Toxic Movies: Ten of the Most Poisonous Films of All Time (Part two of two)
by Matthew Dean Hill
Posted September 15, 2006
In the first part of my "Toxic Movies" editorial series, I discussed 5 truly disturbing, harrowing, and completely offensive movies. Now, we're in the home stretch, as I round out the top five horror movies of all time.
Number 5: I Spit On Your Grave (1978; D: Meir Zarchi)
Meir Zarchi's reprehensible, nasty, mean-spirited, and totally engaging film (originally titled Day of the Woman to limited success) is one of the best known films on this list. Even if you've never actually seen I Spit on Your Grave, you probably have an opinion about it. I'll contend that this fact alone makes it a noteworty film, but I'll go one further by calling Zarchi's ugly flick one of the most genuinely feminist movies ever made. Let's look at the facts... Jennifer Hill (played quite nicely by Camille Keaton) is a high-falootin' big-city writer-type who goes to the country for some relaxation and some quality time she hopes to spend writing her book (a romance novel, I think). She's really an up-and-coming woman of the world, that Jennifer; a fact she demonstrates by wearing a blousy red dress and red spike heels and driving alone into the proverbial "uncharted territory" of rural Vermont. Jennifer's soul-searching vacation is cut abruptly short when she, almost immediately, runs afoul of a gaggle of local morons. Apparently, these schmucks think that if a woman dresses in a somewhat sexually-stimulating manner, that must mean that she wants to be brutally gang-raped. So, after some teasing and tension-building niceties in the first act, the yokels do just that. But, they don't "just" humiliate and rape her...no, they humiliate and rape her to the point where she literally can't even walk back to her secluded cabin in the woods. No, she drags herself back there, and just when we think (and pray) that Jennifer's out of immediate danger...BANG! They viscious bastards humiliate and rape her again. Now, if you're one of those curmudgeons that is sitting there crying "exploitation!", I can't stress enough that these two rape scenes (one after the other) are absolutely the least erotic things I have ever seen. These scenes aren't glorifying rape or violence against women...an accusation so often leveled at I Spit on Your Grave. Plus, the film damn well doesn't make these assholes look like anything other than the scumbag sociopaths that they clearly are. No, this is Jennifer's story, and as the film's original title suggests, this is her proverbial day. When (inevitably) Jennifer gets revenge on her attackers...one by one...it's a chilling thing indeed. Her quiet, calculated deeds and the way those deeds are filmed by Zarchi are easily the equal of the climax of Scorcese's Taxi Driver, except here, we are completely on Jennifer's side. There is no salvation; there is no redemption; only the reaction of a woman who, to paraphrase Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, "would not take it anymore". When she's executed not only her own brand of justice but also the last of her attackers, she literally rides off into the sunset toward a highly questionable future. Scary stuff indeed.
Number 4: Nekromantik (1987; D: Jörg Buttgereit)
Jörg Buttgereit's film walks the fine line between art and artlessness, between taste and tastelessness. This notorious piece of filth gained its reputation via word of mouth, during a time (the late 1980's) when collecting horror movies on home video was much more challenging than it is today. Venerable horror journalist Chas. Balun was almost single-handedly responsible for introducing this movie to the West, and for that, if nothing else, we owe him a great debt of gratitude. Nekromantik portrays its necrophiliac characters so gently; with such restraint, that it's no wonder that by the time the last drops of blood and semen spurt from the "protagonist"'s severed dick-stump, we're almost, gosh, touched by the whole thing. I mean, all the dude wants is to be loved...unconditionally, and by a corpse, mind you...but loved all the same. It's like a country/western ballad taken to sick extremes: boy meets girl, boy has menage a trois with girl and pus-addled corpse, boy loses girl and pus-addled corpse, boy meets hooker, boy kills hooker, boy kills self, end of movie. Eww. Interspersed with all of the scenes of cadaver-diddling and angst-driven whining are (often failed) attempts at madcap humor, artful dream sequences, and portents of doom. It's like Bergman on acid, and I think that's what Jörg Buttgereit was going for. At any rate, this (obviously) difficult-to-categorize flick really sticks with you. It gets under your skin, and crawls around in there like a maggot. All of this (and more) makes Nekromantik one of the most interesting, striking, and least-pleasant-to-watch horror film/love stories of all time.
Number 3: Aftermath (1994; D: Ignacio "Nacho" Cerda)
Ignacio "Nacho" Cerda's masterpiece of artfully-portrayed necrophilia is a kind of companion piece to Nekromantik, but where that film's attempted artfulness fell short a bit in favor of pure, shocking, gut-wrenching ickiness, Aftermath simply excels. That's not to say that Aftermath isn't a gross movie. It's super gory. So gory, in fact, that this viewer was truly repulsed. Adding to the sheer discomfort of it all is that Aftermath is so completely realistic in its portrayals of the embalming/autopsy procedure. This ain't pretty stuff, folks. But, Aftermath makes a point as profound as the visuals are strong. That point, I think, is that death itself is not an indignity...it's what happens after death that is truly disturbing. The fact that the faceless mortician in Aftermath literally...and graphically...fucks a female corpse is actually kind of secondary to the point. The line between the fetishitic portrayal of actual "medical" procedures and necrophilia is blurred to the point that the viewer becomes unsure as to where one ends and the other begins. If the mortician enjoys handling the viscera of a corpse...even though it's part of his job...is that truly any worse than that same mortician taking the next logical (but highly questionable) step and performing coitus with the corpse? Cerda's analysis seems to indicate that, no, it's not really any different. When the final indignity to the corpse in question comes, the point is driven home with almost Shakesperean aplomb and gravity. We are all just meat, when it comes down to it, and any indignity involved mostly comes from the significance that we, as a species, apply to the cold corpses of our friends and loved ones. This beautiful film (yes, I said beautiful) is made all the more disturbing and powerful through its absolutely perfect use of Mozart's "Requiem Mass" as its score. Aftermath certainly isn't an easy movie to watch, and it's not "enjoyable" in the true sense of the word, but holy shit if it isn't a gorgeously-filmed piece of splatter art. One of the best, most disturbing, and most profound examinations of death as a concept ever brought to film.
