What’s up with the appeal of transgression? The impending arrival of Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! has led to ecstatic reviews – and plenty of warnings about its graphic and disturbing content, currently unknown to the general public.
That’s part of the sizzle, of course – the lure of the forbidden. It’s always been a part of show biz, and film’s unique and overwhelming properties take full advantage of them to transmit transgression. We see these kind films as if on a dare, whether it comes with aesthetic credentials or not. (Re: Aronofsky, some are already voicing analogies to Kubrick, and there is a lot of bloody and pretentious work out there that has been termed “Kubrickian”). Are you tough enough to sit through the movie? Certain films are so intense, so visually wrenching, that their memories burn themselves into our brains, for better and for worse.
There has always been a demand for them, as the long history of exploitation cinema shows. We are curious. We slow down to peer at accidents. Death, decay, trauma, crime, pain, loss, all the stuff of horror fills our news feeds hourly, a chyron of provisional grasp on a reality that makes sense running perpetually at the bottom of our screens of consciousness. No wonder we made slasher films the highest-grossing movie subgenre in history. We seem hypervigilant, always tensed for the next dark thing to spring out at us.
Do we need transgressive films? Strict forms of film censorship in various periods in various cultures always led to a coded language, a polite signal system that conveyed forbidden meanings without stirring the censors’ ire. In the hands of intelligent directors such as Sturges, Sirk, and Wilder, they proved that more artistry is coaxed from limitation than license.
At the same time, the collapse of gatekeepers usually triggers an artistic boom, messy and teeming. The rapid succession of New Waves in film, reiterating through decades and across different national cinemas, revealed that it is vital for film to be free to explore every avenue of human experience and dream.
Now for the bad news. The liberation of cinema was rapidly dragged down into lowest-common-denominator madness. I can think of many, many, many transgressive films you do not ever need to see. I just went through a batch of them in research for a book, in one case returning to a movie I’d walked out of in fright 44 years earlier. It was not worth it.
Most transgressive films are their own reason for being, which is not enough. I’m not going to name them. They are something, primarily residing in the horror genre, that feels unstrung, that caters to the voyeur, the sadist, a kind of torture porn, dealing in shock as commodity. Boris Karloff notably remarked, “Horror means something revolting. Anybody can show you a pail-full of innards. But the object of the roles I played is not to turn your stomach – but merely to make your hair stand on end. . . . Shocks . . . should not be forced into a film without excuse.”
So are there fundamentally disturbing films that need to be seen? Yes. I made a joke about a top-10 list, and came up with more than 40, listed below. It’s purely subjective – our deepest fears (and retching points) are Venn diagrams, overlapping here and there but ultimately individual. I am convinced that the filmmakers involved couldn’t have said what they needed to in any other way, and do so brilliantly in each case.
WARNING: This list is intended for the use of mature and thoughtful viewers only. They require a serious attitude, watching during daytime hours, and may take many breaks to get through (I kept a nice stock of Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers handy when watching some of these, for emergency cheer-ups). You are not to watch them with children around – I saw Night and Fog when I was 8, which was about 40 years too early. I never needed to see The Exorcist. Do YOU need to see any of these? Follow your instincts – there is no shame in covering your eyes.
Despite the general contempt for “art,” it is powerful – otherwise why does it cause such an uproar when it proves bothersome and thought-provoking? In a consensus-driven culture, voices that question are vital enemies. Night of the Living Dead, A Clockwork Orange, Life of Brian, and many other films were denounced when they were released, and now they are classics and not such a big deal after all. We are weathered from exposure, inured to new levels of acceptability.
I stuck to one film per director. There are many whose careers are one long transgressive arc – directors such as Bunuel, Lynch, Cronenberg, Gilliam, Russell, and Waters. Most of these films were banned at one time or another, and some are almost impossible to find. I am sure I missed a few of your “favorites” – but maybe they’re not ones I need to see. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to wash my hands and go watch an old MGM musical or something.
