Tuesday, 5 February 2013


Here's a random list of things I love. Dismemberment. Cannibalism. Necrophilia. Blood. Incest. Violence. Bad language. Body horror. Vomiting. Any form of discomfort whatsoever. I'm not too fond of rape or anything to do with the eyes, but I think that's probably normal. Don't worry, I'm not a serial killer and I shouldn't be locked up. This isn't a list of things I like to do on a Sunday after I've taken the dog out for a walk (note that animal cruelty isn't on there). No, you'll find all of these things and more in one of my favourite genres, Extreme Cinema. If they float your boat too, read on. If they don't, let me try and explain.

Being dutiful to a genre solely devoted to the hardest hitting films on the planet is difficult to rationalize. It’s not something I tend to bring up at family get-togethers, and I probably wouldn’t mention it on a first date, but there will obviously come a time when I have to explain why the closest film to a love story in my collection is Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999). Preferably before we sit down and watch it. I hate pausing movies. Makes me want to hurt things.

Still, I tend to argue that life is badly overrated. All it consists of is work, rain, excrement, family, brushing teeth, dust, rubbish drivers and trying to work out which bit of plastic goes in which coloured box. It’s little wonder I find comfort in escapism, put at ease by watching fates worse than my own. Bullied at work? You’re hardly going to hack off your arm, attach a machine gun to it and get even. Children annoying you? Social Services may have something to say if you pack up its belongings and send the blighter to a small island to play with other annoying whippersnappers, watching the bloody events unfold on your gogglebox for the next fortnight. But then, I’m pretty sure Davina McCall has done okay out of it.

Maybe it’s just me who craves an irregular escape from the mundane. I guess it’s because I’m not really a people person. I strongly believe that hell is other people. Shove me between two pregnant women at a house party and I’ll stare at their oversized bellies, nod to their inane chatter about cravings and Loose Women before coming out with a line like, “What would you do if it was disabled?” But, considering the genre’s resurgence and success, I’m probably not the only one. And, as luck would have it, there’s probably a director out there who’s already answered that question for me, in all its gory detail. Home Alone (1990) doesn’t count.

So, where did all this anger and hate on film come from? To be honest, it’s always been there. In 1932, a beautiful trapeze artist agreed to marry the leader of a group of side-show performers, but his deformed friends quickly realised that she was only marrying him for his inheritance. The film, Tod Browning’s Freaks, shocked audiences who didn’t agree with his thinking. Sideshow freaks were not the norm. They didn’t demand respect rather than pity. They were, quite simply, freaks. But boundaries were beginning to be pushed. It may not have the same shock value today, but there’s no question it was the first horror to horrify rather than terrify. Browning’s career was pretty much finished, and most of its stars distanced themselves from the movie, so if you haven’t already tracked it down you’ll probably need very little persuading to do so.

The horror genre was deteriorating by the end of the thirties, while the early forties would see cinema goers far more preoccupied with real terrors that confronted them during World War 2. And then, in hindsight, it’s hardly surprising that science fiction – we were on the threshold of space travel – took centre stage in the fifties, even if there were signs of a horror revival by the end of it.

The next movie to truly shock audiences was Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). These days it’s difficult to imagine the effect his ‘shower scene’ had on its viewers, but a stinging musical score and the brutal slashing of Janet Leigh, one of the biggest stars of its day, did more than enough to unsettle the viewer, with or without the impact of Hitchcock’s visuals. Infra-red camera pictures of an audience’s reactions can be found online, clearly indicating a certain amount of fear, while many chose to block the sound out with their hands. They’re worth checking out. As is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, following a young man who murders women, using a movie camera to film their dying expressions. The film, released the same year as Psycho, achieved a similar reaction, but it wasn’t long before subtle plotting was replaced by gore, and born from its bloody womb was what most people would consider to be the first kin of extreme cinema.

Lucio Fulci, as controversial in death as he was in life, indulged the blood-thirsty amongst us during the late Seventies and Eighties, daring to challenge the master of Italian terror, Dario Argento. Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), City Of The Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and The House By The Cemetery, also that year, kick-started a frantic career with all the eye-gouging, throat-ripping splatter you could dream of. Beset with personal problems during the mid-eighties, Fulci would never reach these heights again, even if the autobiographical Nightmare Concert (1990), starring himself, would become one of his most critically acclaimed. A diabetic, he died seven years later in suspicious circumstances, forgetting to take his insulin before retiring to bed. Some consider it suicide, others an accident, but it was certainly a tragedy. If he was still alive today would he be considered greater than Argento?

