Thursday, October 23, 2014

Eric LaRocca's Top 10 Horror Films - Part 2

Read Part 1 for Films 10-6.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I am by no means suggesting that the following cinematic works are the most flawless representations of the genre and deserve to trump all other horror films. These films merely resonated with me on a personal level and are still greatly influential on my path as a young writer and enthusiast of the art form. These are films to which I look for inspiration. My hope is that you will read the list, check out some of the films, and develop and share your own opinions.

And here's my final 5!

5.) Hellraiser (1987)
Written & Directed by Clive Barker - Starring Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence

When Clive Barker crash landed on the literary landscape in the early 1980’s with the release of his collection of original short stories entitled The Books of Blood, horror icon Stephen King predicted Barker to be “the future of horror.” While of course Barker’s stardom unfortunately never matched the level of King’s, his work is incomparable and in many ways outshines much of King’s work with a poetry in his prose and an astoundingly unique ingenuity in the presentation of his terrifying material. Prior to releasing The Books of Blood, Barker had been directing low-budget independent films and touring England with his fringe theatrical troupe, The Dog Company. In fact, many of the plays they presented that Barker had penned predicted many of the themes Barker would later explore in his successful commercial feature films. For instance, Barker’s homage to the Grand Guignol theatre, Frankenstein in Love, predicts Hellraiser with grisly depictions of torture, most importantly with a scene in which a central character is flayed alive in front of the audience. Regardless, it was Barker’s directorial debut with Hellraiser that solidified his name as a bona fide Master of Horror.

Hellraiser was adapted by Barker from his novella, “The Hellbound Heart.” The plot follows a seeker of infinite pleasure who solves a mysterious puzzle box that opens up a sadomasochist world of Hell administrated entirely by an infantry of demonic sadists, known as the Cenobites. After his corpse is reanimated from the Cenobites' dimension devoted to pain by receiving a single drop of blood, he forces his married ex-lover to bring him human sacrifices in order to fully regenerate his strength.

While the plot of Hellraiser is refreshingly unique in its own merit, it is Barker's competent direction and brilliant cinematography that turn the piece from a run-of-the-mill demon horror picture (a tired subgenre sodomized by uninspired horror directors by the 1980's) to a matchless work of art. The images with which Barker assaults his audience are both profoundly beautiful and yet unquestionably unique with their ingenuity and horror. Much like his literary work, Barker contradicts astounding beauty with astonishing disgust. Not only are the visuals a treat for the eyes with their artistry, but the characters are fascinating and operate realistically in an otherwise fantastical world. His characters are wealthy with real human needs and wants that effectively propel the development of the story.

"We'll tear your soul apart."
Hellraiser is truly unmatchable in its creativity and flawless delivery of fantastical monstrosities. While Barker’s later films excelled too in their individuality and inventiveness, Hellraiser is by far Barker’s crowning achievement and a venerated yard stick by which all other directorial debuts in the horror genre should be measured.

4. Audition (Ôdishon) (1999)
Directed by Takashi Miike - Written by Daisuke Tengan - Based on the novel by Ryû Murakami - Starring Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki

Very few films have prompted a physical upset or uneasiness in my demeanor upon first viewing. Unfortunately, not much disturbs me or makes me cringe. Takashi Miike’ Audition, however, is a film that will sicken even the most experienced connoisseur of extreme cinema. Miike is internationally regarded and well-known for his explorations into very taboo territory. Audition is one of the very first films that gave him international exposure as this widely polarizing provocateur. Since the 1999 theatrical release of Audition, Miike has gone on to direct films with subjects spanning from pedophilia to incest to torture to abortion. His 2007 contribution to Showtime’s Masters of Horror, Imprint, was denied television broadcast from the network for its explicit content. None of his recent projects, however, have replicated the eeriness or repugnance he so skilfully masters in Audition.

The film concentrates on a widower who, with the help of a friend, sets up a fake audition in order to meet his next wife. Out of the many hopeful applicants, he meets a young woman that immediately enchants him with her demure and polite temperament. He discovers too late, however, that she is not entirely as she seems and that she harbors a horrifying secret.

Unlike most horror films, Audition succeeds at steadily building tension in order to provide a truly impressive climax. Many critics have argued that the film moves too slowly; however, Miike operates with a thoughtful exactness and builds suspense for an unforgettable final fifteen minutes. In fact, U.S. horror filmmaker Eli Roth confessed he mirrored Miike’s slow-burning method of direction and story development in order to build toward an effective finale with his gruesome U.S. directorial debut, Hostel.

