5. Videodrome (1983)
David Cronenberg makes films that are obsessed with body mutilation and physiological horror (The Fly, Scanners, Dead Ringers, to name just a few). His latter day efforts have toned down considerably, though they are often exploring similar themes and have been excellent in their own right (Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises).
Videodrome could be argued to be his first true masterpiece, a surrealistic nightmare about the philosophical dangers of technology, the effects of mass media consumption and pornography, and “the new flesh,” a phrase that symbolizes how technology transforms humanity over time.
Cronenberg’s style of horror is morbid, grotesque, but deeply substantial. That it is meant to shock the audience doesn’t mean it is “just for shock value.” Videodrome is part horror, part political manifesto, and part black comedy. In the film, James Woods is Max Renn, a kind of amoral television producer.
Seemingly by accident he comes across a rebel signal that is broadcasting a strange show, called “Videodrome.” It has the aesthetic of a fetish video and ends as a snuff film. It is eerie and terrifying, but he is morbidly fascinated by it. As he is pulled down into a sick underworld, Renn is drawn deeper into a mystery that will take him over, body and mind alike.
Cronenberg’s imagery here is as vivid and discomfiting as anything he has made (along with the exploding heads in Scanners and the slow, painful transformation of The Fly). In one famous scene, the television screen appears to come alive, pulsing and breathing, until the character is enticed to reach right inside of it.
As an allegory for how these things “fuse” with our minds, Cronenberg fills it with dense symbolism blanketed in the grotesque. In one scene a videocassette is inserted into a body cavity, and in another Renn’s hand grows into his gun, until these things become an actual, physical part of him. He has gone through a metamorphosis. Long live the new flesh.
4. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
There is another film from the inimitable Luis Bunuel a little higher up on this list, but this may be his most revered film, and it is easy to see why.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a snarky, derisive look at the titular characters. Six or so upper-class guests gather to share dinner together, except they never actually get to the dinner. Something always gets in their way, an interruption of some kind; a death in a restaurant, lack of food, a surprise visit from the army, or, in more than one instance, that it turns out to be a dream.
This is about as purely surrealist as motion pictures are capable, where logic in terms of narrative is dismissed in favor of a thematic logic and dreamlike imagery with implicit meanings. It requires a bit of decoding the film’s multiple subtexts, but fortunately for us Bunuel has no interest in being vague, and his true meaning is rarely far beneath the surface.
In one of the most memorable scenes, when it once again seems that the guests will finally sit and eat together, all of a sudden the fourth wall comes down. Literally, one of the four walls surrounding their dinner table parts to reveal that they are on a stage, in a huge theatre, the eyes of a packed house upon them. You can practically feel the mischievous smirk crawling across Bunuel’s face.
The string of bizarre happenings – a bishop dressed as a gardener, a romp in the woods, a confusing terrorist plot, and one story about a soldier’s dead mother’s ghost telling him about his real father – are all hysterical. It is a film of vignetted pleasures, and a very entertaining filmone at that.
Bunuel, age 72 when he made it, gave us a surrealist farce, at times bordering on an outright screwball comedy. Equally as silly as it is insightful.
3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Dr. Strangelove is the quintessential political satire. Released in the same year as Fail Safe, Sidney Lumet’s intense cold war classic that covers a lot of the same ground, the difference is all tone. Both put the government, communist paranoia and the nuclear arms race of the cold war under moral scrutiny, and each offer largely cynical takes on the subject matter.
While Lumet works from somber material that is meant to serve as a stern warning call, Kubrick’s in pure comic anarchy. If the world’s going to hell, might as well make it a good time.
It is such a classic that it’s easy to take for granted just how odd it is. Jack D. Ripper, Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove… just a few character names that point to the inspired lunacy that went into the writing of the film. Kubrick had inititally sat down to write a drama, but changed his mind. He was a bit of an eccentric, if you hadn’t heard. From that point on Kubrick knew what he wanted this film to be, and it couldn’t be any clearer than in the casting of these characters.
George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden lean into type as over-masculinized man-boys with bad tempers (and obvious sexual hang-ups, watch Hayden with his cigar).
Peter Sellers was brought on to play several different parts, including the character up there in the title. He gives three hysterical, very different performances (you can find another, much, much less comical performance of his in Kubrick’s unfairly forgotten Lolita). Even Slim Pickens, not Kubrick’s first, second or third choice for the part seems irreplaceable as the simple soldier.
