalties for the blatant product placement of one of its chainsaws. While unabashedly influenced by what the Saw series wrought, the performances by the kidnapper and his young female victim far transcend the usual genre melodramatics and effectively give the film its jet-black heart.
THE GUINEA PIG SERIES (1985-8)
There are actually six films in this series (the seventh was a compilation), but the most famous one is Flower of Flesh and Blood, due in large part to Charlie Sheen going ape shit after having seen it. Convinced that what he saw was real, he contacted the FBI to investigate, fearing it was a real snuff film. The majority of them are the same — psychotics turning either themselves, or other people, into human sushi. The films vary in length, as well as tone. Some, like Flower, are brutal beyond description, as a girl is slowly dismembered; others, like the uproarious He Never Dies, chronicle an immortal man’s attempt to sicken his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend by pelting him with his insides. The series basically ushered in a whole new era in Japanese horror, a ripple effect that’s still felt to this day.
HAUTE TENSION (2003)
This is the film that helped French director Alexandre Aja leap across the pond to make American horror films. Unfortunately, none has equaled the unbridled lunacy of this 2003 shocker. Of all the films mentioned here, it’s the only one surely to inspire the most debate, as the nonsensical ending is still being bandied about ten years after the fact. That ride off the rails aside, everything leading up to it makes for a bloody good time, telling the tale of two female friends on vacation from college who are being shadowed by a hulking killer. The gore is poured on in gallons, and the kills are so in-your-face that Aja’s stylish direction almost goes unappreciated. Just don’t expect it to make a lick of sense when all is said and done — although it does give new meaning to “getting head.”
THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE (2009)
This Dutch treat has already gained cult status and spawned two sequels, but it’s hard to imagine anything topping this first foray into the (literal) bowels of madness. The setup is the template for basically 90 percent of all horror films of the past thirty-five years. Two American girls are driving in the German woods when their car breaks down. They go in search of help, but instead of running into Jason, or some other crazed killer, they meet a kind doctor. Next thing you know, they’re part of an experiment by him to create a “human centipede” — joining three people together by their gastric systems. Yep, it’s as sick as it sounds, especially around feeding time. Repellent, but also dryly amusing, credit writer-director Tom Six for taking the hoariest of setups and reinventing it in the filthiest way imaginable. And that’s a compliment.
ICHI THE KILLER (2001)
Miike makes a return appearance here with his Yakuza-themed drama about a programmed assassin with some lethal footwear (among other skills), who’s being used as an enforcer in a power play between rival factions. Pretty much a standard-issue crime story, it’s given to fits of extraordinary violence that grow progressively more outrageous, until it resembles an abbatoir-gone-beserk. Flying faces, split bodies, ill-advised needle insertions — this is Miike at his looniest. While he’s merciless with the violence, it’s couched in such a cartoonish style that it’s best not to take it too seriously. Special bonus points for creating the opening title in a manner never seen before. Eat your heart out, Saul Bass.
IN MY SKIN (2002)
Not every film here has psychos running amok — sometimes the most unsettling horror comes from within. Such is the case with this creepy French import that tells the story of a woman who injures herself on a piece of metal, but rather allowing the wound to heal, she becomes fascinated with self-mutilation. The obsession becomes so bad that she eventually begins to chew at her arms and other places to feed her psychosis. This is a very quiet, very studied film written, starring and directed by Marina de Van, but it gets to you in a way a hundred attacking zombies wouldn’t. Near the end, when de Van is toying with a large knife against her face, the prospect of something awful happening will have you cringing in uneasy anticipation. Which always makes for the best kind of horror.
If you’re ever wondering whatever happened to Beatrice Dalle from Betty Blue, look no further than this demented tale of maternal instincts gone really, really, really awry. Dalle is simply known as The Woman, an unbalanced stranger who arrives at the house of a woman about to give birth…like, any minute. Suffice it to say that Dalle winds up doing more with a pair of scissors than most seamstresses do in a lifetime. The film doesn’t purport to be anything other than a bruised-knuckle bloodbath, but there is also a great deal of suspense generated as the corpses pile up, although a healthy suspension of disbelief helps it go down. Some might find overtones of motherhood at all costs the underlying message, but if you can stomach (pun intended) the hematological havoc, it’s great, fucked-up fun.