The finale contains some of the most disturbing and gut-wrenching visuals one will ever experience in contemporary horror cinema. Miike’s Audition is a frightening and eerie descent into relationships and obsession. I believe Audition’s merit and horror stem from the unassuming fact that it is simply too real for most viewers.

3. Antichrist (2009)
Written & Directed by Lars Von Trier - Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

“Nature is Satan’s Church.”

Lars von Trier is an enigmatic and widely criticized figure operating on the landscape of modern cinema. Most who hear his name might immediately recall his controversy at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival when at a filmed press conference he made several very inappropriate comments concerning Hitler and the Holocaust. Well before the scandal at Cannes went viral, however, von Trier was known in most cinematic circles as an exceptional provocateur. His first and only horror film, Antichrist, exhibits this deeply ingrained propensity in von Trier to shock, appall, and disturb his audience. The film is unquestionably one of the most artistic and yet disturbing works of horror cinema.

The film’s premise is fairly uncomplicated and seemingly uninspired. (That seems to be a running theme in most effective horror films, doesn't it? After all, fellow writers, less is more!) After the tragic death of their newborn, a married couple (Williem Defore and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreat to their cottage in the woods in order to grieve and repair their disintegrating marriage. Before the healing can begin, nature takes a turn for the worse and they are pitted against one another in a grisly clash of the sexes.

Although Antichrist's striking and experimental cinematography is reminiscent of early Ingmar Bergman and clearly indicative of its inspiration from "art-house" pictures, it clearly owes a debt to traditional “cabin in the wood” horror films, such as The Evil Dead. Not only does it borrow eeriness from traditional types of horror pictures, it is noticeably heavily influenced by the modern torture-porn movement with its gratuitous and over-the-top scenes of mutilation and sexuality. What sets Antichrist apart from the rest is its striking visuals, von Trier’s intelligent direction, and astonishing performances by the two-person cast. Charlotte Gainsborgh won the highly coveted Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in this film. There is a vulnerability in Dafoe in Gainsbourg’s characters von Trier exploits that is refreshing and unique.

"Now I could hear what I couldn't hear before. The cry of all the things that are to die."
During the press tour promoting Antichrist, von Trier confessed he penned his original screenplay as a method to recover from a very serious depression. While the film’s storyline is bleak and discouraging at best, this cheerlessness translates into arresting images as well. There is some exceptional camera work in this picture that commendably enriches the increasing strangeness. The film solidifies von Trier as a master at steadily building effective eeriness until the picture reaches a level of demented lunacy that very few other horror films have accomplished. Although many film scholars analyze the piece and argue whether the film is about misogyny or the inherent evilness of nature, the film is unquestionably a frightening examination of the natural world and the brutality of basic human nature. Without spoiling the grisly treats newcomers will encounter in the picture, Antichrist is a remarkable visual experience that will remain with you long after.

2.  Possession (The Night the Screaming Stops) (1981)
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski - Written by Andrzej Zulawski & Frederic Tuten - Starring Sam Neil, Isabelle Adjani, Heinz Bennent

Nothing can prepare even the most experienced film-goer for the psycho-sexual depravity that saturates Polish-born director Andrzej Zuwalski’s 1981 flamboyantly grotesque masterpiece, Possession (alternatively titled, The Night the Screaming Stops). Possession is without a doubt the most atypical horror film ever created and is, in my opinion, a masterwork (albeit obscure) achievement in film-making. On one hand, it is an intelligent art-house film that achieved critical praise and won top prizes at well-respected film festivals, most notably at Cannes. On the other hand, it is regarded as a provocative piece of exploitation cinema that upset audiences so deeply with its high-octane gruesomeness that it was heavily censored for commercial release (truncated from 124 minutes to a meager 90 minutes run time) and was subsequently banned and listed on the original roster of possibly impoundable films, otherwise known as the notorious Video Nasties. Many film scholars find it difficult to categorize the piece as simply drama, horror or suspense. As all elements are contained within the picture, it is obviously an expertly designed hybrid of all three. Possession is a film to which I return time and time again for inspiration, insight, and creativity. It is unquestionably the strangest and yet most exciting film I have ever encountered.

"I can't exist by myself because I'm afraid of myself, because I'm the maker of my own evil."
Possession explores the inherent duality in basic human nature with regard to good and evil by following the disintegration of a marriage after an unassuming husband returns home from a secretive business trip and finds his wife dissatisfied and lobbying for a divorce. Suspicious of her increasingly bizarre and hysterical behavior, he trails her and discovers she harbors a secret lover and a gruesome secret that forever changes the dynamic of their relationship.

