1. IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES (1976)
Proof positive that art and explicit/un-simulated sex can work well together, this film is an intense and disturbing look at the obsessive love affair between a former prostitute (now a maid) named Sada and a hotel owner. I first saw it during a revival showing while I was in high school and its escalating catalog of sexual outrageousness did not titillate me in the slightest, in fact it had quite the opposite effect. It doesn't take long for the audience to twig to the fact that Sada's out of her mind to a dangerous degree and her lover's no slouch in the kink department himself, so images such as Sada having a hard-boiled egg shoved up her cooch and having to "do as the hen does" to get it out when it becomes stuck, as well as her lover contemplatively licking his fingers after giving her some digital affection during her period, should not come as a surprise when they occur, but they have the power to unsettle because this is what would usually be termed a full-blown and classy "art" movie. There's plenty of other sexual wackiness on display, all of it quite clearly unsimulated, and it's amazing to see the the participants turn in excellent performances during all of it (especially that bit with the egg). But it's the film's ending that is utterly jarring, and it reduced my pal Eddie to a quivering wreck who curled up in the back seat of the car in the fetal position as we drove home after seeing it (this happened in the early 1990's when I saw it for the second time). Seriously.
2. ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932)
In a nutshell, this is the best version of H.G. Wells' THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU ever made and its blasphemous depiction of a balls-out-mad scientist's surgical experiments in genetic manipulation is still flesh-crawling over seven decades after its release. Banned in the UK for close to fifty years for its grotesquery, sadism and in-your-face suggestion of the possibilities of a sexual union between humans and animal-men — by consent or far worse means of achieving it — this is one sick, sick, SICK mamma-jamma and is the film the expression "the natives are restless" comes from. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
3. CAFE FLESH (1982)
This is a hardcore X-rated flick, but ignore the explicit porn; the concept and story are downright chilling, especially in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. Following the unexpected results of a germ warfare culture unleashed during WWIII, the human race is left virtually unable to be physically intimate without becoming violently ill, leaving only a small number of "sex-positives" able to get it on, and those unfortunates are rounded up and pressed into service to satisfy the unsatisfiable needs of the worldwide "sex-negative" audience. The title venue is where the film's creepy and depressing drama plays out as an emcee reminiscent of Joel Grey in CABARET (only about a hundred times more disturbing, which is really saying something) introduces several surreal pornographic scenarios that mix bizarre sets with utterly joyless sexual performances. None of it is erotic in the least and when taken as the "adult" science-fiction parable that it is, it's quite scary and Lynchian in execution. The explicit sex only makes the proceedings that much more sad, and the R-rated version loses a lot of the original's nihilistic strength, so stick with the X if you opt to experience this one.
4. FRESH (1994)
By far the best of the 1990's spate of "in the hood" movies, this one proves quite conclusively that the most dangerous and effective weapon is a keen mind. If you haven't seen this one, add it to your Netflix queue immediately. And, no, I won't tell you about the plot. (You'll thank me for that when you experience it for yourself.)
5. MATANGO (1963)
Released in the States under the idiotic title ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE, this story of the horrible fate that befalls a group of shipwrecked yachters is the creepiest movie Toho ever released and can rightly be described as a study in slow-burning madness and psychedelia. Short on action or gore, MATANGO delivers effectively where it really counts and is eerie as a motherfucker.
5. MANDINGO (1975)
If you were horrified by the more vile truths about some of our fair nation's history that were made plain in ROOTS, don't ever watch this slavery-era soap opera. I find it to be an apocalyptic moment in the annals of bad taste cinema and as such I find it so over-the-top that it's frequently hilarious — the acting by Susan George and James Mason is impossible to keep a straight face through — but its frank depictions of the worst realities of slavery is no laughing matter and is indeed horrifying to witness. I don't think mainstream Hollywood has produced a major motion picture as vicious or offensive before or since, and if this were released today there would be full-on race riots in the streets. Click here to read an earlier, more in-depth Vault post about this one.