Probably the best known and prestigious title in this group, although many avoided it based on the strength of two infamous scenes — which are why it’s on this list. Utilizing the reverse narrative structure Christopher Nolan made famous two years earlier in Memento (although Pinter’s Betrayal pre-dates them all), the story is about a woman who suffers a brutal rape and the vengeance that is meted out in pursuit of the attacker. Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci star in Gasper Noe’s deeply unsettling drama, and what’s interesting is that the horrific event is presented within the first hour, which gives you the rest of the film to ponder the atrocities you’ve just witnessed. Both scenes, including a ten-minute assault and someone on the business end of a fire extinguisher, will test your limits of endurance. It’s not meant as entertainment — far from it, as it will haunt you for a long time — but it is bravura filmmaking.
MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY (1981)
Also known as Cannibal Ferox, but not to be confused with Cannibal Holocaust. C’mon, keep your skin-munching movies straight! A trio of anthropologists out to prove that cannibalism is a myth head off to the rain forest, where their theory is promptly disproved by local natives. Violently. And with great emphasis. Along with Holocaust, this is one of those early ’80s films that became legend because it was unlike anything at the time. After all, audiences really hadn’t seen much in the way of brain-eating, castrating savages. The fact that it looks cheap only added to the sleaze factor, and there’s more than enough distressing imagery (the hook scene alone is notorious), to make up for the poky parts. Although dated, it’s still a challenge to sit through, affirming that, for a brief period, Italian horror-meisters like Umberto Lenzi ruled the exploitation world.
A rare commodity in the horror genre — a film that actually invites spiritual analysis. This harrowing exercise in brutality is the Citizen Kane of FreHo, a movement that has produced other memorable Gallic titles on this list. Somebody must be putting something in the wine over there. The story even cleverly turns on itself halfway in. It starts out like a standard revenge film, with two girls seeking to turn the tables on captors from whom they have escaped. But then it morphs into something much more sadistic that ultimately raises questions about the afterlife. Not exactly a staple of this genre. It even delivers an ending open to debate, providing you can make it through the unrelenting and dehumanizing events in getting there. Ironically, there was talk of a U.S. remake three years ago that would change the ending, but thankfully, nothing’s been heard of it since.
MELANCHOLIE der ENGEL (2009)
If Terrence Malick and Eli Roth ever teamed up for a horror film, it’d look a lot like Melancholie der Engel. Clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, the nonlinear plot (and that word is used loosely) revolves around two men who pick up a trio of girls and retreat to a country house, where every form of perversity is explored. (Details will be spared for the sake of getting you to finish this article). The length makes this an endurance test for sure, but the seemingly incessant ways director Marian Dora comes up with to alternately shock, enrage and nauseate you is to be respected, though not admired. Ironically, it’s extremely well shot — that is, when it’s not being heavy-handedly pretentious. Although it’s not widely known, for many, this has taken prominence as the sickest film ever made. Hard to argue. If you want to attempt watching this as a dare, odds are you’ll lose.
MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988)
There are things in life we wish we could unsee. Imagery that burns into memory so deeply, you can’t shake them, no matter how hard you try. This Hong Kong historical horror drama has such a scene, and you’ll know it when you see it. That’s not hype, that’s reality. The film is a recreation of the war atrocities that occurred during WWII when the Japanese took Chinese and Russian soldiers as prisoners of war. The majority of this is straight narrative, with excellent performances (avoid the badly dubbed version, though), but the scenes of torture and experimentation on the prisoners rival the grandest guignol imaginable. It’s brutality done in a matter-of-fact, non-exploitive manner, which only makes it even more terrifying.
