14. House by The Cemetery (1981)
The final installment of Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy is a trippy and borderline psychedelic monster movie. It’s called House by the Cemetery and it’s about a house by a cemetery. Well, not just about a house, but about a family that moves into the house and the supernatural occurrences that follow.
Norman, the father, moves his wife Lucy and their son Bob into the home of a former colleague who recently committed a murder-suicide in the house. Bob has the shining and learns that 150 years ago the home was owned by a Jacob Fruedstein who was a lot like Frankenstein. Spooky thing ensure and people they associate with are butchered. Will our heroes survive?
This movie is sort of a mess, but despite its flaws it’s really a lot of fun. You can’t really go wrong with a Fulci film. The most difficult thing to get past (and it’s not that hard, more comical than anything) is the voice work for the children, most specifically Bob. Sometimes he sounds like Bugs Bunny and that’s kind of funny.
There’s another child in the film, a little girl who only Bob can see, whose voice work sounds like she’s delivering lines with a mouth full of mashed potatoes or something. For the longest time Italian productions weren’t filmed with sync sound, and instead actors would record dialogue post-sync in ADR sessions.
The reasoning is long and detailed dating back to post-WWII, look it up if you’d like, but anyway, the dubbing was often of poor quality. This film is no exception.
Like The Beyond, the gore is top-notch. The plot isn’t as dense, which may be a benefit for some depending on one’s taste, but mostly it exchanges “cruelty” for over-the-top silliness. The score is awesome, a wild psych-trip composed on synthesizers and set against notably bizarre visuals, such as a gore-filled mannequin decapitation. And if that doesn’t make you want to see it, then I’m not sure why you’re still reading this.
15. Tenebre (1982)
After directing the first two installments of his Three Mothers trilogy, Suspiria and Inferno (the latter reviewed above), Dario Argento’s next film was free of any supernatural elements, instead rooting itself well within the giallo genre. Tenebre is an ultraviolent horror film about an American author promoting his most recent novel in Rome when a gloved psychopath begins murdering anyone associated with the book.
Interestingly, the film itself is thematically self-referential (or meta as the kids put it these days) in that the book published within the film is also titled Tenebre, and highly controversial due to its depictions of violence against women.
While expanding on this controversy Argento touches on the fear and stigma of female sexuality as the female victims are murdered because they, according to the killer, are sexual deviants. Argento takes the time to explore these themes and the debate of violent art versus exploitation.
The violence is quite graphic and exceptionally bloody, true to giallo form, but also renders some of the most beautifully composed shots of the film. A visual highlight of Tenebre are the recurring flash-back sequences featuring transgender actress, Eva Robin. Dreamlike and surreal, these sequences are easily the most captivating element of the film, giving the viewer no other option than to finish it and find their meaning.
16. Last House on The Left (1972)
Not widely known, Wes Craven’s feature film debut, Last House of the Left, is something of a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 Academy Award winning Swedish art-house drama, The Virgin Spring. While Wes Craven’s direction lacks much of the artistry and refinement of Bergman’s, it would be unfair to seriously compare the two films as Craven was trying to achieve something much different.
Last House on the Left is a film about two rather naive teenage girls celebrating a birthday in the city, and in an attempt to score some weed, find themselves kidnapped by a troupe of homicidal maniacs. These villains kidnap the girls, rape, humiliate, and kill them.
After abandoning the bodies and avoiding a storm, the troupe finds themselves in the home of one of the girls’ parents, who realize their guests are responsible for their child’s disappearance. The tables are turned as the parents enact their revenge.
Craven has stated that this film is a direct reaction to the violence the people of the United States were experiencing, inflicting, and witnessing during the Vietnam war. By taking a cinema verite approach to a narrative film, Craven was able to create a raw, disturbing and powerful tone, but often contrasted by an extremely bizarre and upbeat soundtrack.
David Hess, who starred as the leader of the homicidal gang, was involved with the production of said soundtrack. The polarity of the film’s images and music, maybe intentionally so, creates an unsettling and somewhat nauseating feeling for the viewer. Maybe take a Dramamine before watching this one.
17. Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Right up there with I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust easily ranks as one of the most controversial films ever made. Pioneering the found-footage subgenre that is nearly a go-to method for current low-budget horror films, Cannibal Holocaust is a film-within-a-film, telling the story of an anthropologist who finds the lost footage of a missing documentary film crew, and the deadly fate the crew met while filming cannibal tribes in the Amazon jungle.
