When it comes to what’s shocking and what’s not, the process of desensitisation for film audiences has been fairly rapid. That’s not to say shock and disgust doesn’t occur – as an example, anyone following the fate of Lucky McKee’s The Woman this year will probably be aware that there was an irate episode at the Sundance screening of the film – but, and particularly for horror audiences who are forever being invited to be horrified and usually aren’t, the sensations have become surprisingly rare.
That’s not to say horror as a genre particularly owes us these feelings, of course. It’s just one facet of everything else it can throw at us, but yet horror still has its capacity to disturb, and for me there is a hardcore of films which have never lost that power. Interestingly, none of these films are younger than thirteen years old; this may point to me growing increasingly jaded as I rack up more and more viewing hours/miles on the clock, or it could be that the direction now being taken by cinematic auteurs with the most clout just doesn’t particularly move me. This is also a fairly mixed list – some of the films are supernatural horrors, some are not, and although there are some consistencies, it seems like a variety of films have made their mark in different ways. In any case, here are five films which made an indelible impact on this blogger…
5) The Blair Witch Project (1999)
…and I’ll just hand in my imaginary horror blogging credentials at the imaginary door, shall I? The thing is though, if I’m being totally honest, BWP…scared me. It’s nearly impossible to go back to it now and watch it as the anomaly it was at the time; although it didn’t invent ‘found footage’ by any stretch, the format was unusual back in the late 90s, and whilst the online interest was unprecedented, it all completely passed me by as it was before I was internet-savvy in any proper sense. I went to see the film on Halloween, expecting very little, knowing less, and came out – like a huge proportion of the rest of the audience – spooked.
The organic character development within the film worked really well, and these weren’t fully scripted, rehearsed characters either – the main players went by their own names, and were authentically miserable, confused and scared as the film progressed. It shows. That famous shot of Heather with snot and tears running down her face has been parodied to death now, but by fuck, that girl was really afraid, and we were effectively there with her, understanding no more than her. Everything was refracted directly through the group’s video footage; it was the only thing which came between us and whatever supernatural was out there in the dark, Jungian expanse of the woods. We – and they – could never get a handle on what it was because it was always off-screen, out of eyeshot, and superior to us. We didn’t understand the significance of the piles of stones, or the effigy hung up on the branch, but whatever-it-was did, and one snare operated after another…
BWP took a rational fear – getting lost – spliced in something sinister yet understated, and left three twentysomethings to burn through their optimism and enthusiasm in a disorientating environment. Hiding behind their cameras didn’t make their ordeal any less real but, back in ’99, it made their ordeal much more real to me. I’ve never revisited this film because I just know, especially in light of how endemic ‘found footage’ has become, that it would never match up to the first viewing…
4) The Shining (1980)
…but here’s one I’ve rewatched several times, and always come out the other side feeling that this is one of the most terrifying stories ever committed to celluloid. The Shining exhudes a leaden, poisonous atmosphere which has often been copied, but never bettered.
Kubrick’s spin on Stephen King’s original novel – a film in which King was heavily involved too - did what should have been impossible: it managed to be even more frightening than the book, and it did this by giving us a complete package of sound, aesthetics, and performances. Nicholson seems genuinely possessed during the course of the film, and his (minimal) supporting cast look just as genuinely uneasy…the garish modern touches to the Art Deco finery of the The Overlook Hotel are distinctive and create a strange backdrop for the demonic presences therein, but perhaps most importantly there’s a pervading sense of doom to all this. The glimpses you get of the…other residents are so surreal and sinister that my skin still crawls.
The Shining draws me in every time and feels exactly like a nightmare. To this day, it’s untouched in terms of the unease it generates.
3) Guinea Pig 1: Devil’s Experiment (1985)
Rather than the ‘Flowers of Flesh and Blood’ episode of the oddball Ginî piggu series, it’s the first film – and the first of the films which I saw – that I count amongst my disturbing Top 5. When I got hold of a very grainy copy of this on video in the mid-nineties, it was purely down to the death metal fanzines I was reading at the time: if you know anything at all about death metal, then you won’t be surprised to know that devoted ‘zines gave a fair few pages to ‘the most graphic’ or gory horror movies as well as the predictable most graphic/gory band-names, lyrics and covers. I’d spotted a few mentions of GP1 and, knowing nothing of Oriental cinema, decided it had to be tracked down.
