5. Strange Circus (2005)
Strange Circus begins, appropriately enough, in a circus-themed nightclub where the host invites an audience member from the audience up to be guillitened. But this is just the nightmare of 12-year-old Mitsuko, who wakes up with a start. Wandering around her house, she accidentally witnesses her parents having sex, which is when the true nightmare of her life begins.
The next day at school, her father—who is also the principal—calls her into his office, where he is watching a porn film. He molests her and afterwards she exits the office, walking back to class in a blood-covered hallway as she bleeds profusely from her nose. At home, her father instructs her to sit in a cello case and watch him and her mother have sex. After this, he begins raping Mitsuko. And the events of the film, somehow, get worse from there.
Strange Circus is an often unsettling film to watch, made all the more disorienting due to its surreal flourishes and being a subjective narrative told from Mitsuko’s point of view. With incredibly graphic—even taboo-breaking—depictions of incestuous rape (though the actress playing Mitsuko was of age at the time) and a few twists and turns that make the viewer question how much of the story is real, Strange Circus is a deeply disturbing horror-drama film from the director of the (also notorious) 2001 horror film Suicide Club that many viewers won’t seek out due to its off-putting central conceit.
4. Visitor Q (2001)
Takashi Miike is a director whose work fans of extreme and bizarre cinema would be familiar, with Audition and Ichi the Killer being among his best-known films. His preoccupation with surreal, over-the-top, and often violent imagery has brought him a certain reputation, particularly for fans of V-cinema (the direct-to-video market in Japan that has fewer restrictions of what’s allowed to be depicted, thereby being able to include more extreme content in films).
Certainly his most controversial movie (and for good reason), Visitor Q is yet another V-cinema film Miike purposely made outside the mainstream in order to include as much transgressive content as he saw fit. And Visitor Q is certainly a transgressive movie.
The film follows one incredibly dysfunctional family—including his teenage prostitute daughter (with whom the father has sex), a prostitute junkie wife, and their physically abusive son—and the effects of a mysterious man (the titular Q) that comes into their lives to unite them into a family unit. Albeit, one that murders their enemies and dismembers the corpses of their victims, but at least they’re doing it together.
Featuring a gamut of bizarre and unseemly activities—from parental incest to rape to necrophilia, and including scenes of lactation as part of sex play and girls soiling themselves before being murdered—the reader may be surprised to find out this movie is a black comedy. Pitch black, but Miike meant for it to be so audacious and insane that the viewer would have to laugh at its premises. It’s one of the most extreme films yet made in the 21st century, so for those who have the stomach for the truly bizarre, Visitor Q is out there for your viewing…pleasure?
3. Irreversible (2002)
Controversial director Gasper Noe’s Irreversible is an assault on the senses. Opening with a disorienting spinning camera shot while a nauseating low-frequency tone plays, which leads to an unbelievably brutal murder scene where a man’s face is caved in with a fire extinguisher, it is immediately apparent that Irreversible isn’t a film for everyone. Or maybe anyone.
Much like Memento, the film is chronologically told backwards, from the savage end of a horrifying night for the three protagonists to earlier that evening, in a gut-wrenching reveal that makes much of the cruelty depicted onscreen even more upsetting. Infamous for its 9-minute long rape scene–which was shot in one long take and ends in the character being beaten into a coma by her attacker—Noe set out to make a provocative film, to which he largely succeeded. Whether there was any good reason to make such a disturbing film outside of “art for art’s sake” is another question entirely.
Many viewers will watch it once—and only once—or else end up turning it off to spare themselves of enduring some of the most graphic depictions of rape and murder ever in film.
2. Martyrs (2008)
New French Extremity is a loosely affixed term that refers to a flood of films made in France starting around the turn of the century that depict savage violence and frank, uncensored sexuality, often focusing on the ugly and brutal aspects of both. Gasper Noe’s Irreversible is associated with this movement, as is the film under discussion here, 2008’s Martyrs.
Controversy surrounded the film when it debuted at Cannes, with critics sharply divided between what some considered ‘torture porn’ while others thought the film addressed metaphysical and socio-political themes in a striking manner. One thing most critics could agree upon was that Martyrs was one of the best horror films of the year.
Opening with a bloodied and gaunt woman escaping from some sort of torture warehouse as she runs down the street barefoot to freedom, Martyrs then cuts to an average middle-class family going through their regular breakfast routine, bickering and making plans for the future. Their breakfast is interrupted by someone at the door, who makes their way inside and kills every family member—teenagers and parents alike—with a shotgun.
It’s revealed that the woman who just killed this family was the girl we witnessed making her escape in the beginning, and this is her revenge to the people who had imprisoned and tortured her. Her accomplice doesn’t quite believe her until they find a hidden torture chamber in the basement with a young woman suffering in from severe injuries from torture. They attempt to escape, but a group of strangers—whom torture young women in an attempt to find religious transcendence—arrive, leading to our protagonists becoming their new vessels to inflict horrifying pain upon.
Martyrs is notably for its blunt, graphic violence and nihilistic tone. The amount of suffering—both physical and emotional—on-screen will leave many viewers thoroughly unsettled (which is largely the point), while horror fans may find Martyrs to be one of the best, if not unbelievably violent, horror films of the past decade.
1. A Serbian Film (2010)
Now notorious for its shocking ending–and equally shocking events that occur throughout–A Serbian Film has quickly become a cult film for extreme cinema fans. An allegory about life in Serbia—a country that was involved in a brutal ethnically-based war in in the 1990s after the dissolution of Yugoslavia—this movie follows the increasingly horrifying circumstances a porn star finds himself in after accepting a high-paying job making a mysterious art film.
Looking to support his family by taking one last gig as a porn star, Milos works with a child psychologist-turned-filmmaker, whose unorthodox work methods are initially puzzling and eventually harrowing as the nature of the film being made is uncovered. If the phrase “newborn porn” means anything to you, then you’ve seen this movie.
If you haven’t, consider this: that phrase—and what’s associated with it—isn’t even the worst thing that happens in the movie. It’s difficult to call A Serbian Film a “good” movie, but it’s an incredibly disturbing one to watch, which is an achievement in itself.
Author Bio: Mike Gray is a writer whose work has appeared on numerous websites and maintains a TV and film site at MeLikeMovies.com.