9. Dead Ringers (1988) – David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg’s fascination with all things anatomical and gritty lands him on the list again. This time the story is loosely based the lives of Stewart and Cyril Marcus, twin gynaecologists who were found dead due to barbiturate withdrawals. The script was adapted by Norman Snider from the book Twins by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland.
Identical twin brothers, Elliot and Beverly, are gynaecologists working in a fertility clinic in Toronto. They are highly successful, and Elliot is an arrogant womaniser while Beverly is the more shy and reserved of the two. After meeting a woman named Claire with an unusual abnormality of the cervix, Elliot and Beverly begin a joint relationship with her without her knowing.
Beverly plunges into depression brought on by an addiction to prescription drugs that he shares with Claire. As his depression intensifies, the two brothers find themselves suspended due to some fairly serious misconduct. The twins try to help each other through this but things spiral out of control and the film comes to a horrifying conclusion.
Cronenberg’s ability to find the beautiful in the macabre has allowed him to create a number of critically acclaimed films dealing with some of the more visceral realities of life. This first strikes us during the opening credits of Dead Ringers as drawings of terror-inducing medical instruments and anatomical diagrams flash past our eyes against a red background. Somehow, this draws you into the film even before the first words are spoken.
Jeremy Irons is a convincing choice for the two brothers and at times we find ourselves as confused as Claire about which one of them is on screen. This is completely intentional and Irons spent hours learning a complicated technique, which would allow him to use his body in order to convey subtle differences between the brothers. He started out using separate changing rooms and wardrobes but in the end decided to mix it up so as to force himself to rely on an “internal acting” approach.
10. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) – Tony Randel
Directed by a relatively unknown Tony Randel, this film follows the first Hellraiser (1987) fairly closely. Consisting of virtually the same cast and crew as its predecessor, Hellraiser II is a direct sequel to previous events.
The film begins with Kirsty committed to a psychiatric hospital due to the mystery surrounding the deaths of her family as well as her obsession with the Cenobites. Unbeknownst to her, Dr Channard who is a psychiatrist assigned to Kirsty’s case, has been researching the Lament Configuration for a long time as well as planning on letting the Cenobites into this world again.
As his plans come to fruition all hell breaks loose (literally) and the characters find themselves in the world of the Cenobites. Once again, it is up to Kirsty and her friends to fight unspeakable evil and survive through the ordeal.
As mentioned before, a large number of previous crew members worked on this film, among them Christopher Young who was the composer of the original Hellraiser score. The horn heard from the heart of the hellish labyrinth where Leviathan is located is said to spell out the morse code for the word “god”, put there intentionally by Young. Despite being directed by another man, Clive Barker still had a lot of influence on the making of Hellbound as he came back as the producer.
Hellbound: Hellraiser II is laden with practical special effects very similar to the ones in the first film. The amazing vision of Julia as a half-formed human is truly a treat to watch. Every muscle and tendon is well defined and sculpted to perfection.
Hellbound explores the idea of the Cenobites further as we enter their world this time. This is also the film that gives us a glimpse of their prior human form and for a moment, lets us understand them in a way. It becomes apparent that they are not the truly evil ones, it is the frailty of human nature that seems to be the real antagonist.
The Cenobites point out time and time again that they are merely the purveyors of pain who arrive at the request of the greedy and depraved. Dr Channard was already shown to be a man who fancies himself as a god, obsessed with power over human life. He doesn’t come across as caring or kind, his interest in the patients consists of morbid curiosity and the strive to further his knowledge.
11. Hannibal (2001) – Ridley Scott
This film divided both fans and critics following the success of Academy Award-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991). While Silence was a tasteful appetiser of Dr Lecter, Hannibal is the full Roman feast.
The events take place some ten years after the escape of Hannibal Lecter. He is now living in Florence, Italy and seems to have taken on a new identity and goes by unnoticed despite being on the FBI’s top ten list of wanted criminals. Clarice Starling is still in the FBI and has found herself in hot water over a botched drug bust.
Mason Verger, played by an unrecognisable Gary Oldman, is Lecter’s only surviving victim. He is keen to find Lecter and enlists the help of Starling by using his wealth and political influence. A cat-and-mouse triangle spanning over continents ensues at the heart of which is Lecter himself. Not only is Clarice looking for him, but an Italian inspector called Rinaldo Pazzi has also joined the hunt and is working alongside Verger’s goons for the hefty capture reward offered.
In this movie, we really get to see Lecter in his element. Through his escape, Lecter regains the most important thing to him, which is his freedom. It is clear from all we have seen of the doctor up to this point that freedom is indeed more valuable to him than life itself. Being a stone-cold psychopath, the idea of death and pain does not scare him. His individuality and the ability for full self-expression however, are of vital importance.
