Remember when filmmakers created scares and suspense by not showing the viewer everything? The end result of many suspenseful scenes existed primarily in the viewer’s imagination. Think Hitchcock and Clouzot, for instance. But film fans over the years became more sophisticated and jaded. They wanted to rely on more than just their imaginations.
Sub-genres began to crop up, like the found-footage films (The Blair Witch Project and [REC]) which were meant to show horror that was real, and the viewer was part of it. Films like Saw and Hostel yielded another popular label, often referred to as “torture porn.”
In the 2000s, we have seen movements based around the idea of extreme cinema, two of which make up the bulk of this list: the South Korean New Wave and New French Extremity. These films give jaded audiences thrills on more of a visceral level. There is extreme violence, blood and gore, bizarre behavior, disturbing images of torture, sex and experimentation.
Obviously, none of this is for the squeamish. The aim here is to present the most successful and influential examples in this area of cinema. Japanese directors like Takashi Miike and Sion Sono have multiple titles here, since both names are synonymous with shock. So, let’s begin, and get ready for some serious brutality.
30. Love Exposure (Sion Sono, 2008, Japan)
Love Exposure is the best Sion Sono film that you probably haven’t seen, and the reason is because of its mammoth 237-minute length. Sono even challenges himself, offering a love triangle that jumps back and forth in time. The plot revolves around multiple characters, each with a unique back-story leading up to their eventual meeting.
Explaining the details of this highly-original and inspired oddity is pointless. Instead, look at its elements: extreme violence in the Yakuza style (with a woman being the heavy), satire everywhere (including a character who becomes an up-skirt photographer), cult-worship, stabs at the Catholic church, and, all of this masqueraded as a love story. Epic in nature, but like nothing you’ve ever seen. So much happens that you will become sucked up into the experience without ever looking at its running time.
29. Kidnapped (Miguel Ángel Vivas, 2010, Spain)
Not a lot has been said about Kidnapped, compared to the other thrillers mentioned here. This is a shame because it will definitely satisfy fans of suspense and brutal violence. What makes it extreme is that it puts the viewer inside the house with the victims in a home-invasion scenario, and it does so in a stylishly-sinister way.
While it feels a bit reminiscent of Funny Games, it is different enough to be original in its own right. The viewer has a helpless feeling which turns into anger amidst chaos, and this won’t appeal to everyone. One memorable scene involves two simultaneous camera shots which gradually merge. The twist ending is memorable, whether you like it or not, and the events leading up to it are emotional and excruciating.
28. Das Experiment (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2001, Germany)
Based on a real-life Stanford experiment in 1971, Das Experiment takes place almost entirely within a German prison. The subjects are invited to play the roles of prisoners or guards. As they follow the predetermined script of the experiment, they are monitored by a team of doctors studying their behavior.
Events begin to turn increasingly violent though, as roles reverse and guards use acts of humiliation toward their acting prisoners. What transpires is done so very convincingly, with excellent performances and powerful direction by Oliver Hirschbiegel. This disturbing psychological study of prison behavior disguised as a thriller is utterly gripping throughout.
27. The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011, Spain)
Pedro Almodovar was making short films before The Skin I Live In’s actress Elena Anaya was even born, and the great Spanish director is no stranger to edgy filmmaking.
Antonio Banderas plays a talented but ultimately-mad plastic surgeon who has devised a way to invent a new form of skin resistant to injury. He does this after his wife’s death in a car crash leaves him looking for answers. Then we see a lovely mysterious young woman (Anaya). Later we find out the role she plays in the surgeon’s life and why.
This doesn’t feel like an Almodovar film. It is more complex, as he blends elements of mystery, horror, time shifting, the crazy-doctor theme, a love story, and some secrets that you must find out for yourself. It is all very disturbing and cringe-worthy, but you will get sucked in, and Almodovar’s twisty climax is unforgettable.
26. Red White & Blue (Simon Rumley, 2010, UK/US)
Three characters are studied in depth in this thoroughly-engrossing shocker from Simon Rumley, maker of the equally-dark The Living and the Dead. Whether you like any of these people is unimportant. The storytelling and the intensity are what matter here. Three forms of disturbing revenge take place in Red White & Blue, one from each of the three main characters.
To put things in perspective, we have an abused young woman, Erica (convincingly played by Amanda Fuller), who seems addicted to sex, but knowingly gives multiple men HIV. There is Nate (Noah Taylor), a trained killer honorably discharged from the Army and looking for a friend, and there is Franki (Marc Senter, who turned in a memorably-psychotic performance in The Lost), who cares for his dying mother and has a one-night stand with Erica.
It all sets the stage for some very compelling events. This is the definition of a slow burn thriller. Very dark and emotional, with a brutal climax that you will not forget.
25. Bedevilled (Chul-soo Jang, 2010, South Korea)
Bedevilled is a horror film of extreme sadness, darkness and ferocious revenge. The character of Bok-nam lives with one of the most repulsive wife-beating, child-abusing, woman-hating husbands in recent cinematic memory. He doesn’t think twice about abusing her in many ways, as well as her daughter.
If the daughter gets in the way during one of his many tirades, oh well. Bok-nam’s child is of the only real importance in her life. All of this abuse is going on prior to the arrival of selfish big-city businesswoman Hae-won.
There is a feeling of isolation throughout the film, mostly due to its remote island setting, where Hae-won originally grew up. That these two women are actually friends from childhood presents an interesting contrast. Because of the extremes director Chul-soo Jang uses in portraying abuse, and the ultimate revenge inflicted, Bedeviled is a powerful and brutal experience that horror fans will appreciate.
24. Three…Extremes (Fruit Chan’s segment “Dumplings,” 2004, Hong Kong)
For proof positive that sound effects can be as horrifying as anything seen, look no further than the Fruit Chan segment “Dumplings” in the Asian horror trio, Three…Extremes. Not that the other two short segments aren’t worthy of your time. They are, although Miike’s effort finds him more subtle than usual. “Dumplings” stands out as the most memorable of the three.
Without giving away any of the plot, you might get a queasy feeling in your stomach when you discover the secret ingredient in her dumplings. Youth is important to Mei, and she will stop at nothing to reclaim hers. Cringes are definitely in store. The extended version of Dumplings is included in the DVD/Blu-Ray edition. This longer and creepier variation spends more time on the cannibalism aspect and the main character’s search for an increasingly-youthful appearance.