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Top 10 Arthouse Shockers [NSFW]

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Sometimes I feel like a fan without a country. On the one hand, I totally dig highbrow, intellectually challenging cinema, of the kind I was first exposed to in my film school courses. You know, Herzog, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Fellini... the ones pretentious people like to talk loudly about in restaurants. But I also adore down-and-dirty splatter and exploitation flicks – the kind made for no other purpose than to make people gasp, faint, puke in their mouths or laugh their asses off at their outrageousness. It's not often that a film comes along which perches right on the jagged, uncomfortable fence between high art and pure shock value... so when one manages to successfully pull off that dangerous balancing act, it usually finds a place of honor in my movie memory vault. Maybe it's because I sympathize with any artist who finds a way to make a profound statement through the most extreme methods possible: it's artistic rebellion cranked to 11, and it almost always leaves a lasting impression in any viewer that can physically endure it.

With that said, let's launch right into my top ten. Maybe you'll agree, maybe not, and hopefully you'll add a few suggestions of your own... but beware, some pretty disturbing stuff lies below. Like the old movie trailer says: "Once you stop screaming, you'll start talking about it!"

Aftermath (1994)

Now if you want to get all technical, this may not qualify since it's not a feature-length production, but I have to include this profoundly disturbing short by Nacho Cerdà as a classic example of the outer limits of extreme art. The elegantly simple story is set in a morgue following a fatal car accident, and a deeply disturbed mortician who... well, let's just say this guy gets into his work in more ways than one. Gorehounds worship this film for its shockingly realistic makeup effects (even horror journalist/author Chas Balun, no stranger to extreme cinema, was totally freaked out by it), but less mention is made of the film's unflinching view of the transformative process of death, where a human life is instantly reduced to a mere plaything – a very horrifying concept to Cerdà, who worked out his fears through this film. The director would eventually cross over into mainstream horror with The Abandoned, a dark and creepy tale which featured very little gore but some truly nightmarish imagery.

Antichrist (2009)

I had a hard time bringing myself to watch this award-winning film from controversial director Lars von Trier – not because I was scared by its highly publicized scenes of torture and genital mutilation, but because every one of Von Trier's previous films (except for his spooky miniseries The Kingdom) made me so depressed I wanted to crawl under a blanket and eat cookies until I passed out. Imagine my surprise when I was swept up into the gorgeous netherworld of this film, which blends dreamlike widescreen images of haunting beauty with moments of grotesque violence (actually very brief, but pretty damn effective, if you value your gonads). Von Trier's characters have issues that go way beyond bizarre, but here a grieving husband and wife (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) are more than just a pair of fucked-up individuals: they become symbolic figures in a cosmic battle of the sexes, caught up in the eternal and deadly cycle of nature itself ("Chaos reigns," a fox says to Dafoe as it eats its own guts). The director would follow with the equally profound Melancholia, which employs a science fiction scenario instead of horror, but actually fits together well with this film.

Audition (1999)

What can I write about Japanese director Takashi Miike that isn't already out there (usually involving the letters W, T and F at some point)? Still, I have to get this film on my list, since it turned Miike from an eccentric genre-hopping filmmaker to a horror superstar. Audition lulled me into a false sense of security in its first hour, depicting a lonely widower whose teenage son wants Dad to find a new bride. That leads to a strange but otherwise fairly tame romantic comedy of deception... that is until the halfway mark, when we realize the girl he's got his eye on is a homicidal maniac with a long trail of body parts in her wake. It's a downhill ride to hell from there, ending in a now-infamous torture scene that still makes me cringe, but even then it shows amazing sensitivity toward its characters, even sympathy for their most fatal flaws. The horrific moments play out like surreal nightmares, externalizing their fear, sadness and trauma. If you're looking for splatter alone, you'll probably be bored by the deliberate pace of the story, but when you want a film to hit you much deeper than that, look no further.

The Beast (1975)

The films of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk deal almost exclusively with the subject of sexuality, often in a horror or dark fantasy context. He's sexed up the tales of Jekyll & Hyde (Dr. Jekyll and His Women) and Countess Bathory (Immoral Tales), but it's this explicit take on Beauty and the Beast that made audiences gasp the deepest. It began as a short film, but Borowczyk wanted to explore the concept in a feature, so he expanded the original story of a repressed noblewoman who dreams of a torrid affair with a werewolf-like creature. The monster becomes the embodiment of desire itself – a force which cannot be repressed or ignored, because it lives within us. The protagonist finally overcomes her fear and embraces the beast within... well, "embraces" is probably not the right word, but you get the idea. While there's plenty of beast-on-human action, it's always in the context of dreams and fantasy; the only truly icky scene contains graphic footage of two horses having sexy-time. You might want to look away or fast-forward through that one.

In a Glass Cage (1987)

It's hard for the faint-of-heart to get past the basic premise of this macabre tale from Spanish filmmaker Agustí Villaronga: after a failed suicide attempt, an exiled Nazi doctor is confined to an iron lung (a coffin-sized breathing apparatus they don't use much anymore) and requires round-the-clock medical care to stay alive. His new caretaker is a young man with some dark secrets of his own – namely a sadomasochistic relationship he had with the doctor when he was one of his "test subjects" in a concentration camp. If you can't stomach that description – and most folks can't – then you should just move on to the next title. But if you're looking for a dark, surreal and shocking psychodrama, this is pretty much as dark, surreal and psycho as it gets: the insanity that brings the characters together turns out to be infectious, the cycle seems doomed to continue forever in the wicked world that Villaronga has created, and the human monsters who live there will haunt your nightmares.