Possession is flooded with sumptuous visuals, disturbing themes and electrically charged performances from the entire cast. Isabelle Adjani confessed to a French magazine long after Possession had been released and consequently censored that it took her many years to mentally recover from performing the role of Anna. Her unwavering commitment to the character is more than evident in the film’s most infamous and mesmerizing sequence in which Adjani’s character suffers a complete psychotic breakdown in an underground subway tunnel. Her dementedly hyper-kinetic movements and speeches add to the intensity of the picture and are deeply unnerving to watch. In fact, Possession shares many similarities with the previously mentioned Antichrist as while their unconventional methods of communicating their story confound and disturb most audiences, both films deal with good and evil revolving around a singular female character.

What truly makes Possession the anomaly is its thoughtfulness with regard to the expression of its themes. Zuwalski sets his film against the backdrop of the Berlin Wall when East and West Germany were disconnected. Like the wall, the characters are segregated from one another and operate strangely, unable to effectively communicate. The film also examines the dichotomy between good and evil and expresses this contrast in Cronbergian manner where both evil and good are distinctly made flesh. This corporeal representation of an otherwise metaphysical concept was engineered by special effects master Carlo Rambaldi (famous for his work on Steven Spielberg’s E.T.)

Although I've read countless essays and analyses concerning the film, I’m still slowly digesting the piece and I appreciate new subtle aspects of the film upon every viewing. While Zuwalski’s film may repulse or bewilder you upon initial watching, it will force you to interact, engage, and think. That’s precisely what commendable horror should do. Possession is an experience like no other and remains an extraordinary watermark in film-making that has yet to be matched and most likely never will be.

1. Martyrs (2008)
Written & Directed by Pascal Laugier - Starring Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï, Catherine Bégin

Perhaps you've heard of Martyrs. Perhaps you’re familiar with the viral buzz surrounding the piece when it was first screened in 2008 at various film festivals across Europe and North America where hordes of gore-hound lovers stumbled or were carried out from theatres to vomit or temporarily relieve themselves from the onslaught of visual carnage. Martyrs is the most difficult film I've ever sat through and, in turn, is the greatest horror film I've ever seen. Its incessant violence is administrated with a systematic precision that takes the viewer down a rabbit hole into the depths of human depravity from where there is no discernible escape.

To summarize the film would be absolutely detrimental to those who have yet to see the piece. The less you know the heavier and greater the impact will be. In fact, I viciously envy those who have yet to experience this incredible work and, therefore, often live vicariously through friends to whom I screen the film. In short, the film revolves around a troubled young woman’s revenge against those who kidnapped her and tortured her as a child. That’s all you need to know. If you’re the least bit curious, please simply watch the film and do not investigate any further.

The film’s director, Pascal Laugier, stressed that while the piece is mechanically connected to the modern torture-porn movement, the piece is in fact the antithesis of films such as Hostel as the gratuitous violence in Laugier’s film has a distinct motivation and is used to emphasize a certain social or philosophical issue. He contends that the film is not simply about “torture,” but instead about “pain.” This pain is an emotion commonly felt among those who witness this film as the piece sledgehammers filmgoers with grisly image after another. Although some insist that the film shocks for the sake of shocking, many find that the piece has a specific persistence and in many ways scrutinizes the very nothingness of everything.

My admiration of the audacity and ferocity of this film knows no bounds and, in fact, I subtly paid tribute to Martyrs by naming the two female characters in my 2014 Best of Fresh Blood piece, Parasite, after the two leading characters in this film. Martyrs is not merely a film where one sits, stares at the screen, and mindlessly absorbs the bloodshed. The film is a thought-provoking installment in modern cinema. What astonishes me so greatly about Martyrs is its uncanny ability to illicit a reaction from me no matter how many times I view it. 

I'm convinced that this piece is not a mere hyped-up hybrid of philosophy and torture porn that will eventually weaken and give way to newer and more sadistic efforts in filmmaking. Laugier’s picture is timeless and the bleakness of the depravity represented in this piece will be difficult to match. Martyrs is a gateway drug that leads the viewer by hand into a realm of unforgettable debauchery and anguish that will disturb even the most calloused viewer of horror cinema. You have been warned. However, the pain, very much like the agony the characters experience throughout the film, is transcending.

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