In recent years, the ‘Extreme Cinema’ genre has gained a lot more attention from a growing cult-following who admire its shocking subversions of normative social values and conventions. Through the use of amplified violence and graphic depictions of the perversions of humanity, Extreme Cinema attempts to deconstruct and perforate the ideological indoctrination that all of us have undergone by forcing us to think of morality and ethics in new ways.
A pioneer of the genre, John Waters, said: “Oh, I think that after Trump, nothing is so good it’s bad. He’s ruined the word ‘bad’. There’s nothing that’s ‘good bad taste’, it’s all just ‘bad bad taste’. It’s almost not worth being remarked on. I think it’s hard for anything to be so bad it’s good anymore. My films were made knowing what they were, and audiences came to see them without any irony, unlike with many cult movies that were made seriously and were so bad that they’re funny today.”
Adding, “My movies are made so that, I think, you’re laughing with them rather than laughing at them. Even if you hate them! I always say, even in my new book, my parents were drilling in the rules of good taste so I could make a career out of breaking them. But I don’t know, what is so bad it’s good, today? I can’t think of much. I can’t think of a movie I saw recently that I thought was so bad it was great.”
In this edition of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we take a look at ten films from the extreme cinema genre in order to get a better understanding of its special features and unique artistic characteristics.
10 essential films from the “Extreme Cinema” genre:
Pink Flamingos (John Waters – 1972)
John Waters’ 1972 magnum opus is a unique visual journey that takes us on a wild ride as we witness the worst of humanity, ranging from incest to poop-eating. It is a counter-culture masterpiece that successfully constructs its own aesthetic principles in order to create truly surreal art.
“My intention was to have a hit, and Pink Flamingos was a hit for that genre, certainly,” Waters stated. “The first time I saw the end with an audience, I knew, because people didn’t know how to react. They couldn’t not tell somebody about it. It was forced word of mouth. Divine eating dog shit, which was a surreal moment that was just influenced by surrealism and was a publicity stunt, basically. That worked better than I ever imagined.”
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini – 1975)
Salò often finds its way onto lists that discuss some of the most controversial films of all time and that can be attributed to the bizarre spectacle constructed by Pasolini with humanity’s cruelty on full display. However, it is also one of the finest critiques of capitalist power relations because it reduces those complex interactions to their fundamental forms.
Pasolini said, “Being based on De Sade, this film revolves around the representation of sex. But this aspect has changed in relation to my last three films that I call ‘the trilogy of life’: The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. In this new film, sex is nothing but an allegory of the commodification of bodies at the hands of power.
“I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did. My film represents this sinister coincidence between Nazism and consumerism. Well, I don’t know if audiences will grasp this since the film presents itself in rather enigmatic way, almost like a miracle play, where the sacred word retains its Latin meaning of ‘cursed.’”
In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Ōshima – 1976)
Among the most iconic films from the Japanese New Wave, Nagisa Ōshima’s chronicles the explicit affair between a former sex worker and her new employer who is already married. In the Realm of the Senses was subjected to a lot of censorship but is now recognised as a truly masterful work by the Japanese auteur.
Ōshima reflected, “I found, several years after directing my first films, that I was very attracted to these two topics, sex and crime. Subsequently, my films have addressed them in a very analytic way. Today, I’m at a stage where I simply like to project the naked reality of sex and crime before the spectator’s eyes.”
Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato – 1980)
Through the use of found footage visual and narrative techniques, Cannibal Holocaust tells us about what happened to a documentary crew who ventured into the Amazon rainforest. The film’s found-footage style has been vastly influential and has been used by other popular productions like The Blair Witch Project.
In an interview, Deodato claimed, “People call me a horror director but actually I have only directed a couple of horror films, and I’m not referring to the usual titles of mine I’m associated with. Cannibal Holocaust is not a horror film, it’s just a depiction of reality. It’s not my fault the world we live in is so violent and dark.”
Funny Games (Michael Haneke – 1997)
Michael Haneke’s celebrated psychological thriller is an examination of human depravity, told through the unique case of two deranged men who capture and torture a family in their holiday home. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, a significant portion of the audience had left by the time it ended due to its visceral violence.
