5. Man Bites Dog (1992)
‘Man Bites Dog’ is a low-budget Belgian film that watches like a demented home-movie. Probably because it is in a sense: it is a small production and is shot and edited like an actual documentary crew following serial-killer and criminal ‘Ben’ (Benoît Poelvoorde) around town, while he commits his crimes. Ben is essentially all obnoxious character traits a person could have rolled into one. Besides being a serial killer, he is also pretentious, boisterous, acts like he knows everything and has little regard for the feelings of those around him, all the while being seen as a loser by his environment. A film crew following him around gives his ego a considerable boost.
Besides a horror film, ‘Man Bites Dog’ is also a dark comedy. A very dark one because of the many violent acts committed onscreen. The cynical angle of the plot is quite clear: the interest of the media in such a disgusting character like Ben is not hard to imagine, and documentarians worsening or even participating in unethical acts is not without precedent. And the film goes quite far to show that point.
4. Calvaire (2004)
Another Belgian production, ‘Calvaire’ by director Fabrice du Welz is a bleak picture. Travelling entertainer Marc (Laurent Lucas) gets stranded in a backwater town when his van breaks down, and rents a room from the grieving Bartel (Jackie Berroyer) who lost his wife. This is where his nightmare begins. The whole area turns out to be hostile to Marc and even the nature seems bleak and unforgiving in this part of Belgium, with swamps, endless raining and deep mud.
Especially Lucas and Berroyer bring their characters to life very well, which only makes the film more unsettling. The violence in ‘Calvaire’ reaches some pretty grotesque heights. The whole film has an uneasy sexual vibe throughout. The idea of a whole area being hostile to the main character is nothing new at all (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre used it with great success) but remains a good way to create a desperate situation, if used well. ‘Calvaire’ uses it amazingly well. Not for the faint of heart.
3. Borgman (2013)
‘Borgman’, by director Alex van Warmerdam, can be seen as a horror-precedent of last year’s ‘Parasite’. A mysterious homeless man Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) enters an upper-class family and plays with and changes their lives in bizarre ways.
Borgman manages to exploit and exacerbate the tensions already present in the picture-perfect family, and increasingly surround them with his own people. There is a lot of tension because the audience can see what is going on, and that it cannot be good, but Borgman’s intentions are never quite clear. More and more violence mounts and the new figures coming into the family’s life are without exception shady.
Director van Warmerdam plays his cards close to the chest, and leaves the viewer with a lot of questions. He shoots the film with an almost clinical style that can feel oddly dreamlike at times. The actors, especially Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis as the mom and Jeroen Perceval as the dad, are without exception strong, and show well the many different emotions the manipulated family members go through. Unsettling horror-thriller that will leave you with a bad taste.
2. Raw (2016)
‘Raw’ saw people puke during its premiere in Gothenburg, Sweden. That is perhaps a bit of an overreaction but fact remains that ‘Raw’ is a thoroughly nauseating at times, and on top of that it is well-written and crafted by first time director Julia Ducournau. Justine (Garance Mariller), a vet student, lives by herself for the first time and undergoes heavy hazing rituals which involve her eating meat which she has never done. Her college years are a time of several awakenings, one of those especially sinister.
Really ‘Raw’ is a coming-of-age film, in disguise as one of the hardest horror films you will probably see. It is not a gore-fest for the sake of it, and in fact, because how well the characters are established and by virtue of having an actual, strong story the gory moments hit even harder. One hard to watch early scene is Justine breaking out in hives after eating meat, and it does not rely on gore at all. Both director Ducournau and the actors take the film seriously, and execute the premise well. Especially, but not exclusively, Garance Mariller is fantastic as a timid, unworldly student who finds herself growing into something very different.
Director Ducournau delivers one of the best horror films of the last decade with only her first picture. That promises a lot for the future. This is a filmmaker who not only takes the genre seriously but sees the opportunities horror gives to delve into broad themes like sexuality and growing up. In the end, many great horror films are not necessarily about the horror scenes they portray, but use unease, violence and heightening of certain themes to scary heights to tell us something about life and the world we live in.
1. Xtro (1982)
‘Xtro’ is a film that puts together a whole bunch of horror-related tropes and themes and somehow never feels like it bites off too much. It is a B-movie made with A-movie sensibilities: director Harry Bromley Davenport keeps a steady hand. ‘Xtro’ manages to be both over the top, gratuitous and not at the same time. The plot follows a family whose father (Philip Sayer) gets abducted by aliens and is away for years. In the meantime his wife (Bernice Stegers) moves on, but their son (Danny Brainin) cannot. Then the father suddenly returns.
The main reason ‘Xtro’ works so well is that the script is surprisingly tight, which is impressive with all the different elements they have to balance, and the filmmakers adhere by it. The plot has many moments that could’ve easily been exploited by a lesser director, for drawn-out gross-out scenes. That is not to say the film does not have enough horror because it absolutely does: it is truly disturbing and disgusting at times. ‘Xtro’ has a few sequences of masterful tension building, and the acting ranges from solid to really good (Bernice Stegers), quite rare in such a bizarre horror movie.
‘Xtro’ is a uniquely good horror film. It has almost everything you want from a horror movie: from tension and gore to aliens, and even a violent dwarf-clown. It has moments of grotesqueness but never indulges. All in all it is just a genuine well-made, disgusting and scary horror film. One that all horrorfans should see.