Browning’s repellent masterpiece destroyed his career. He made a film about circus freaks using real circus freaks. On top of that, he makes the argument that society’s outcasts and mutations are the only true humans. It’s still a subversive idea, and one accentuated with disturbing details.
Night and Fog
The most impactful film about the Holocaust is one of the earliest ones. Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima, Mon Amour) helms the documentary using a script by Jean Cayrol, who escaped from the Mauthausen concentration camp. The movie plainly outlines the process by which millions of people were turned into dead things. With music by the great Hanns Eisler (perhaps the only composer to be banned by the Nazis and deported by the United States), it contrasts contemporary footage of the then-abandoned ruins of camps with excruciating documentary footage of what happened there. You only need to see it once because you can’t forget what you see.
Fires on the Plain
A stroll through Hell. Ichikawa is a master, and here he pitilessly adapts Shoei Oooka’s 1951 novel in harsh Eastman black and white. In the last days of World War II in the Philippines, outnumbered and starving Japanese soldiers resort to cannibalism to survive. The limitations imposed by mankind’s animal nature stands out in sharp relief against a desolate landscape.
Another career-destroying film. A photographer gets sexual gratification from killing women – while he films them watching him do it. Made in the same year as Psycho, deplored and then lost to time for a few decades. Reappraisal has elevated it to its proper status. The villain is a pitiable and abused man, with whom we are brought to almost identify with as the film progresses. What does it mean that we’re peering over his shoulder? We came to see violence, too. What is the extent and nature of our complicity with the horror-makers, and, finally, the monsters themselves? A classic about voyeurism, manipulation and the very meaning of movie-making.
Jigoku aka The Sinners of Hell
In a move away from his long string of successful period ghost stories (kaidan), Nakagawa unspools a contemporary horror story that contains the most terrifying vision of Hell ever put on film. No one escapes the karmic wheel as the hapless protagonist realizes his own part in the sufferings of humanity.
OK, there was this girl who wanted to be a nun . . . It’s difficult to pick one Bunuel film, as he is the original, delightful, and perpetual fountain of filmic perversion. This take-no-prisoners satire of the Catholic faith (you might have to bone up before you watch in order to catch all the blasphemies) blends with Bunuel’s first-generation Surrealist sensibilities to create a cynical masterpiece. A crucifix can hide a switchblade, people are no damn good, and we wind up with an implied three-way. What’s not to love?
Lord of the Flies
Are you kidding me? It’s LORD OF THE FLIES. The source, William Goulding’s 1954 novel, bane of many high-school literature classes, is actually good if you can forget the term paper you had to write about it. The setup is simple – a planeload of boys are stranded on a tropical island, and descend into savagery in no time at all. Every film the avant-garde theater giant Peter Brook ever made is amazing, and this is no exception. He went through 3,000 actors to get his cast; he put them on location and improvised with them for 60 hours, cutting the results down to an hour and a half.
Julian Beck and Judith Malina founded The Living Theater, and their avant-garde work blew open the scene with their production of Jack Gelber’s junkie drama The Connection in 1959. This, their second production of huge impact, is taken from a play written by Kenneth H. Brown, a Marine who spent 30 days in military prison for being AWOL. It’s a meticulous, physically punishing recreation of a day in the brig – screamed commands and responses, strict rules for moving, standing, and looking – an illustrated guide to the breakdown of the human soul. Exposing the absurd mechanisms of the system, Mekas’ camera captures men as machines, acting with precision out of sheer terror.
A rotten married couple have their murderous plans interrupted by – the Apocalypse. In Godard’s nihilistic vision, all Western, bourgeois values evaporate (or perhaps just reach their logical conclusions) and everyone starts killing and eating each other. For a start.
The employee of a crematorium in 1930s Prague begins to believe that his services liberate the souls of the dead, and that murder is the key to the salvation of mankind. He finds his beliefs falling in line with those brought to power by the looming takeover by the Nazis, as madness and official policy reinforce each other. Banned upon release, until the fall of the Iron Curtain 20 years later.
