5. High Tension (Alexandre Aja, 2003)
Keeping it in the slasher family is the gender-bending and extremist High Tension directed by Alexandre Aja. High Tension is about two students named Marie and Alex (Cécile de France and Maïwenn respectively) as they travel to a secluded farmhouse in the countryside in order to do some studying. Unbeknownst to them though there is a disturbed serial killer on the prowl who will stop at nothing to kill and dismantle anything in his path while engaging in disturbing acts of physical and sexual violence from the bludgeoning of organs with axes to a severed head being used as pocket pussy.
The havoc here is ever-present as it unfolds like a nightmarish fever dream in what was an ideal getaway, but also reverse gender norms that occur often in this type of film. Final girls are a staple of not just slasher films but horror in general and this time those roles are switched in that there is not a drawn-out process of a group being taken out but rather there is a duel of brawn and wits in order to outsmart the killer.
It allows for a fresh take on what has perhaps grown as stale and formulaic and injects it with all the blood and guts that typical fans would be satisfied with as well giving itself some personality to boot. In all, regardless of if the main twist is something that the audience can take or leave, they will at least be taking the onslaught home.
4. Raw (Julia Ducournau, 2016)
Hungry? If so, then it is time to examine Julia Ducournau’s 2016 breakout horror Raw. When innocent vegetarian teenager Justine (Garance Marillier) goes off to veterinarian school she not only has to endure an intense level of hazing and harassment from the upper-year students as part of tradition, but she also develops a rather strange compulsion. That compulsion is that she is inexplicably drawn to meat after having raw meat stuffed into mouth. That only grows into another craving in that of human flesh. Justine then, on top of all the other anxieties that come with going to school in an environment that promotes promiscuity, becomes a day-walking predator who has to figure ways to satisfy her cravings for flesh before she crosses the point of no return.
Raw can be read in a variety of ways. Whether that be a critique of hazing culture in universities, a study of addiction or the most ferocious coming-of-age movie ever made, it has much more on its mind than whatever is being eaten or whoever is being eaten. It appals as much as it intoxicates, and when the violence finally manifests itself, it is simultaneously gruesome and entrancing as the sheer horror of the act is so brutally realistic that it becomes nearly impossible to turn away from.
3. The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)
The politics of control pertaining to sex and power were put under the microscope in Michael Haneke’s erotic drama The Piano Teacher. Starring Isabelle Huppert in a career-defining performance, the film follows a masochistic piano teacher named Erika, who develops a sexual relationship with one of her students that could end up destroying her. While that premise might be ripe for the conventional erotic thriller this is a film that is anything but. The sex is repressed and compulsive, and the violence contains the sharp suddenness that Haneke is known for that punctures the audience with every blow self-inflicted or not.
Huppert truly turns in one of the more tragic, abominable, and humiliating performances ever on the screen. A character that is so revolting and sad yet craves those same vices makes her work truly haunting and severe. Amongst the many deplorable acts her character Erika commits ranging from peeing beside a couple having sex at the movies to sticking a razor blade around her vagina, Huppert bares all to create a creature born of childhood psychological abuse and manipulation.
That same handling of Erika by her mother is in turn being done ten-fold onto those around her in varying degrees of morose behaviour and success. Erika is constantly berating and trying to gain the upper hand on those she can absolutely control, until she meets her match in her handsome and tortured pupil Walter (Benoît Magimel). Erika corrupts Walter by turning his own selfish desires against him and to the point of him committing his own slew of shocking atrocities due to his confusion (or awakening) of his own demons. A capricious film if there ever was one.
2. Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)
Now comes a film that is so unrelentingly cruel and spiritual that it would give Passolini’s Salò a run for its money. This is Pascal Laugier’s psychological horror flick Martyrs. Centering in on a pair of girls named Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui) who after suffering serious abuse at the hands of their tormentors and caretakers for several years aim to get revenge. But like any revenge story it never goes does as easy as expected and each girl is put through the emotional and physical ringer as they fight for their freedom in the hopes of gaining some sense of closure.
Like all the films on this list it was extremely controversial at the time of its release and remains to this day as one of the prime examples as to what French Extremity represents and contains the most repulsive depictions of flesh on the silver screen. However, despite all of this the director Laugier has publicly denounced the association with the genre due in part to the film’s intense religiosity and considers it more “Catholic” than anything else.
The base definition of a Martyr is a person who undergoes constant suffering, and this film aims to evocate that with some of the most insane and uncomfortable body horror imagery. Every layer of skin is either slashed or peeled back and the constant cruelty and rampage that is brought upon these girls and others in the film provides a bleak and unsettling view on how muddled any notion of sainthood can be conveyed during so much bloodletting.
1. Irréversible (Gasper Noé, 2002)
It is tough to decide which of the many films in the filmography of Gaspar Noé could have been chosen (if not all of them) but if there was one that highlights the extremity of the modern age to a shocking degree it is Irréversible. Edited to play in reverse chronological order, following one tragic night in Paris where the beautiful and innocent Alex (Monica Bellucci) is viciously raped after a party resulting in her lover Marcus (Vincent Cassel) and her friend Pierre (Albert Dupontel) going on an odyssey in the seedy underbelly of French nightlife to find the abuser and bring him to justice.
Right off the bat the film establishes a queasy disorientation as the camera constantly shifts and moves throughout the earlier sequences to capture the chaos and bloodlust the characters experience as they hunt for the perpetrator at the risk of their sanity. The language in the film is astonishingly volatile as homophobia and cussing is done in splendor as the tension builds. The rape itself that is the focus of the film is among the most controversial sequences ever, as its barbarous ferocity lingers for a disturbingly long amount of time forcing the audience to reckon with an absolute atrocity in real time. Couple that with some merciless violence and graphic nudity and you have a havoc reeking film that takes pleasure in destroying the viewer.
But perhaps the most insidiously sickening aspect of the film is that whatever rage consumes the characters in the hopes of avenging their friend, it all amounts to nothing. All the macabre aspects of human nature continue to exist, and nothing becomes solved or rectified but rather just happens to somebody else, making the lack of resolution an acute portrayal of modern extremism.