6. A PATCH OF BLUE (1965)
A real tear-jerker, this is the story of a girl who endures so much awful shit that you'll want to reach into the screen and rescue her from the Hell that is her life. Selina D'Arcy (Elizabeth Hartman) is the sweet and innocent daughter of a horrible, aging prostitute (Shelley Winters, who won a well-deserved Oscar for her villainous performance), and her squalid existence is made all the worse by her having been blinded by acid while still a child. While her fat whore of a mother plies her trade (to diminishing returns), the virtually helpless Selina sits in the park and makes bead necklaces to help support the family, and it's there that she meets Gordon (Sidney Poitier), an older man who teaches her the basics of self-sufficiency. It's an innocent relationship and the first in which Selina has known kindness and friendship since she was a little girl, but Selina is now a young woman and problems begin when she falls in love with Gordon, who is black... This could have been a run-of-the-mill weepie but its narrative is powerful and at times overwhelmingly sad, especially Selina's unspeakable back story, so go into this one with a full box of tissues close at hand. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
7. TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)
The second of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, this is loaded with sex and violence and will come as a shock to those who didn't think such stuff got made back in the days. I've covered this one before at length, so you can read that article for all the particulars. Just take my advice and Netflix this to see why it's still considered the best Tarzan movie ever made. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
8. STRAW DOGS (1971)
This is director Sam (THE WILD BUNCH) Peckinpah's meanest movie, and that's really saying something. In no way recommended for "date night," this tale of a wimpy American mathematician and his sexy young wife facing the scurvy inhabitants of the wife's home village in Cornwall is very, very nasty and lends credence to some critics' assertion that Peckpah's films reveal him as a misogynist, largely thanks to an emotionally complex and very questionable rape sequence that will leave most viewers quite put off. This is just about the last movie you'd expect Dustin Hoffman to have been involved in, but here it is.
9. CUT-THROATS 9 (1972)
One of the many violent and gory westerns to follow on the heels of Sam Peckinpah's artistically violent and gory THE WILD BUNCH, this is the most disturbing, violent and unpleasant western of all time. It's a study in brutality for the sake of brutality, and it's so grubby and vile that I wanted to take a long, hot shower after seeing it. I'm light-years away from squeamish, but this is a film so overflowing with negative energy that I hope I never have to endure it again. And it was slow-moving on top of it all! Also, would you believe that when this was first released in the U.S. moviegoers were given a "terror mask" to shield their eyes from the film's gruesome anti-splendor?
10. MANOS: THE HANDS OF FATE (1966)
Justly considered to be one of the very worst films ever made, this was fodder for one of the all-time classic installments of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000, but I had the misfortune of first encountering it as a kid when it ran on Channel 9 and as a result was ruined for life. If you must see this, only watch it in the MST3K version. You have been warned!
11. AT MIDNIGHT I'LL TAKE YOUR SOUL (1964)
Creepy, sleazy B&W Brazilian horror that introduced the world to Zé do Caixão, known in English as "Coffin Joe." Just trust me on this one, as it's too deceptively complicated to break down in short form.
12. DESCENT (2007)
Not the one with the chicks who meet something horrible while spelunking, but the one with Rosario Dawson, particularly the unrated version...Yeesh! I covered this one at length here, so check it out.
13. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON (1965)
I believe I was either three or four when my dad took me too see this and I will never forget how ominous the dark, empty theater seemed, a vast, foreboding space pregnant with possibility that my own experiences had not yet prepared me for. In later years I would accept that uncertainty as par for the course when going to the movies, the tension heralding either a glorious flight of escapist fare (like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) or a total fucking dud, compared to which getting punished would have been preferable (FLESHBURN being a perfect example). As the film exploded across the screen, I had no idea that I was receiving my first exposure to the wild & woolly world of Japanese animation, but I did know that I loved the colorful images, solid story, and the genuinely dark undertone that simmered during the second half. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON is the story of Ricky, a homeless street urchin in an unspecified European (?) city who sneaks into a theater showing a film adaptation of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS and gets promptly thrown out on his ass by a surly usher after hearing the hero's inspirational words about sustaining himself through impossible odds with the power of hope. In short order Ricky is joined in his aimless wanderings by a talking dog and a living toy soldier, and this bizarre trio then falls in with Gulliver himself, now a misanthropic recluse who seeks to explore outer space in a homemade rocket ship. The heroes blast off into the void, running into Cupid — who grants them each one wish and is voiced by a grown-up Darla Hood of LITTLE RASCALS fame — and finding themselves embroiled in a conflict between two factions of sentient machines, one kindly and inquisitive, the other a warlike force of conquest-minded juggernauts who state their intentions in the song "Rise, Robots, Rise," a number so grim for a kiddie movie that I remembered certain images from it decades later like I'd just seen them yesterday. This truly dreamlike film ends with one of those "it was all a dream" scenarios, but it doesn't disappoint because Ricky's adventures were simply too fantastic to have been anything else, especially considering that the whole adventure may have been induced by a concussion he suffered during a hit-and-run car accident. Once impossible to find, GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON is finally available on DVD, although in a shitty, washed-out transfer.
14. ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)
The ultimate tale of a woman utterly betrayed by her selfish husband.
