A brief guide to extreme cinema

James Oliver

If you're looking for some classic films that boast the extreme, then look no further than this captivating list...

Those who like to keep abreast of modern cinema will doubtless be aware of Gasper Noe. He's the Franco-Argentinian filmmaker who's made a name for himself by getting down and dirty—his films (which include Irreversible and Enter the Void) are famously full of sex 'n' violence.

He's got a new one coming out soon, called Climax, which expands his repertoire to include drugs and interpretive dance. But is anyone really impressed by shock tactics enough anymore? The envelope has been pushed so far that self-consciously “extreme” films can seem oddly conservative: transgression today is a tactic too often used in place of actual innovation.

It wasn't always thus: below is a selection of films that really did set the cat amongst the pigeons in their day and which—thanks to the power and skill of the filmmaking—are strong stuff still.

 

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Listening to other people's dreams is famously boring but you might want to make an exception for Un Chien Andalou. It began when two young men decided to make a film inspired by their nocturnal visions, and since those young men were Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel, you might guess that this is rather more than the average dream diary.

It's only 25 or so minutes long but kicks off with arguably the most infamous image in film history, that of a razor being dragged over a human eye. It provoked a mini-riot at the premiere and earned them condemnation in the press; it's still impossible to watch without wincing.

 

Freaks (1933)

The debates around Freaks have raged since it was first shown; it was, for instance, banned in this country until remarkably recently. It's set amongst a circus freak show and drew its cast from those who performed/ were exhibited in the real thing.

It is, though, remarkably sympathetic to the “freaks”, in contrast to the evil able-bodied couple who prey upon them. It would be wrong to call it a pioneering depiction of the disabled—the idea of freak shows isn't challenged and the grim climax undoes some of the earlier humanising—but it's not quite as exploitative as might be feared.

 

Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts) (1949)

Times change, and what might seem shocking to one generation becomes kiddie fare for another (to wit: a great many horror films). Le Sang des bêtes, though, might actually be more shocking, thanks to changes in social attitudes. A translation of the title might explain why: Blood of the Beasts.

It's a short film that shows the interior of a French abattoir and doesn't spare us much of what goes in there. But the purpose is not simply to appal: it was made by a chap called Georges Franju who would become famous for his poetic horror film Eyes Without a Face and, while shocking, there's a certain surreal elegance to the images. Vegans and Veggies, though, should take a pass.

 

Peeping Tom (1960)

Peeping Tom is regarded as one of the greatest British films these days, the last substantial work of our greatest director Michael Powell. However, the reason why it was his last substantial film is because the outrage about it killed his career: “The only really satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom,” wrote one critic, “would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then, the stench would remain.”

It's not as “extreme” as some of the films on our list but it remains disturbing. In other hands, the idea of a serial killer who films his murders might have made a neat little shocker. In Powell's hands, it's a study of cinema and, by extension, movie violence. Those ideals would later be explored in Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man Bites Dog and both versions of Funny Games. None of them did it as well as Powell, though.

 

The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch wasn't quite the ground zero for movie violence (some of those Spaghetti Westerns got pretty sanguinary) but this was the point where gore entered the mainstream—Peckinpah had guys wired up with squibs so every “gunshot” would geyser blood, often lovingly shown in slow motion. If it looks tame by modern standards, that's only an indication of how influential it was; it totally changed how movies depicted bloodshed, for good or ill.

 

Salo (1975)

If you want to know how shallow some of the current crop of “extreme” cinema is then Salo is a very useful contrast. Let us note first that this is not a comfortable film: the subtitle alone might tell you that (“120 Days of Sodom”) as might the fact it's adapted from a work by the Marquis de Sade.

There’s unpleasantness galore, of a sort it is probably best not to spell out on a family website. But the purpose of director Pier Paulo Pasolini isn't just to see how much he can get away with. “Salo” is the Italian town where the fascist rump retreated near the end of the war, and Pasolini is exploring—in (horrible) metaphor—their barbarous impact on his country and society.

This is not an easy film to watch but there's a reason for everything here. Pasolini was first and foremost a poet and this is a furious, bitter cry from his heart.

 

In the Realm of the Senses (1976)

In 1936, a woman called Abe Sade scandalised Japan when she murdered the lover with whom she'd been having a torrid affair. In this film, master filmmaker Ôshima Nagisa used their destructive relationship to parallel for the simultaneous rise of a military government hell-bent on war.

All very clever, you might (correctly) think, but that's not the half of it. What has made the film so infamous was that Oshima didn't shy away from the more—ah—physical aspects of the couple's relationship. His actors were—um—basically doing it on screen. For real.

As might be imagined, Oshima got into lots of trouble for making it. Still, at least he inspired a generation of teenage boys to take an active interest in arthouse cinema.

 

The Idiots (1998)

Part auteur, part wind-up merchant, Lars Von Trier is naughtiest little boy in modern cinema. He delights in pranks and provocations—which unfortunately makes it too easy to overlook the quality of his films.

Take The Idiots by way of an example. It features real emotional pain here and even a serious purpose (it's one of the rare modern extreme films that's interested in actually exploring taboos and our reactions to them) buuuuuuuuut... it's about adults who pretend to have learning difficulties. Oh, there's some unsimulated “nookie” too, but it's the “pretending to have learning difficulties” bit that tends to put people's backs up.

It's not hard to wish that Lars would use his powers for good just occasionally: make a nice rom-com or something. Now we're used to his schtick, that might be the most outrageous stunt he could pull.

 

This list stops just short of the current century, when “extreme” cinema became prevalent and, perhaps not coincidentally, a bit tiresome. Just because you can put things on screen, kids, doesn't mean you should. The films above are rare exceptions: mostly, less actually is more.