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Editorial - Saturday, August 5, 2006

"Toxic Movies: Ten of the Most Poisonous Films of All Time - Part One of Two"
By Matthew Dean Hill

There are movies, and there are toxic movies. These are flicks that don't just get under your skin, they get into your mind, and the take root there like a cyst...forever. More often than not, the thing that makes these films so disturbing is that, rather than dealing in such arcane and fantastical subjects as demons, monsters, supernatural killers, or the like, they present "true" horror...or at least horrors that could happen in your town...

Number 10: Man Bites Dog
This poisonous flick, whose original French title, C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous, roughly means "It happened in your neighborhood", belongs to the "mockumentary" subgenre as much as to the overall "horror" classification. Directed, conceived, and written by Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel, and starring Benoît Poelvoorde as unabashedly sadistic serial killer "Ben", Man Bites Dog is a particularly poisonous piece of experimental cinema. A two-man documentary film crew (Belvaux and Bonzel) follow sociopath Ben on a series of escapades in a small, working-and-middle class French township. Ben displays a great sense of humor, irony, and wit along with his increasingly violent and disgusting acts of violence. Ben is quite the philosopher, and before long, his staggeringly sick logic drags the two filmmakers in to his world of pain, punishment, and death.

Number 9: Last House on the Left
Wes Craven & Sean S. Cunningham, who both went on to bigger...but not always better...things, were the director and producer (respectively) of one of the most sickeningly tense and mean-spirited movies ever. Last House, of course, concerns the brutal rape, torture, mutilation, and murder of a pair of pretty young women by a cruel gang of hoodlums led by David Hess' "Krug". Through a bizarre twist of fate (or destiny?), the killers end up at the home of one of their victims, where her parents take in the traveling strangers and treat them to warmth and hospitality. When they find out what these people are really all about, though, the shit really hits the fan. The bereaved parents plot and viciously carry out their splattery revenge. This downright depressing movie might not be the pinnacle of horror, and it might be awfully derivative (of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring) and amateurish, but it launched a thousand imitators, that's for sure. In any case, it's a sick, unrelenting little movie, whose oppressive tone is lightened only by some ridiculous (and ill-advised) "comedy" courtesy of two bumbling local-yokel cops who, of course, always arrive too late to do any good. This movie belongs on the shelf of every collector, but don't be surprised if it sits there untouched...only to be viewed when you're in the mood for something really spirit-crushing. Last House on the Left is infectiously evil cinema at its most memorable.

Number 8: Irreversible
Gaspar Noe's treatise on the nature of revenge, the frailty and inescapability of fate, and the malleability of perception contains two of the most hideous scenes in movie history. The first scene comes at the beginning of the film...and the end of the story...when our "hero" tracks down the man he's been seeking (or at least he thinks he does) and literally bashes his head into a squishy pulp with a fire extinguisher. We see...and feel...every single blow, and clever camera placement, pounding music, and vertiginously swooping point of view shots put us in three distinct sets of shoes. First, we're in the shoes of the "basher", then in the shoes of the "bashee", and then in the shoes of the onlookers. All three are equally uncomfortable. We find, through a reverse-unspooling of the story, that this act of singular violence is the calculated and completely premeditated revenge for an earlier incident; the rape of our "hero's" girlfriend (played by the ethereally beautiful Monica Belucci). It's this rape scene that has earned Irreversible most of its infamy. While perhaps not quite as graphic as you've been led to believe (we never see actual penetration), you see damned near every filthy, disturbing detail like you never wanted to see those details. Noe is to be credited for his unflinching nerve, and the divine Ms. Belucci certainly deserves praise for allowing herself to be abused to this degree. The really striking thing about these two scenes is how completely pointless both events are, in the grand scheme of things. These are two events that could have been so easily avoided, it's that much more disturbing to watch them occur. Irreversible is one of those movies that, while not technically a horror film, is more horrific in its visceral and emotionless shocks than any ten "typical" genre films. Seek it out, but be warned...this ain't pleasant stuff.

Number 7: Men Behind the Sun
T.F. Mous' exploration of the infamous...and regrettably true...story of Unit 731, a Japanese Imperialist brigade that set up camp in mainland China during the waning years of WWII. Like the Nazi regime, the Japanese weren't "above" setting up concentration and experimentation camps. Unit 731 was housed in, appropriately enough, Camp 731, where various biological warfare experiments were conducted on the mostly Chinese prison populace (although, historically, there would have been some Soviet prisoners, as well). Among these experiments were exposing prisoners to fleas that have been inoculated with Bubonic Plague bacterium, and allowing the disease to run its awful course. Then, there were the typical day-to-day tortures; the beatings, mutilations, and what have you. Mous does not flinch when portraying these...ahem...atrocities on screen, nor does he allow his viewers to flinch. Men Behind the Sun can be viewed as a mere exploitation film, but to do so would be to miss the points. By necessity, there are exploitative elements at work, but this is a serious, thought-provoking film. Granted, the thoughts that are most often provoked are that of shock and severe stomach discomfort, but the story, such as it is, unfolds with politically-charged fervor. This film is an indictment of the Japanese Imperialists of the time, plain and simple. Often assuming the Japanese were simply the well-mannered, proper folk we view them as today, Mous exposes the seedy, corrupt, evil underbelly of the Japanese Empire during those last tragic years of WWII. The film acts as a kind of Chinese version of Schindler's List, but without the sentimentality...and without the hope of spiritual and physical redemption and rescue that List strove to portray. As such, Men Behind the Sun is one of the most harrowing "war atrocity" movies ever filmed...and it's a viewing experience that will outrage you.

Number 6: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Perhaps it's de rigueur to canonize John McNaughton's understated and wholly creepy Henry as a masterpiece, but at the risk of sounding as if I'm just jumping on a given bandwagon, I'm going to hail Henry as just that...a masterpiece. There have been lots of "realistic" serial killer movies, but damned near all of them (even big-shot Hollywood pieces like Silence of the Lambs) owe their existence to Henry. Of all the films on this list, Henry has such influence and longevity due to two simple facts: first, it's been embraced by "mainstream" critics such as Roger Ebert, and second, because it consistently (even after repeated viewings) manages to terrify and shock. But where Henry is really different is in the approach. Released at a time when mainstream audiences were being bombarded with slick, polished, and graphic "slasher" movies, Henry is downright restrained in the gore department. Instead, it eschews excessive splatter in favor of creating fear and dread through tone. This films creeps and slithers, generating tension because Michael Rooker's titular character is, well, he's just so damned nice. We know he's a merciless killer, and we know he's essentially an evil, terrible man, so it's really scary when he's being nice and polite, because we just know that he's prone to sudden, violent explosion. Watching Henry is like going offroading in a jeep filled with nitroglycerin...tension and total terror literally personified.

Next Time...
In Part Two of "Toxic Movies", I'll take a look at the Top Five most Poisonous Movies of All Time! Will your "favorite" piece of cancerous celluloid be on the list? Check back soon!
- Matthew Dean Hill

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