This insanely explicit adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudon is set in 16th century France, where a battle for political autonomy results in a rebellious priest (Oliver Reed) being framed for witchcraft, then tortured and executed. A horror movie in which society is the monster, it took nearly 50 years for it to be made available to the public.
Johnny Got His Gun
No one would film Trumbo’ famous anti-war novel, so he did it himself. A wounded soldier with no eyes, ears, teeth, tongue, or limbs roams through his consciousness while lying helpless in a military hospital. With Donald Sutherland as Jesus Christ.
The Ruling Class
Speaking of the Messiah, Jack, the Earl of Guerney (Peter O’Toole) thinks he is Jesus Christ, and he has the crucifix to prove it. “I found that when I was praying, I was talking to Myself,” he explains. His family’s attempt to control him or commit him makes for a powerful statement about the inability to live according to just about any principles. Jack becomes “sane” in the worst possible way.
Another artist whose catalog is transgression. This is the first and most aggressively awful of Waters’ “Trash Trilogy,” starring drag queen Divine as Babs Johnson, “the filthiest person alive.” Her claim to fame is challenged by the evil Raymond and Connie Marble, and the result is an epic battle of perversion. The casual fun Waters has turning reality inside-out transcends his $10,000 budget.
Who Can Kill a Child?
Narciso Ibanez Serrador
A brilliant premise brilliantly executed. The children of the world are fed up with the actions of adults, and so decide to exterminate them. The mental leap required to seeing sweet-faced toddlers as death-wielding menaces is almost impossible to make.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
A single mother cares for her son, keeps up the house, makes meals, and has sex for money. Not much happens, in bland, excruciating detail, for more than three hours. Then something happens that makes the whole film come together and blow the viewer away. The agonizingly slow setup leads to a payoff that makes you question notions of identity and human relations.
“You talkin’ to me?” The modern American good guy is a misanthropic, homicidal maniac in Scorsese’s signature film. Steeped in the cesspool of mid-‘70s Manhattan, cab driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) sinks into madness and violence . . . or is it heroism?
A grisly nightmare, Lynch’s initial film contains most of the imagery and themes he would spend the next 40 years exploring. The rich, dark black-and-white cinematography makes the horrifying dream realer than real, based in a kind of revulsion at the prospect of physical existence.
The Elfman brothers, Richard and Danny, formed the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo in 1972, a multipiece, costumed orchestra that performed Jazz Age music and Danny’s original compositions in the context of an absurd live show. Forbidden Zone is a modified record of it, reading much like a Fleischer Brothers cartoon on acid.
Worst break-up ever. Isabelle Adjani doesn’t love Sam Neill any longer, so she creates a strange, octopus-like doppelganger out of the pieces of her murder victims. A fragmented, repetitive narrative is emotionally agonizing and visually disturbing. One of the few films to be both honored at Cannes and banned in Britain.
The director’s examination of the links between entertainment, violence, conformity, repression, and voyeurism rapidly takes flight into surreal fantasy as protagonist, TV exec Max (James Woods) finds out he is a foot soldier in the struggle of two factions for control of consensual reality. Disturbing, transgressive, and still ahead of its time.
The title is taken from the Book of Revelations. This saga of one Soviet boy’s buffeting by the storm winds of World War II is the most realistic portrayal of combat ever filmed. Ostensibly an anti-fascist film, it’s so uncompromising about the physical, mental, and emotional devastation of war that vicarious exhaustion saps the viewer.
Grave of the Fireflies
An anime about a brother and sister dying of starvation in Japan at the end of World Wat II. Yep.
An extremely pointed satire of rich and poor. As in John Carpenter’s They Live, Society’s rich prey on the lower classes – but here they literally feed on them, melding their bodies with their victims and devouring their substance in an obscene parody of a cocktail party crossed with an orgy. The practical effects by Screaming Mad George (aka Joji Tani) are incomparably disturbing.
An amazing journey that takes decades and a moment at the same time, it features Tim Robbins in his first starring role, as a Vietnam-Era soldier trying to understand the hallucinations that begin to affect him and those around him. A seemingly impossible weld of spiritual and political content, the film was originally 20 minutes longer but it made audiences too upset so Lyne cut them.