15. GOJIRA (1954)
This first Godzilla film introduces the iconic monster as the anthropomorphized horror of the atomic bomb as relayed by the only people on the planet to ever actually experience such a nightmare firsthand. Incredibly bleak, its disturbing and depressing aspects are so severe that they couldn't even be squashed by the considerably tamer American version, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. Not what fans of the later entries in the series would expect at all, this is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
And here are my answers when asked a few weeks ago:
1. THE STREET FIGHTER (1974)
The film that gave 1970's martial arts movies their reputation as virtual bloodbaths and one of the most entertaining films in the genre, this one stuck with me for its still-shocking brutality and Sonny Chiba's ultra-intense screen presence. Go here for more on this epic of ass-whuppin'. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
2. I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)
Originally released as DAY OF THE WOMAN, this nigh-unwatchable gang rape/revenge Chernobyl of unpleasantness is not my idea of entertainment, but I will defend its existence and the director's intent. Most female viewers are strongly advised to give this one a miss and with very good reason, as is explained in detail here.
3. MANDINGO (see above)
4. THE FLY (1958)
A terrific (if improbable) sci-fi/horror hybrid, this one has an ending that fucked me up for life, and I bet it did the same to you.
5. A PATCH OF BLUE (see above)
6. THE ICE STORM (1997)
I grew up two towns away from where the events of this narrative take place, and I can tell you for a fact that the movie is a perfect evocation of the time and location of that horrible locale.
7. FORBIDDEN ZONE (1980)
A positively lysergic live action cartoon that's not for the kiddies, featuring Herve Villechaize, more impressively bizarre characters than any one movie has the right to include, and the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (that's band frontman Danny Elfman as Satan in the photo). This utterly sticks with me as a very surreal dream rendered visual outside the subconscious and it's one of my all-time favorite movies, though not for all tastes. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
8. DESCENT (see above)
9. THE STORY OF RICKY (1991)
Insane and extra-ultra-violent, this is one of the most faithful comics adaptations ever (it's adapted from the manga series RIKI-OH). And how could a movie not stick with you when it features a guy pulling out his own intestines so he can attempt to strangle the hero with them?
10. CHRISTIANE F (1981)
I saw this one in high school with my friend Cat, both of us lured in by its promise of seeing David Bowie perform (he has virtually zero screen time), and the heroin horrors it graphically depicted are single-handedly responsible for keeping me (and Cat) away from smack for life. Aggressively unpleasant from start to finish and quite scary to impressionable youngsters, this should be mandatory viewing for school kids from the age of ten and up.
11. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988)
Animated by the same people who gave the world the joyous MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (but not directed by Hiyao Miyazaki), this is a strong contender for the title of "Most Depressing Film of All Time." This makes SOPHIE'S CHOICE look like YELLOW SUBMARINE by comparison.
12. LISZTOMANIA (1975)
Ken Russell's utterly mad interpretation of the life and career of composer Franz Liszt , featuring (among a cornucopia of tripped-out and loony imagery) the Who's Roger Daltrey in a dress, sprouting a twelve-foot dick. Why this isn't out on DVD in the United States is a mystery to me, especially considering that the majority of Russell's films are readily available.
13. SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980)
The perfect blend of incredibly beautiful cinematography and the goriest swordfighting in motion picture history, this masterpiece of carnage seamlessly splices the highlights of the first two LONE WOLF AND CUB movies and comes up with a winner. Another of my all-time favorite movies, this had a huge impact on me and made me want to learn how to swordfight, and not like one of those flitty Three Musketeers guys either! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
14. IMPETUS FIRE 2 (1990)
Sadly there's no photo available for this one, and that may be a good thing. Also known as A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN AND HER EIGHTEEN TRICKS and the far less subtle STUNTS WITH CUNTS, this is a grainy and wholly un-erotic hardcore film wherein a Filipino woman does things with her vagina that will astound and amaze. I've shown this to a room full of lesbians and hardcore feminists and they were each utterly fascinated, some commenting "I never knew it could do that!!!" The woman in question is a performer in some grubby back alley live sex show, but at no point does she engage in straight sex; instead she puts her most sacred of orifices through some shit that will make your jaw drop as your hair stands on end in disbelief, including writing precise calligraphy with a vaginally-wielded sumi brush, breaking inserted pieces of whole sugarcane, firing darts at party balloons via a blowgun, playing a toy horn and many other feats of wonder. However there are two bits that permanently burned themselves into my memory:
- The woman whips out a forearm-length piece of wood and whittles on it with a buckknife to prove that the knife is sharp enough to carve lumber, after which she inserts it blade-first into herself and moves it about, suffering no injury whatsoever. And this is achieved in one non-stop shot.
- The knife thing was bad enough for all manner of psychologically disturbing reasons, but I was far more fascinated when she filled her Lady Place with at least fifteen live and wriggling tadpoles and spat them out one by one.
15. THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928)
An eerie and compelling silent film whose protagonist's image was ripped off shamelessly to create Batman's arch-nemesis, the Joker. Seriously, just look at the sensitive and artistic hero's face. Straight-up nightmare fuel, right?