Combining elements of mondo films, one of the most controversial subjects of Cannibal Holocaust is its depiction of animal cruelty. There are a total of six animals killed, unsimulated, on-screen. Since the film’s release, director Ruggero Deodato has denounced his decision to kill animals for the sake of his film, and some subsequent releases have edited this footage out completely.
Further, upon its initial release, Deodato was actually arrested for murder by Italian courts. This film is so incredibly realistic (and in the case of the animals, it was), and its violence so graphic, the courts believed that Deodato had actually killed his actors and released a snuff film. To keep audiences guessing as to whether the “documentary footage” was real or not, Deodato had his actors under contract, preventing them from appearing in any type of media for a year after the film’s release.
In order to save himself from being prosecuted for murder, Deodato was forced to break the contract, bring his actors on television to prove they weren’t dead, and describe in court how some of the special effects were created.
Despite the understandably offensive visual content of the film, and behind all the blood, gore, and carnage, Cannibal Holocaust is a film with some surprising social commentary. To discuss the film’s themes in detail would result in spoiling the film’s ending, as that is where its commentary comes full circle. If you can stomach it, Cannibal Holocaust is a film that could be discussed as a self-referential, critical piece on western civilization and mass media’s bloodlust.
18. Don’t Look in The Basement (1973)
Don’t Look in the Basement was originally released in 1973 to drive-in movie theaters on a double bill with Last House on the Left (reviewed above). Like The Funhouse, its inclusion on the video nasty list is questionable.
Its shoe-string budget didn’t lend itself to get carried away with gore and makeup and even the language is tame. More than likely, the cover art for its VHS release was more graphic than anything in the film itself and was nastied for that reason alone.
Set in a mental institution where patients are allowed to roam free and indulge their insanities under the belief they will rid themselves of their afflictions naturally, Don’t Look in the Basement follows a young nurse who takes a position at said institution shortly after its chief doctor is murdered by one of the inmates.
The clinic is filled with colorful crazies including a Vietnam Vet with the worst case of PTSD, a former judge, a nymphomaniac, an elderly woman who looks like the cat lady from The Simpsons and speaks in nonsense poems, a homicidal mother who cares for a baby doll, a lobotomized popsicle fiend, an emotionally fragile young woman, and a repulsive man-child who can’t stop laughing. And as the title suggests, there is something sinister in the basement.
The performances are uneven, but in this case it benefits the film in the sense it prevents the viewer from getting comfortable with any character. Plot wise, the film is heavily inspired by The Twilight Zone, and while the twist-ending may be predictable, it’s still a fun ride getting there.
19. Zombie (1979)
Lucio Fulci’s third installment on this list, Zombie, was originally titled Zombi 2 as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead despite the two films having nothing to do with each other, and while Zombie is no Dawn of the Dead, it is still one of the better zombie films to come out of the 1970’s.
The plot, like any zombie movie, is straightforward: a group of people investigate an island where the dead are allegedly returning from the grave. Well, not allegedly, they just are.
By today’s standards zombie films are a dime a dozen, and more often than not, boring as hell. So, what sets Fulci’s Zombie aside? His ability to get weird. Like, an underwater battle sequence between a zombie and a shark, weird. That kind of stuff actually happens, set to a genre defying soundtrack no less.
Like The Beyond, Fulci features more of his famous eye-gore with a rather infamous scene where a zombie pulls a victim’s face toward a splinter (slowly, of course) so that the splinter gouges their eyeball inward. It’ll make you want to barf.
20. Possession (1981)
For anyone hoping to find a film on this list that leaves exploitation at the door and challenges its viewer with artistry and truly daring performances, Possession is the film for you. To put a label on this film would be an injustice to it.
At its core, Possession is about the disintegration of a marriage, but evolves into something more savage and visceral. After returning home, a spy is greeted by his wife with the proposal of a divorce. With a child in the mix he responds with violence and self-loathing, while she responds with hedonism. What follows is self-mutilation, madness, doppelgangers, monsters and murder.
The highlight of Possession is Isabelle Adjani’s brave and harrowing performance as the distressed wife, for which she was awarded Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and was revered by critics alike. Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten’s work on Possession is visually stunning and makes heavy use of a constantly moving camera, forcing the audience into the same state of unrelenting urgency and paranoia as the characters are in.
Ultimately, this is one of those films where it’s best to go into a viewing knowing as little about it as possible, and simply experience it as its story unfolds. Fans of Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, and David Cronenberg will especially appreciate this film.
Author Bio: Mark Anzelc holds a BA in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago and an MBA from Concordia University Chicago. He is an award winning screenwriter who has worked on numerous television shows, including How I Met Your Mother. He currently resides in Chicago.