What if evangelical Christian theology is the literal truth? Michael Tolkin, who also wrought the screenplay for The Player and the criminally under-regarded The New Age, gives us a sincere convert who undergoes a crisis of faith when the End Times turn out to be real. It’s not a movie that makes fun of religion in any way, but it asks brain-shattering questions about the nature of God, faith, reality, heaven, hell, and all the rest – and provides zero answers and no closure whatsoever.
In the Mouth of Madness
Carpenter’s ultimate horror statement invents a horror novel that manifests a terrifying universe that grows stronger every time a person reads it, driving them mad. Insurance investigator Sam Neill seeks the elusive author, driving into the landscape of the writer’s dark imagination and watching his world fly to pieces and double back on itself. Carpenter shows how thin the membrane between sanity and chaos can be.
Two nice young men knock on the door a rich family at their summer home. Can they borrow some eggs? What follows is a bold indictment of the horror audience’s expectations. The two casually and leisurely torture and kill the family, all the while breaking the fourth wall, cracking jokes, and even replaying a scene if it doesn’t work out to their liking. The victims are doomed, and we are forced to ask what our part in this is.
A brilliant film that asks if evil is communicable. Normal people kill randomly, united only by their contact with an amnesiac who may be a master hypnotist. Koji Yakusho is fascinating to watch as the determined detective with secrets of his own, who unravels as forces he doesn’t understand begin to control him. Kurosawa’s subtle and deliberately paced direction ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels.
This impactful horror film came from old avant-garde filmmaker Fukasaku in 1999 – Battle Royale, his last completed film, adapted from Koushun Takami’s novel. In it, a group of school-age teens are forced to fight to the death in a televised national entertainment. Sound familiar, Hunger Games fans? Its tone is vastly more savage and cynical than its imitators’.
Spike Lee’s most offensive film is the Producers-esque comic saga of a black TV producer who crafts the most racist program he can think of in order to get out of his contract. The result, The New Millennium Minstrel Show, is of course an enormous hit, crammed with blackface, watermelon, and all the other trappings of racist imagery. It tells you everything you need to know about how American culture works.
Requiem for a Dream
Of course, I had to include Aronofsky, the inspiration for this story. Requiem for a Dream is the best anti-drug film ever made, chronicling the downfall of four individuals in what is surely the most depressing film ever made, making Leaving Las Vegas seem like Singin’ in the Rain by comparison.
The most visually sumptuous horror film ever made. A psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) must invade the mind of a schizophrenic, comatose killer in order to save the life of his latest victim. The representation of the psychic contents of an evil person have never been delineated as vividly as this. Singh’s dazzling style is unmatched, and the casting is perfect.
“If you can’t find a friend, make one!” This horror movie about a murderously insane but pitiable protagonist is unexpectedly moving, with the most riveting closing moment of any film I’ve ever seen.
Alice in Wonderland crossed with Cronenberg. Gilliam’s freakish imagination gives life and heart to this dark fairy tale of a young girl trapped on the Texas prairie with her father’s preserved corpse, exposed only to a couple of local eccentrics.
The Last King of Scotland
How do you portray a mass murderer? Forest Whitaker won the Oscar for his performance as Uganda dictator Idi Amin.
McQueen’s debut feature is ruthless. A depiction of the Irish republican hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 2008. Whether the viewer is an adherent of the republican cause or not, the illumination of the brutality within the system is unforgettable. In the end, the hunger strikers chose to refuse the cooperation of the only thing under their control – their own bodies.
The best film ever made about being 15. Unfortunately, the 15-year-old in question is a girl trapped in poverty with an alcoholic mother, whose boyfriend wants her as well. The depiction of underage sex is enough to set off alarms, but the real tragedy is the depiction of a world in which people are only worth what can be gotten out of them.
Escape from Tomorrow
Filmed surreptitiously in Disney World, this surreal horror film enters on a typical dad who finds out that the Happiest Place on Earth is a corporate laboratory, and he’s an experiment.