Haneke recalled, “The ironic story is that when I did Funny Games and it was finished but it was not released anywhere yet, there was a story in a German news magazine Der Spiegel about two young men in Spain who had taken a man from the street and tortured him to death. And they wore white gloves.
“When they were asked in prison, do you feel any remorse? One of them wrote an essay and said no. They quoted Nietzsche all the time. They said this guy who murdered was a third-class individual anyway. So you can’t invent anything that is worse than what happens in reality.”
Audition (Takashi Miike – 1999)
Based on Ryu Murakami’s novel, Audition revolves around a psychopathic serial killer who cannot tolerate being neglected by the men in her life. Miike’s work has not only inspired other horror films of the same subgenre but has also been influential for filmmakers working in the torture porn category.
While talking about the antagonist, Miike said, “She was a very important character for me. In the original novel, I think she’s there but being played by that actress, she realised… a lot more scary than the original novel. She really completely personified that fear and it’s somebody that.”
Adding, “It’s a fear that every man would probably see in her and somebody that wouldn’t want to meet in real life. She was really scary as the actress playing the act. She obviously lives on like in your card and yes I think she was quite an important role.”
Irréversible (Gaspar Noé – 2002)
Told in reverse, Gaspar Noé‘s shocking 2002 psychological thriller traces its way back through ominous events as two men seek to avenge the brutal rape of a girlfriend (played by Monica Bellucci). Irréversible is the filmmaker’s attempt to paint humanity at its most grotesque.
“Seventies cinema — Taxi Driver, Deliverance — that was the best period of American cinema,” Noé commented. “For the moment, it switches into popcorn movies — cheap sci-fi movies or movies that are not very far from reality, or when reality is portrayed it’s so sentimental and cheaply humanist that you are disgusted, like a cake with too much sugar. But I think the audience is more mature than what they are eating now.”
Oldboy (Park Chan-wook – 2003)
Park Chan-wook’s immensely popular neo-noir thriller Oldboy is a Kafkaesque tale about a man who breaks out of a 15-year imprisonment to seek revenge but finds himself in much deeper trouble. It received the Grand Prix at Cannes among several other accolades, including high praise from Quentin Tarantino.
The filmmaker explained, “Just like that every other form of art, everything that comprises a piece of work has to have a reason to be there. Every element. Just like being a chef, you use ingredients to create something that wasn’t there before. And you have to carefully think about what ingredients you choose, and how you mix it into your final dish.
“How you use it as a means of expressing an idea. He might think of it as a composer trying to write a piece of music for an orchestra, and in order to effectively do that, you’re drawing on all the instruments in the orchestra, and thinking about how they’ll function in the piece of music.”
Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos – 2009)
Dogtooth is an essential experience that belongs to the special oeuvre of the Greek Weird Wave. With the use of his uncanny ability to construct bizarre atmospheres, Yorgos Lanthimos creates an unforgettable political allegory involving psychotic parents who will go to any lengths to control their children and prevent them from exposure to the outside world.
“We didn’t do any research at all, because I thought it was such a surreal story we were working on.” Lanthimos revealed. “It was only afterwards, when we were already rehearsing, that this Austrian story came out about the father who kept his daughter in the basement, where she grew up like an animal, and he had children with her. But still, this felt very different from what we were trying to do since it had a very different tone to it, way too dark and dreadful.”
A Serbian Film (Srdjan Spasojevic – 2010)
A relatively recent example of the contemporary evolution of Extreme Cinema, A Serbian Film follows a fading porn actor who gets tricked into participating in a truly disgusting snuff film. While many called for the film to be permanently banned when it was first released, others changed their opinions after taking the time to understand the political implications of A Serbian Film’s volatile narrative.
The director said, “We just wanted to express our deepest and honest feelings towards our region and also the world in general — a world that is sugar-coated in political correctness, but also very rotten under that façade — with a movie style we like. Of course, there is a kind of political and social level to the film, but I didn’t want to make any kind of political statement. I’m not running for president. I didn’t want to express my political choices.”