MOTHER OF TEARS (2007)
No compilation of horrors would be complete without at least a shout-out to one of masters of giallo, Dario Argento. Even though he’s in his twilight years, and now uses a lot of CGI for gore instead of FX wizards like Tom Savini, he showed he could still serve up the sanguinary sauce with this final installment in the Three Mothers trilogy (Suspiria and Inferno being the others). Asia Argento plays an American working at a museum who gets an ancient urn that, after it’s opened, unleashes a witch who turns Rome into a playground ripe for vivisection. And in true Argento style, he piles on the gore with trademark organ-ripping, eye-gouging and, at times, downright medieval, mayhem. Although the film divided his fan base, the shocks are ample and, on occasion, downright awesome. The opening death scene alone should prove the old maestro still has some gristle left to give.
For those riding the express train to hell, German director Jörg Buttgereit’s cult tale of a dysfunctional couple and the extremes they go to in an effort to keep things fresh will be showing on the way there. It’s exactly what the title indicates, as it tells what happens when Rob and Betty decide to introduce a corpse into the relationship. Naturally, Betty favors the corpse, sending Rob into a downward spiral of despair. It was shot on Super-8, with all the production values you would expect from that format, which some have interpreted as a comment on the desensitization of the humor spirit. Yeah, right. The ending does provide a literal climax you’ll not soon forget.
NEKROMANTIK 2 (1991)
Stepping up to 16-mm film the second time out, with much better production values, Buttgereit starts the film with a quote from that great homespun philosopher, Ted Bundy. That’s about as subtle as things get here. This time out, the story follows a girl named Monika who exhumes Rob and brings him home. She also meets Mark, a real live boyfriend, and the two hit it off, although eventually he takes a dim view of Monika’s doings, and lets her know. Some guys just don’t know when to shut up. This actually has some amusing gallows humor, but is still majorly tweaked; once again culminating in an ending that has to be seen to be believed. Not surprisingly, the film was confiscated by German police shortly after its opening.
PREMOTUS: THE FALLEN ANGEL (1997)
If German writer-director and star Olaf Ittenbach’s aim was to top the Peter Jackson opus Dead Alive in terms of unbridled comic gore, he could’ve used a bigger budget (not to mention better actors). Nevertheless he does ring the meaty dinner bell with this low-budget zombiepalooza. After a nearly incoherent prologue (or two), the film hits its stride in the last half hour when a party is crashed by the ravenous walking dead. Decapitations, gut-munching and other impolite undead behavior follows. The dubbed version is atrocious, so try to find the original. It’s not art, but the cumulative effect produces the desired sadistic sensory overload. Now, if someone can just explain where the tank came from.
SALO: OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975)
Like Men Behind the Sun, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s infamous Salò: The 120 Days of Sodom uses World War II as a backdrop to depict atrocities carried out for the enjoyment of a decadent set of aristocrats in Italy. A group of young men and women are gathered at a palace where they’re subjected to unspeakable torments and horrors, ending with a ritual slaughter. This was the last film Pasolini made before being murdered, and although it’s been hailed in some critical corners as a masterwork, the most you take away from it are the indelible sickening visuals. Exploitation or art? You decide.
SPLATTER: NAKED BLOOD (1996)
A bizarre Cronenberg-esque foray into the effects of mind-altering substances, this Japanese film is actually pretty normal for about the first thirty minutes. Then things go very wrong. A young medical prodigy invents a drug that is supposed to remove all bad feelings and leave you in bliss. Three girls, all with major issues, wind up being guinea pigs for the drug and before long, self-mutilation and dining on flesh are on the menu. Let’s put it this way: you’ll never think of finger foods the same way again, and those with a desire to return to the womb won’t be disappointed either. Even though the gore is berserk, this is really an intriguing story; if you can get beyond the bountiful splatter.
TOKYO GORE POLICE (2008)
This hilariously brainsick creation is basically a blood-soaked manga come to life. Set in the future, it follows a girl named Ruka as she searches for the killer of her father, a veteran policeman. That’s sort of the springboard for a non-stop assault that catalogs just about every way possible a human can be sliced, diced, split in half — and yet somehow keep regenerating. It is also awash in eye-popping visuals, creating a world where geysers of blood become a primary color motif. The film is a ton of fun — well, if you’re not too put off by wall-to-wall arterial fountains that rival Old Faithful.