Despite being a despicable sadist, Lecter still comes through as an intriguing and almost likeable character when ranked against the likes of immoral Mason Verger and the slimy Paul Krendler. It is as if there is an unspoken and almost understandable rule about people whom Lecter despises and the viewer is faced with a difficult moral dilemma.
The issue of sexism faced by Clarice Starling is explored further in Hannibal. Despite having risen in the ranks over the ten years since being a fresh-faced student, Starling still finds it difficult to be fully respected by her peers and subordinates.
Perhaps the twisted bond of mutual respect shared by her and Lecter is due to his absolute derision and ability to look past social constructs and see Clarice for nothing more but a fellow outsider. Directly opposing each other in views but also sharing the same dedication to their causes, this is a most unconventional love story.
12. House of 1000 Corpses (2003) – Rob Zombie
This film is Rob Zombie’s loving tribute to the road trip horrors of a bygone era and especially, the king of them all, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Everything from the annoying yuppies to the degenerate family living in the backwoods is a throwback, and yet Zombie manages to make this movie his own.
Set in 1977 on the eve of Halloween, the film begins with two couples on a road trip. While at Captain Spaulding’s gas station and “The Museum of Monsters and Mayhem”, they learn about Dr Satan who was a local serial killer said to have been hanged some time ago. They embark on a search to find the tree from which Dr Satan was hung but break down in the middle of nowhere.
A hitchhiker named Baby claims that her family lives near by and invites the foursome to her house. There they meet Baby’s bizarre family who are adamant that the couples need to stay for Halloween celebrations. Needless to say, this does not turn out to be a good idea at all and the group find themselves getting far more than they bargained for. They will get to encounter Dr Satan yet, but not at all how they imagined it.
Although he had dabbled in filmmaking and horror themed entertainment before, this was Zombie’s first full venture into both. He saw some success in the metal scene as a solo artist as well as in his band White Zombie. It is not difficult to see that this man is an avid horror fan due to the number of allusions in both his music and films to horror classics spanning a variety of eras. The names for the villains in House of 1000 Corpses are all taken from Groucho Marx characters but this is a very subtle reference.
Sid Haig as Captain Spaulding is one of the most memorable characters delivering scathing one-liners and boasting a hilariously bad attitude. His clown make up is reminiscent of murderer John Wayne Gacy’s fear-inducing Pogo the Clown and knowing Zombie’s love of all things spooky, it is doubtful that this was a coincidence.
This film did not hold up well with the critics. Most wrote it off as a pointless exercise in gore and exploitation as so often is the case with many cult horror favourites. Viewing House of 1000 Corpses requires a diehard attitude and a dark sense of humour. Seen as a labour of genuine love for horror and exciting first venture into filmmaking, this really is a treat in the same vein as Captain Spaulding’s murder ride.
13. The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009) – Tom Six
A truly fascinating phenomena, The Human Centipede tore through the international film festival circuit causing disgust and praise all at the same time. Generally, this film received negative reviews from the critics but no one can deny this bizarre little Dutch production its well earned place in horror film history.
The film is about Dr Heiter who dreams of creating a pet consisting of three people stitched together as a type of six-legged human centipede. After a number of botched attempts, he manages to capture three tourists stranded in the middle of the German countryside that he thinks will be perfect for his experiment. He surgically attaches the three together “anus-to-mouth” and begins training them as his new lapdog, getting them to perform tasks such as fetching the newspaper.
The drawbacks of his plan begin to show and the doctor is once again faced with dealing with the consequences. Needless to say, he does not go about this in a sane manner.
As with Kevin Smith’s latest feature, Tusk (2014) the idea for this was first born one evening as a joke between the director and his friends. Tom Six thought it would be funny to punish child molesters by stitching their mouths to the backsides of overweight truck drivers.
The inspiration also came from a darker and more serious place, which involves Nazi medical experiments; in particular, those of the sadistic Joseph Mengele during World War II. Six wanted to make a kind of parody of the Nazi psyche and it is horrifying to think how little difference there really is between the crazy Dr Heiter and the “scientists” at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Tom Six also sites Pier Paolo Pasolini, David Cronenberg, and Takashi Miike as influences whilst making this movie. Six’s directorial work on the Dutch version of Big Brother allowed him to witness people doing all manner of strange things when they thought that they were not being observed.
The inspiration for creating The Human Centipede in part came from that experience. When pitching the idea to sponsors of the project, Six avoided mentioning the “anus-to-mouth” element of the plot so as to avoid putting them off. Some viewers may be able to spot the underlying macabre humour in this film but audiences will no doubt be united in their mutual apprehension.