Irreversible (2002)

Gaspar Noé shocked audiences worldwide with his debut feature I Stand Alone, but that creepy flick was just a warmup for his ultimate descent into the heart of darkness. Noé uses many different disorienting devices to spin this story of love, friendship, rape and murder – but the most important of those is telling the tale backwards. Unlike Christopher Nolan's Memento, which used the loss of the protagonist's memory as the basis for its reverse-story puzzle, Noe uses the technique to take all the satisfaction out of seeking revenge for a horrible crime, rendering the characters' motivations pointless and showing us how one simple choice snowballed into a nightmare. When a movie's tagline is "Time Destroys Everything," you know you're not in for a fun ride. But if you survive the shocking, stomach-turning violence of the first half (including a bludgeoning by fire extinguisher and the controversial ten-minute rape scene), you'll get to take a breath and explore the dynamics of the three close friends whose decisions change their lives for the worse.

Little Deaths (2011)

This British horror anthology is a mixed bag, but always fascinating. The first two installments lie more in the realm of horror: "House and Home" is a twisted take on class warfare, leading to a predictable but satisfying EC Comics-style turnabout ending; the second chapter "Mutant Tool" comes as close as I've ever seen to a film version of the anything-goes "Bizarro" literary genre. While those two are both shocking and visually amazing, it's the final episode "Bitch" from Simon Rumley that will linger in your memory much longer. It involves a meek but likable young man whose uptight girlfriend has some serious sexual hangups, the strangest of which involves him literally playing the role of her dog. Even knowing he's the only one who can put up with her issues, she still treats him like absolute (dog) shit... until he finally snaps, leading to the most epic and twisted revenge scenario I've seen in a long time. The artistry that Rumley brings to this segment makes it simultaneously touching and completely horrifying; like his acclaimed shocker Red White & Blue, you know you're in the hands of a brilliant madman.

Martyrs (2008)

If I had to choose the most unique and memorable entry from France's "new wave" of extreme horror cinema (which includes two of my all-time faves, High Tension and Inside), I'd have to go with this strangely spiritual shocker from Pascal Laugier. While many French films from the same period are slick, stylish and classy in their portrayal of horrific violence, Martyrs takes what the less-informed would call "Torture Porn" and uses it to expose the human obsession with mortality. That's not to say it isn't a cruel, grotesque and brutal piece of work; many of the film's key scenes are so unsettling that the message is sometimes obscured by blood and severed flesh. It's actually not surprising that Laugier was once in the running to direct the Hellraiser reboot – the concept of reaching spiritual ecstasy though extreme pain is something Clive Barker's Cenobites would happily agree with, and the dehumanization of the main character elevates her to a higher level of consciousness, which is a very scary idea indeed.

Possession (1981)

This is an almost indescribable film, but I'm going to try anyway. Directed by Andrzej Zulawski, the surreal epic explores the shattered mind of a young woman (the ghostly Isabelle Adjani) whose mental collapse may be manifesting itself in the physical world – including an apparent miscarriage, during which she screeches and wails in a subway tunnel, hemorrhaging about ten gallons of blood. When her secret-agent husband (Sam Neill) begins an affair with her doppelganger and a strange detective begins snooping around her apartment, she turns increasingly violent – leading to self-mutilation, a little nookie with a Lovecraftian monster (are you keeping up with this?) and finally what appears to be World War III. If any of that makes sense to you, you're either smarter or crazier than I am, but there's something about the way Adjani's performance ties all the weirdness together that really left a mark on me. The world she inhabits seems to pull and twist in different directions according to her mood... and since her character is supernaturally insane, that's a lot of twists.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Now comes the real test of courage: In 1964, Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was celebrated worldwide for his film The Gospel According to Matthew, and acclaimed alongside Fellini as one of Italy's artistic treasures. But when he focused his unique and poetic vision on the writings of the Marquis De Sade and Dante's Inferno, those who once sang his praises started calling for his execution (some theories suggest the film had something to do with his murder in 1975). Using De Sade's sexually warped tale as a metaphor for Italy's moral decay under fascism during World War II, Pasolini explored the depths of depravity that seemingly rational human beings can be made to accept... and even enjoy. It's the ultimate horror, because it's all too possible. In the film, a group of teenage boys and girls are brought before a group of influential men and used as fodder for every kind of foul, merciless act  they can invent (remember, De Sade is the origin of the word "sadism"). The fact that the film is beautifully photographed, lush and elegant just makes the idea behind it even uglier.

Why would anyone want to expose themselves to this, you ask? I can answer for Salò and the other nine films on this list: great art is not meant to make you comfortable; it's supposed to make you think and feel. Sometimes it has to shock us, smack us in the face and break through our defenses in order to poke at the soft, unprotected parts of our brains... which we don't always want to see. but isn't that one of the definitions of horror?

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