Number 2: Audition (1999; D: Takashi Miike)
Virtually unknown outside of Japan before Audition's release, Takashi Miike's uncompromising film really made a splash with critics and fans of the extreme the world over. What's really devious about Audition is the dirty little trick that Miike plays on his viewers. There's an implicitly trusting relationship between a filmmaker and his/her audience; a relationship whose unwritten law is "ye shall not pull the rug out from under thine viewers". That's just what Miike does here, and under that rug, there's a syringe, a literal pile of foot-long needles, a spool of razor-sharp wire, and a femme fatale with the werewithal to use them. What starts as a quiet...gentle even...story of a widowed businessman who is encouraged by friends and family to hold an audition (under the guise of a "real" movie audition) for a girlfriend, slowly starts to get a little bit uncomfortable, then a little bit more uncomfortable, and more, and more...and then suddenly, Miike pulls that damned rug out from under us. Before we know what's hit us, we're witnessing one of the most sadistic movies ever made. The violence is fairly explicit, but despite what you've heard or even what you think you've seen, Miike actually practices remarkable restraint. Or, is it restraint after all? What's worse; to see all of what's happening, or to see most of what's happening, and have the rest filled in with some particularly icky and effective sound effects? I'll go for the latter, thank you. At least in Audition. Miike knew just what the fuck he was doing, and when the shit really hits the fan, there's simply no escape. We're stuck there, glued to our couches, praying for a release that never really comes. Plus, Miike isn't afraid to leave us hanging at the end. There is no salvation or resolution, only the knowledge that some really horrible shit has just happened to a reasonably decent guy. If even a hundredth of the horror movies that were released had that kind of sheer, terrifying power, then the world would be a much, much scarier place. Either way, Audition is one poisonous damned film.
Number 1: August Underground's Mordum (2003; D: Fred Vogel)
Any movie that could outdo Fred Vogel's original August Underground in terms of sheer brutality, utter sickness, and cinema verite-style creepiness and "realism" would be achieving something special. Sick...but special all the same. The "sequel", August Underground's Mordum, not only outdoes the original in each of the respects, but it's also perhaps the most diseased, poisonous movie of all time. Vogel (again) portrays a sick-fuck-sociopath (that may or may not actually be the same "character" from the first movie) who revels in absolute cruelty. Unlike the first film, though, which had Vogel's character accompanied by a single male accomplice, Mordum has three main psychos, who share in the brutal excesses portrayed in the film. Nothing is taboo, and nothing is out of bounds as Vogel and company explicitly show everything; from rape via severed penis (and the actual severing of said penis with scissors), to the one-two punch of pedophilia/necrophilia, to self-abuse of the most graphic variety (those scenes where Kristie Wiles cuts her own arm? real...)...it's all shown in up-close, loving detail. Sure, there's no "script" to speak of (at least in the traditional sense), and there's no "plot", but that's not the point. This is a document...the capturing of a series of unrelated moments in time, viewed through the eyes of characters that rank up there with Dahmer, Bundy, and Gacy on the sickness scale. There is no apology. There is no justification or judgement. There is only the sheer disgusting idea that there are people like this out there in the world. There are people who get off on this stuff. At the end of it all, when the screen goes black and leaves the viewer feeling (rightly) bludgeoned, all that's left is the gnawing reality that these characters, while "fake" or "play-acted", are potentially as real as they come. Furthermore, there are no direct or discernable consequences for their actions. They simply commit these...er...Atrocities, and move on with their lives. On this list, August Underground's Mordum deserves its place as the most vile, poisonous movie of all time, if only because it's so direct...so unflinching in its approach. If you watch this movie and don't feel the need for a long, hot, cleansing shower afterward, then there's, I don't know, something seriously wrong with you, ya know? On the other side of the coin, though, is the terrifying and inescapable fact that watching (or perhaps to a greater extent making) movies like this is somehow therapeutic. It calms the proverbial savage beast that, like it or not, resides within us all. August Underground's Mordum is the bestial, psychopathic fantasy that fulfills the worst desires of human nature, and as such, is an important film. But once you get beyond that point, it's just a sick exercise in cruelty (told through some truly astounding performances and special effects) that will...and should...make you feel very, very dirty. Trust me, all pretenders to the throne should take note that, for now, nothing can or will come even remotely close to matching, much less surpassing, Mordum's total, anarchic zest for the macabre.
That about wraps this up. This has been an exceedingly difficult series of articles for me to write, because it forced me to revisit ten movies that I generally can't even stomach watching anymore. OK. Maybe that's overstating things a bit, but you see my point. If you're a true horror connoisseur, with a taste for the most extreme examples of cinematic mayhem, your collection is simply not complete without these ten movies on your shelf. All of the movies are currently available on DVD (from various sources). Should any of you have difficulty finding any of these films for your collection, don't hesitate to drop me a line by clicking here, and I'll try to help you out. Cheers, everyone. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go scour myself with lye and steel wool.