14. The Skin I Live In (2011) – Pedro Almodovar
Pedro Almodovar is no stranger to creating unique and often challenging films. He approaches difficult subjects with the utmost dedication and creativity. This film is no different to his usual sexually charged and gender defying fare, and swept up a staggering number of awards and nominations upon its release.
Dr Robert Ledgard, played by 1980s Almodovar regular Antonio Banderas, is an accomplished surgeon who develops artificial skin that is resistant to burns and insect bites. He keeps a young woman named Vera locked up in his estate with the help of a maid, Marilia. Vera and Robert seem to share a sexual relationship but it is difficult to pin down exactly what is going on between them. Through a series of flashbacks the truth is eventually revealed and we are faced with a spectacular and testing conclusion.
The film’s soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias accompanies the crisp cinematography. The mansion is beautiful, yet we cannot think of it as anything more than a confined space where Vera is held against her will. There is a type of campiness about this film and elements of the blackest humour. It is hardly surprising that Almodovar was influenced by another entry in this list, 1958’s Eyes Without a Face while writing the script.
Robert appears sane and even likeable which makes it difficult to come to terms with the fact that he is keeping a human test subject and play thing in his lush mansion. We fluctuate between perceiving him as an overprotective carer and a selfish man heartlessly keeping a young woman captive.
The relationship is hard to define due to an almost formal and unnatural way the two act around each other. Vera tries to please Robert and seems to seek his approval while he looks upon her with concern and trepidation like one would an expensive new car. We are never sure of how Vera truly feels about Robert and he finds it hard to trust her considering the circumstances under which they have come together.
15. Faust (2011) – Alexander Sokurov
This Russian film was shot completely in German; it is Sokurov’s latest addition to the world of cinema. Moody, dark, and looking like a Dutch painting, Sokurov received the Golden Lion award for his version of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s timeless classic Faust.
Heinrich Faust is a physician in the early 19th century who is on a desperate search for meaning and enlightenment. He wanders through the streets observing life around him and trying to understand it. When he falls in love with a young woman called Gretchen, a cunning man named Mauricius offers him a deal. Faust is to sign a contract with his own blood offering his soul to Mauricius in exchange for Gretchen.
The movie plunges straight into the deep end by presenting us with a close up shot of a penis of a corpse within the first few minutes. Heinrich Faust is elbow deep in the dead body’s stomach cavity searching for an answer to the big questions of life. He is adamant that the soul must be found somewhere in there and when his Igor-like assistant suggests that it may reside in the brain, he dismisses this by saying that it contains only garbage.
Where most of us would suggest that the soul is something ethereal and divine, Faust believes that it is as much part of our physical make up as our internal organs. The soul is no more divine to him than the cadaver’s rotting flesh.
This film requires a mind open to a dose of absurdity and surrealism. Some will even find it slow and the story too fickle and changing to fully grasp and understand in its entirety. If the viewer allows themselves to gaze upon this film as they would on an intricate and multi-faceted painting in a gallery, they may be able to trust the film and let it indulge their senses.
As Faust and Mauricius stroll through the streets and countryside like ghosts, noticed by few but seeing everything before them in stark detail, we realise that we are also them, gazing upon the pair and trying to find meaning in their world.
16. American Mary (2012) – Jen and Sylvia Soska
This is the second instalment from the Soska Sisters following the very low budget Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009). Unlike their first film, this movie had a much higher production value although the sisters still attempted to make the costs as low as possible. A large portion of the supporting cast consisted of family members, friends, and members of the body modification community. The Soskas also appear in the film as The Demon Twins of Berlin.
Mary is a medical student training for a career as a surgeon. She is struggling financially and decides to apply for a job as a stripper. While at the strip club, the owner finds out that she has medical training and Mary is asked to perform impromptu surgery in the basement of the club. She is severely affected by the experience but the much-needed money she receives entices her.
After this incident, her reputation in the body modification community spreads and Mary finds herself conducting some fairly unconventional procedures. Mary suffers a major traumatic event in her life and decides to abandon her studies and become a full-time underground extreme body modification surgeon.
In a similar vein to I Spit on Your Grave (1978), American Mary has been lauded as a modern day rape and revenge flick. The directors have admitted that some of the themes explored were influenced by their own experiences of trying to make it in a male-dominated horror industry. In a world where women are usually portrayed as damsels-in-distress, incoherently insane, or only feature as an accessory, this is a refreshing take on the female-themed horror film.
Despite Mary clearly breaking all the rules of conventional medicine and not abiding by her Hippocratic oath, she is understandable in her role. Being the only doctor on the list whose actions are almost justifiable, she is a unique addition.
Author Bio: Bela is a self-professed film nerd with a hankering for the macabre. she lives in New Zealand and spends far more time with her cat than she does with people.