Born in Rome to a family already consumed by the visual arts, Dario Argento began his glittering career with The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). More thriller than killer, he soon shifted into sexually graphic and violently bloody territory with films The Cat O’Nine Tails, Four Flies On Grey Velvet (both 1971) and Deep Red (1975). Suspiria (1977) would bring him the cult status he yearned for, and arguably influenced the modern splatter that was quick to follow in his rather large, not to mention bloody, footsteps.

Behind him, ready to challenge our sensibilities further with exploding heads and phallic armpit growths was David Cronenberg. Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979) – a personal favourite – leaned towards the intelligent side of extreme cinema, focusing on a society under threat from moral decay. His success continued with classics Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983) and the skin-crawlingly nasty The Fly (1986).

Dead Ringers (1988) proved that the man from Toronto showed little sign of slowing down, but it was his adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s Crash in 1996 that would prove to be his most controversial movie to date. It’s hard to justify watching a movie in which a TV director (James Spader) discovers an underground sub-culture of scarred, car-crash victims who use car accidents to get their sexual kicks. The result, having sex with open wounds, is one of the hardest things I’ve had to endure on the screen, and I’ve seen a lot of the weird stuff. But then, I haven’t watched it in a long time, and I’ve surely become even more desensitized. I’d probably start laughing at the absurdity of it all, copying the link from Youtube before pasting it onto my mum’s Facebook wall, sandwiched between the evolution of dance and Fenton the dog.

Other notable entries worthy of your attention are Peter Jackson’s dizzying bloodbath Braindead (1992); Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1979), one of the first films that attempted to kid the viewer into thinking they were watching lost documentary footage (now you know who to blame); George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead (1978), the second segment of his zombie-thon; Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1982), doing what he does best; Stuart Gordon’s hilariously distasteful Re-Animator (1985) and Tobe Hooper’s classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), for which you should accept no imitations.

The late nineties saw a slasher boom thanks in no small part to Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), while clever slow-burners The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project in 1999 dragged the dying horror genre back from the brink. At the turn of the century came the Asian explosion (already gaining momentum thanks to Hideo Nakata’s masterful Ringu in 1997) and from the wreckage crawled torture-porn, with pretty much every country around the globe stepping forward for a share of the spoils. To these weary eyes, already forced to endure the likes of Rabid Grannies (1988), Fertilize The Blaspheming Bombshell (1990) and Teenage Catgirls In Heat (1993), it was all too much. Nevertheless, I persevered, and to be honest I was spoiled. You can keep your Fulci, Argento and Cronenberg; everything about the 21st century oozed menace, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

Two films that made the biggest impact at the start of the new millennium were Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000), but more on those gems later. The West had to endure remake after unnecessary remake as horror became fashionable, but alongside so many turkeys were a number of movies to keep exploitation fans deliriously happy. Cabin Fever (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2004), Hostel (2005) and Saw (2003) were impressive, as was the Australian Wolf Creek (2004), but nothing could prepare us for what France had in store.

A country that at one time seduced travellers with its culture, café terraces, village-square markets and bistros woke up one morning and decided to go on a bender, kidnapping its visitors and slaughtering them with eye-popping glee. Part-Belgian The Ordeal (2003), Switchblade Romance (2003), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), Mutants (2009) and The Pack (2010) are the most laudable entries, but Martyrs (2008) wins hands down. Directed by Pascal Laugier, the film tells how a woman's quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity – one of the most mental movies I have seen in a long time. 

If those aren’t enough to turn the stomach you’ll be pleased to know that cannibalism also made a much welcome return to the menu. Dumplings (2004) and the implausible but mightily impressive Macabre (2009) are main courses that should be savoured by all, while Meat Grinder (2009) and We Are What We Are (2010) relied more on mood rather than over the top visuals, but still had enough filling to leave you feeling slightly worse for wear.

Severance (2005), Donkey Punch (2008), Mum & Dad (2008) and Eden Lake (2008) proved that British exploitation was still alive and well, while the Rec franchise (2006, 2009 and 2012) kept Spain in the running (or should that just be running?), even if the chills were gradually replaced by ever-thickening bloodshed (am I really complaining?). Another worthwhile trilogy, started by Roar Uthaug’s slasher Cold Prey (2006), offered the welcome sight of blood-spattered snowscapes, and Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow (2008) delivered Nazi-zombies in Norway; a grisly but wounded movie, injected with humour, gore and brilliant set-pieces, but only if you survive the banality of the opening twenty minutes. 

