Welcome to Dark Side Cinema, a new twice-monthly column examining the films that most people refuse to watch due to a healthy helping of common sense. One post of the month will be a longer, editorial-based piece on disturbing cinema as a whole, and the other post will be a movie review from my collection of f*cked-up films.
There are some movies out there that only a select group of individuals can appreciate – movies that make the viewer squirm and whimper, looking at the screen through parted fingers or in wide-eyed shock. Some of these films are brutally violent, others have almost no violence at all but prey upon the viewer psychologically. The films range from black comedies to horror films, from anime to dramas to shockumentaries. These are the films that sit in the pit of your stomach for days after viewing them. This is Dark Side Cinema.
Fans of disturbing films are usually fanatical about them, trying to hunt down the darkest, most disturbing, most obscure films just to be a part of the club, to say that they have seen this film or that film. Since a large number of the films that often make “Top Ten Most Disturbing” lists are foreign or independent, this is a fandom that requires some work in order to be a part of it. Whether they illegally download the films, buy them directly from a distributor, or hunt them down in stores that sell used movies, fans of this genre will do whatever it takes to view the grittiest and nastiest that cinema has to offer.
In the UK, there is a unique distinction made for these films. Called “Video Nasties”, they are films banned by the government starting in 1982 that circulated on bootleg VHS tapes in underground film communities. While the wholesale censorship of films is no longer common in the UK, many films that fit the same criteria as the video nasties are lumped into this category by fans, who make compilation lists of titles for their websites and blogs. Some of the classic video nasties include titles such as Cannibal Holocaust, Faces of Death, and The Last House on the Left.
It’s important to distinguish that not all disturbing films are horror movies. Some are dark comedies, like the Irvine Welsh-penned examination of crooked cops, Filth or James Gunn’s super-hero mega-downer, Super. Others are dramas, like the trailer-trash sadism-a-thon Killer Joe or the after-school-special from hell, Requiem for a Dream. Hell, even animated films make the cut sometimes, such as the nightmare-inducing bunny massacre that is Watership Down, or the anime that should have been directed by David Cronenberg, Akira. What all of these films have in common is that they are not purely for entertainment or mindless enjoyment – they strive to make the viewer uncomfortable. The more ill-at-ease you feel watching these films, the better the creator has succeeded. These are feel bad movies.
Of course, if these movies make the viewer feel bad watching them, then there stands an important question: why does anyone watch them at all? Why is there an entire cult of film fans that subject themselves time and time again to the most disturbing films that cinema has to offer? Why do these individuals read that people walked out of screenings at Cannes and immediately say “I have to see that”?
Different people have different reasons. There are subcategories even within this tiny genre, groups of fans seeking out very different things. They can be broken down distinctly, their film desires pointing out their unique subtype.
The first and easiest to spot are the gorehounds. Gorehounds want to see the grossest, most violent material available. Plot, atmosphere, and acting all take a backseat to special effects and plain, old-fashioned nastiness. Gorehounds are just as willing to watch the Saw films as they are Japanese guro flicks or snuff/fake snuff like Faces of Death. These fans usually have a favorite special effects artist and can tell you in an instant who did the makeup effects for which movie.
The second most common type of disturbing film fan are the arthouse fans. They tend to look down on gorehounds and love to announce that the violence or wickedness portrayed on-screen is part of the artistic merit of the film. They tend to follow particular directors and will espouse psychoanalytical babble about the films they watch. Arthouse fans tend towards foreign and independent films and can be some of the most argumentative of dark side film fans. They are passionate about film in general and have just sort of fixated on this end of cinema, where few dare to tread.
In addition to the director-following arthouse fans, there are the cinematography nerds. Some disturbing films are absolutely beautiful visually, blending the grotesque with the gorgeous to make something that evokes both joy and disgust. These fans tend to avoid gorehound-type flicks, especially the poorly shot, low-budget fare, but they are open to just about anything that is lovely to look at despite the subject matter.
Some dark side film fans fit into more than one or all of these categories. Some watch disturbing films because it’s a reminder that life could be so much worse. Others watch them because they have a deep fear of death and things that truly go bump in the night, and confronting those fears is the only way to conquer them. Some get off on the fact that they can sit through something that no one else can. It’s all a matter of perspective, and dark side films are definitely not for everyone.
My personal descent into this underworld of cinema began when I was introduced to the work of Takashi Miike. After watching The Ring, I went on a search for Japanese horror films and subsequently fell in love with Miike’s cautionary tale of blind dating, Audition. It made me feel sick inside but I was hooked – I needed to know what other kinds of disturbing stuff were out there. With the help of a few friends who also became interested in sick cinema, I managed to get my hands on Cannibal Holocaust, Suicide Club, and others. It was the beginning of a long and bizarre love affair.
Being the angsty, sort-of-goth teenage girl that I was, these films just made sense to me. I could gross out my friends with play-by-plays of scenes I had watched the night before and face my own fears in the comfort of my room. I’m pretty sure that the employees at Blockbuster thought I was a serial killer in the making. The older I got, the less I hunted down gore and the more I searched for the soul-searing, eventually finding myself in the world of the French New Extreme. Films like Martyrs, Irreversible, and Inside challenged me in new ways and cemented my love of the grotesque.
Dark Side Cinema is my place to explore this genre, to wax poetic about it in a place where other fans can give their feedback. In addition to articles on various aspects of the genre, I also plan to do reviews of films from my personal stash of demented DVDs, Top 5 or Top 10 lists such as “Top 10 Goriest Films” or “Top 5 Most Disturbing Scenes of All Time”, and the occasional personal piece where I discuss my own relationship to these controversial films and their effect on me as both a cinephile and a person.
I hope that you all enjoy going down this twisted rabbit hole with me. Buckle up.