The underlying threat here shares some DNA with Kubrick’s follow-up film, 2001: A Space Odysse, made 4 years later (part of his allure is how impeccable his filmography looks on paper). The mistakes that cause the launch of the bomber, and the way in which their own fail safes prevent them from recalling the aircraft, are not unlike the conflict between the astronauts and HAL 9000.
Technology can be created intelligently and it can exceed our wildest dreams, but it can’t be infallible. It was made by humans, and is subject to human error. In man’s arrogance, we believe we can create technology powerful enough to destroy the world ten times over, and still be in control of it. Kubrick offers his rebuke to this hubris heartily, quite literally laughing as the bomb falls to Earth.
2. The Trial (1962)
Orson Welles made some of the greatest films of all time, yet it seems too little is said about his adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel, an utter masterpiece of surrealist cinema and a powerful condemnation of bureaucratic injustice and the often pitiful inadequacy of the law. The Trial gets under your skin from the opening parable, narrated by Welles over still images representing characters in the story.
The story goes that a man from the country sought to gain entry to the Law, but the Doorkeeper said he could not enter at this time. The man waited for years and years, spending all his days waiting at the door, asking to get in but never being admitted.
In a lot of ways, this parable at the start of the film gives you all the information you need, freeing you up to experience the film rather than dissect it (at least the first viewing). The rest is a nightmare, a dream from which a character is not going to wake up. The Trial is a feeling, a dread of deep down being completely powerless and knowing nothing at all.
To describe the plot would be to ignore the premise. That nothing is ever explained and no question ever satisfied is the entire point. The film begins when Joseph K., played by Anthony Perkins, is harassed in his home by a couple of policemen — although they never actually identify themselves as such.
They act accusatory, but offer no charge, creating suspicions amongst his neighbors and co-workers. He tries to fight the case, but what is the case? He goes to see a lawyer, played by Welles, who offers pitiful assistance. He is abducted, brought to court, and still, not once, is he told what crime he has committed or why this is happening to him.
The term “Kafka-esque” is pretty ubiquitous, to the point that it actually appears in the Merriam-Webster dictionary with a definition all its own: “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.”
As usual, the way Welles positions and moves of the camera is stunning, creating stark images of being lost in the crowd, a faceless man in a sea of faceless others. Welles paints some truly foreboding images with that brush, and the final moments of this film boils the entire journey down to a single, unforgettable image of destruction.
1. The Exterminating Angel (1962)
Luis Bunuel made more than a few films that poked fun at the rich and powerful. From his early work with Salvador Dali on Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or, to his final masterpiece The Obscure Object of Desire, he was one of cinema’s great (arguably, greatest) surrealists. He was even the first filmmaker deemed an “official” surrealist by the leader of the Surrealist movement (though he would later denounce them when he joined the Communist party).
His films often used his unreal imagery to speak pointed criticisms against culture, class and religion. After returning to Spain from exile following the war, he wrote and directed Viridiana, a film that basically insisted on angering the Church and Spanish censors. He once again left his country, moving back to Mexico and proceeding to re-team with the same actor and producer team to make The Exterminating Angel, a high concept satire of the sanctimonious elite.
Not unlike The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the narrative (as it were) circles around a group of elite dinner guest. The group arrives at the estate of Edmundo Nobile (“Nobile” as in the aristocracy, not very that far off from naming him Bigwig Fatcat), but as the night wears on, it at first seems as if no one wants to leave.
They make excuses to stay, and even spend the night, but eventually they come to discover that they have been trapped in this room. They are not physically imprisoned, however – theirs is a supernatural (and assuredly metaphorical) conundrum.
The Exterminating Angel is a black comedy, and worth noting that it is genuinely funny. To focus only on its politics would be to ignore the pleasures of the absurdity. Outside the mansion, police and pedestrians gather, equally as incapable of entering the home as the guests are of escaping it. The image of these “working class” men and women staring up at this mansion and not being able to enter is blunt — but it’s also very, very funny.
The force that prevents them from leaving goes unexplained. They can see the door and out into the hall, but they just can’t seem to make themselves exit through it. The realization of their predicament dawns on them slowly, and they begin acting less and less rational. They are essentially entombed in their wealth, slowly going mad in their isolation.
Author Bio: Ryan Jeffrey is an independent filmmaker in Queens, New York. He’s been a film buff since he was a kid, and enjoys being able to talk about the films he loves and explore what makes them great.