In America, women were being further exploited in Teeth (2007), Dead Girl (2008) and The Woman (2011). The latter, brutal from the outset, includes some astonishing performances and a final act that pushed the boundaries and all the right buttons – Takashi Miike’s wet dream. But wait a minute. I almost have to pinch myself. All of these films and I’ve barely mentioned Japan during the noughties. Miike, born in the small town of Yao on the outskirts of Osaka, is best known for making explicit films with taboo representations of violence and sex, as seen in such works as Audition (1999), Visitor Q (2001), Ichi the Killer (2001) and the Dead or Alive Trilogy. Some of his other work - The Happiness Of The Katakuris (2001), Zebraman (2004), 13 Assassins (2010) – isn’t bad either.

Takashi Ishii’s Freezer (2000) and Sion Sono’s Suicide Club (2001) demand attention, but if it’s all-out gore that you’re after, look no further than the works of Sushi Typhoon. Tokyo Gore Police (2008), Robo-geisha (2009) and Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl (2000) are nonsensical but fun; perfect appetisers for the creatively juicy revenge-flick The Machine Girl (2008) from director Noboru Iguchi. More engaging then most splatter-fests, if you haven't already, you really need to witness this hilariously distasteful, gory masterpiece. After that, Dog Bite Dog (2006), Gong Tau (2007) and Dream House (2010) from Hong Kong should be savoured, and South Korea chips in with Nowehere To Hide (1999), the outstanding Old Boy (2003) and Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw The Devil (2010).                

So, what have we learnt so far? The simple fact is this: Extreme cinema pushes boundaries. Hard to categorise, at the very least it glamorises violence in graphic detail. At times it presents the audience with little more than unrelenting humiliation, brutality and suffering. However, in my opinion, you can shove your cheaply made, obscure films with their buckets of blood, oversexed imagery and slapstick violence (there are bad movies and there are Troma movies) where the sun doesn’t shine, because extreme cinema is at its best when it actually has a message.

Guts Of A Virgin (1986), in which a film crew making a porn film are dismembered by a demon in a warehouse, and Stop The Bitch Campaign (2001), about a man humiliating teenage prostitutes to get them off the streets, push the boundaries too far in the wrong direction. I’m sure they’re fun, and every now and again I like my horror to be completely bonkers, but the very best movies from this genre are those that don’t actually dwell on graphic scenes of murder, rape, castration and cannibalism. They include them, for sure, but instead, the director offers insight into human nature rather than yet another close-up of someone’s bludgeoned body as a monkey and giraffe abuse it with a pineapple. 


Palisades Tartan

Palisades Tartan is a US and UK film Distribution Company founded by US-based Palisades Media Group to take over the film library of Tartan Films after it folded in Summer 2008, notable for distributing East Asian films, especially those in the horror and thriller genres, under the brand Tartan Asia Extreme. Titles include Audition, Nowhere To Hide and Visitor Q.

Cine Du Monde

An exciting new label set up by several industry veterans – collectively bringing over 50 years of experience to the table in the areas of acquisitions, production, sales and distribution. They aim to bring to UK homes “Left-of-Centre Cinema” from Around the World, focusing on interesting, overlooked or forgotten films that reflect the vast world of cinema not encapsulated by mainstream new releases. Recent releaes have included Suicide Club and Yakuza Hunters.

4 Digital Media

They are one of the UK's leading truly independent DVD distributors with an eclectic, cutting edge feature film catalogue and deliver great value and extraordinary home entertainment. 4Digital Asia is a sub-label specialising in Asian “cult” live action films in their original language with English subtitles. The catalogue includes favourites Tokyo Gore Police, Death Tube, Meat Grinder and Samurai Princess.

Arrow Films

Arrow Films is one of the UK's leading independent distributors of world cinema, art-house, horror and classic films. For over 15 years Arrow Films has pioneered the best directors from Europe and around the world. Arrow Video is a specialist label that encapsulates the spirit of the video nasties of the 1980s, including retro-style artwork and posters. This label includes films by renowned horror directors George A. Romero, Lucio Fulci, Lamberto Bava and Dario Argento. Their catalogue includes Battle Royale, Day Of The Dead, Demons and Tenebrae.

There are others too, and many other wonderful films I’ve no doubt forgot to mention, but it’s probably not a bad start. By the end you’ll probably want to whack something cheery on for the other half. But then, if your partner is still sitting there beside you, you’ve either found the perfect soul mate or they’re dead, and we won’t go into that. Before I go, can I ask you to add other recommendations in the comments box below? I’m always open to even wilder entries, as I’m sure other readers will be too. For now though, I’ll leave you with my top five. Embrace the madness, and remember, it wasn’t your fault, it was just the bottle you wanted.  

5. Antichrist (2009), Lars von Trier

How far is too far? There’s no point asking Lars von Trier. Anyone who has watched one of his movies will understand that he does whatever the hell he wants. Speaking of hell, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a grieving couple who retreat to Eden, an isolated cabin in the woods, where they hope to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage after the death of their baby. He flung himself out of a window while his parents were having sex. Perhaps he knew Lars was about to go all weird on us again.