As with many films whose veneer of creepiness has been destroyed by modern digital remasters and cleaned-up prints, GP1 looked a damn sight nastier on a foggy VHS…through the grain, my eyes could just about pick out a young woman. She’s nameless, remains nameless - just like her attackers, who we never fully see - and she is slowly, methodically tortured in a number of different ways. Each of her ordeals is simply signposted by a black screen and a single word – be it ‘hit’, or ‘kick’, and we then get an episode of that treatment and that treatment only. It’s all very regimented and neat, which only seems to showcase the cruelty. I had no idea what I’d just seen at the time, but the motiveless, targeted mistreatment of a young woman definitely got under my skin. In the year I was starting school, the Japanese had not only mastered ordeal cinema (note I’m shying away from the dreaded ‘torture porn’ label), but they’d rendered it down to its most repugnant component parts - tormenting and killing, just for experiment’s sake.
2) Men Behind the Sun (1988)
Repugnant component parts…tormenting and killing, just for experiment’s sake…well, regardless of how affecting I found the murky world of The Devil’s Experiment, being confronted with a film its equal in terms of cruelty which has an actual historical precedent was always going to stay with me. This it has; Men Behind the Sun is one of the most upsetting things I have ever witnessed, and – as documentation from Camp 731 continues to emerge – the experience surpasses being ‘just a film’, something you can forget or dismiss.
731 was, by the way, the equal (and forerunner) of the European concentration camps, although on a smaller scale; it practiced the dehumanisation of the Han Chinese and other non-Japanese allies in the name of making warfare more efficient, and Men Behind the Sun is its zenith in terms of dramatisation. The film follows the fortunes of a group of (very) young Japanese recruits who arrive in Harbin, China to work in the camp. They are encouraged to regard the Chinese prisoners as ‘marut’, experimental fodder, no better than rats – in the process of this victims themselves, although it is the Chinese who physically suffer most. Depictions of experiments in this film are horrific, and unforgettable – as is the disposal of people killed along the way.
Just in case you forget you are watching a film based on historical events, the film provides you with an epilogue, revealing what happened to the key players in the story and their ‘work’. Oh, and there is rumoured to be real autopsy footage in the film too. Men Behind the Sun is far too close for comfort, but it deserves to be seen and to disturb.
1) Aftermath (1994)
Think you don’t care what happens to you after you die? I mean, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, then you have nothing to lose – and if you do, then you’ll have transcended all the nasty biological stuff. Right? Right?
Aftermath takes the miserable given fact – that we will all, eventually, and in a way we don’t yet know, shuffle off this mortal coil – and makes it all seem so much worse. It has the capacity to make you feel afraid about the postmortem state, rather than about the process of dying itself, and in a sense renders dead flesh uniquely vulnerable.
Its premise is very simple, and the film itself only lasts thirty minutes; a (nameless, largely faceless) mortician, left alone at the end of his shift, begins to inappropriately touch the corpses – specifically the remains of a young woman who died in a car accident. Soon he isn’t just fondling her dead body…and after a brutal sexual attack on her (because, through his actions, she less like an inert corpse and more like a real, victimised character) he mutilates what is left of her. The upshot of this mutilation renders her down to component parts again in a twisted sequence; this dehumanising mutilation is a theme which evidently bothers me on a lot of levels, incidentally, as it’s true of several of the films I’ve mentioned here, as is an anonymous attacker.
Aftermath hasn’t finished, though. Having shown us this girl as dead flesh, we’re briefly reminded, in a neat and understated few seconds, that this was a person after all. It’s a horrific half an hour, with no dialogue, no names, just an undefended form trapped in a stark blue-lit hinterland between existing and not existing. As films go, it’s one of the bleakest things I’ve ever seen.