With nature in as a forgiving mood as the auteur it isn’t long before things go from bad to worse, for the couple and for the viewer. Split into chapters – as well as a prologue and an epilogue – Antichrist starts unsurprisingly slowly, pitting the couple against their guilt, not helped by the deformities of nature popping up to offer yet more torment (and a few wise words). It isn’t until the second half (forgetting the stunt penis in the prologue) that the director infuses a visually-stunning slow-burner with gratuitous voyeurism and violence that rivals anything Takashi Miike has ever done. Some will greet it with revulsion but this is horror at its most disturbing and most unwatchable, which surely can’t be a bad thing.

4. Ichi The Killer (2001), Takashi Miike

Speaking of Takashi Miike, here he is with this ultra-violent adaptation of Hideo Yamamoto’s manga series of the same name. Whether you prefer sexual pleasure obtained from receiving physical or psychological harm or punishment, or sexual pleasure obtained by inflicting physical or psychological harm or punishment on others, you’ll still love Ichi The Killer, which tells the story of yakuza enforcer Kakihara (Tadanobu Asano) as he searches for his missing boss. He comes across Ichi (Nao Ohmori), a repressed and psychotic killer with the ability to inflict levels of pain that Kakihara has only dreamed of. Hand out the sick bags…

And this, for the midnight screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, is exactly what they did. Nice. Apparently it was merely a gimmick, but there were probably one or two people in the theatre that evening that were pretty grateful come the film’s monstrous finale. One of Miike’s most memorable works, blessed by eye-popping performances, a warped and twisted sense of humour and gruesome comic book imagery, Ichi The Killer is as extreme as they come. But then, if you're going to give someone pain, you've got to get into it…

3. Old Boy (2003), Chan-wook Park

After being kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, Oh Dae-Su (Min-sik Choi) is finally released, and he’s pissed. Directed by Chan-wook Park (Lady Vengeance, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Thirst), a student of philosophy at Sogang University in Seoul, Old Boy is infested with so much bloodshed and violence you’ll find absolutely no way of addressing its characters problems by using a critical, systematic approach. And you certainly won’t rely on rational argument either.

You’ll probably never eat sushi again either (forget chowing down on a live octopus any time soon), and it’s probably wise to fast for a few hours in case the ultra-violent set-pieces bring your dinner back up again, but Old Boy is much more than being outrageous just for the sake of it. With a standout corridor fight scene, brilliant performances and a dental extraction using a claw hammer, you’ll be hard pushed to find another movie that thrills and spills in such gleeful abundance.

2. Battle Royale (2000), Kinji Fukasaku

In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary ‘Battle Royale’ act. A tough sell in the current climate, with twenty children and six adults killed only last month in the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school (gun violence occurs at an educational institution all too frequently these days), Kinji Fukasaku’s classic is certainly not to be confused with the watered-down, unprofound novels by American writer Suzanne Collins – the first of which, The Hunger Games, was made into a film last year.

Their premises may sound similar, but Fukasaku’s film combines intelligent social commentary with raw, uncomfortable action sequences, and a dark vein of humour running through the very heart of it. The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence. Battle Royale: The Director’s Cut provides more back-story for some of its main stayers, but at the end of the day, this is Lord Of The Flies reincarnated as an over the top action movie, with excruciating – not to mention outrageous - set-pieces from the outset. I mean, seriously, what would you do?    

1. Audition (1999), Takashi Miike

So, after many hours sat in front of the gogglebox forced to endure the finest extreme cinema has to offer, here is the film I regard as the genres greatest. Miike’s tale about a widower taking an offer to screen girls at a special audition, arranged for him by a friend to find him a new wife, may sound like something starring Julia Roberts from the nineties, but Audition is far more disturbing than using the wrong fork at dinner. Japanese executive, Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), rightfully fancies and chooses Asami (Eihi Shiina), but it turns out that such an innocent and beautiful young woman may not be who she appears to be after all.

I say may not, because I really don’t want to ruin it for you, but rest assured, this is Miike at his very best, crafting a film that slowly develops into one of the scariest and nastiest films you’ll ever witness. Asami is completely mental, she has a tool kit to end all tool kits, and when she purrs "kiri kiri kiri" (Japanese for "deeper deeper deeper") you’ll be wishing you were in Shigeharu’s shoes. Probably. Like all of the very best films out there, Audition will linger long in the memory, demand repeat viewings and make you question its ingenious narrative. And the scene with Asami sitting by the phone as she waits for a call from Shigeharu will get you every single time. Unmissable.    

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