One of the reasons that extreme horror is so effective is that it can add a cultural context to the terror. Historical trauma runs through the roots of horror, and directors will use this to color their films with a layer of harsh reality. They can be a direct response to the tragedies a country has experienced, and in some cases they’ll take a very literal approach in depicting these dark corners of their history.
Back in 2017, I wrote a quick little list of 5 dark and disturbing modern foreign horror films, for those who like a bit of a challenge. I’ve been thinking on the topic of extreme horror quite a bit, particularly with the recent boost in visibility for A Serbian Film thanks to its recent 4K Uncut Release (as a side note, I had the honor of going on the Spinsters of Horror’s premiere episode of Shock Talk to discuss the film, which you can listen to here).
So, with my mind set on finding some of the most messed-up films modern horror has to offer, I did some screenings and came back with a few I think you’ll like. You know. If you’re into that sort of thing.
(Ok but seriously, be warned, I’m not playing around. These films are not for everyone. You’ve really gotta set yourself up for a rough and often terrible experience. But if you’re into extreme horror, and you’re not dissuaded by my descriptions/warnings, then have at it. I salute you.)
Trauma (Chile, 2017)
“Inspired by true events”, Trauma opens with a flashback to 1978 (during Chile’s authoritarian military dictatorship). We see a woman tied to a chair with her feet in stirrups, beaten and covered in blood (mostly surrounding her pelvic region, which does not inspire confidence). The officers bring her teenage son, Juanito, into the room and it gets… incredibly disturbing. And this is just in the first 5 minutes.
So on that happy note, we launch into 2011, and the movie chugs along. Juanito’s all grown up, full of the titular trauma, and now a — pardon me — absolute fucking monster. A group of four women tragically fall into this maniac’s path, and, well, you can imagine. Violent rape, vicious torture, the whole nine yards. Honestly, Trauma is a really tough watch — it gives A Serbian Film a run for its damned money, and I think it actually wins the race.
As with A Serbian Film, Trauma is a direct response to the cultural trauma that came from the aforementioned 17-year dictatorship, and Chile’s history with societal aggression and sexual abuse towards women. It’s puts the “extreme” in extreme horror — it’s deeply disturbing — but it’s pretty easy to recognize why. If you’re interested, this interview with the director is rather enlightening, and I definitely recommend reading it if you’re curious about the film.
Where to watch: Tubi
Grotesque (Japan, 2009)
A young couple (though barely even a couple, the relationship is brand new) are kidnapped by a maniacal doctor and humiliated, tortured, healed, and then tortured again, all in search of the doctor’s ultimate sexual thrill.
The doctor promises that if the couple can help him reach that state of arousal, he’ll let them go. But his sexual proclivities are… grotesquely violent, and the poor young couple are forced to either endure terrible pain or shift it to be inflicted on the other. It‘s a really awkward spot to put a pair of young lovers in.
Grotesque is aptly named. The practical effects are quite good, and the sound effects really seal the realism. It’s a dark film that starts on a very uncomfortable note and amps up to high levels of cruelty, all the while teasing the couple with a small chance at freedom. With all the graphic surgical activity in this one, it’s definitely not for those with a weak stomach.
Where to watch: Tubi
Brutal (Japan, 2017)
In Brutal, a serial killer targets women in a supposed attempt to find someone he’s compatible with, to engage in his fantasies of torture and murder. He’s searching for the meaning of life by actively engaging in death. How poetic. One day, he finds his match in another serial killer — a woman who targets men — and they find they have more in common than just their murderous interests.
Brutal is the second Japanese entry on this list, and similar to Grotesque it is not-so-subtly focused on repressed sexuality. It’s oddly comical at times, with a talking severed head and young couples that conversationally riff on gender roles. Weirdly, you could probably qualify this one as a romantic horror — and, oddly, you’d be right to do so — though that label is mostly hidden under the buckets of blood and copious violence.
Edited with grindhouse grit, Brutal is a stylized ragefest. I watched this one at approximately 9:30am on a Sunday, and it was, admittedly, a weird way to start the day.
Where to watch: Tubi
Atrocious (aka Atroz: Mexico, 2015)
The opening sequence of Atroz shows a bustling, crumbling city, awash with garbage and poverty, as a script states that “98% of 27,000 murders in Mexico are unsolved”. After setting this dark scene, we come to a stop on two men being shoved in the back of a police car after they hit a woman with their vehicle. One of the officers searches their car and finds a camcorder, and it’s what he sees on this tape that the audience must then witness.
The two men capture, torture, and kill a sex worker — in gruesome, gory detail. They smear her own feces over her face and body, cut open her breast and shove a fist inside, all sorts of horrific stuff.
The officers find more tapes, and it’s more of the awful, violent same. It’s a dirty, mean, gritty film, shot with a harsh realism (we witness their brutality all via found footage) that is extremely upsetting. Be warned, these guys do not have a good attitude towards women. And the reason why — as we find out — is even more disturbing.
This one’s rough, but again, there’s a fair amount of cultural context that weighs on the film. If you’d like to read an informative interview with the director, Lex Ortega (who also stars in Atroz), you can do so here.
Where to watch: Tubi
The Golden Glove (Germany, 2019)
The only non-one-word-adjective film title on this list, The Golden Glove is a nasty, dark, grimy film based on Heinz Struk’s novel about German serial killer Fritz Honka. A habitual alcoholic with a squint and a speech impediment, Honka killed (at least) four women between the years of 1970 and 1975. He strangled his victims and cut them into pieces, hiding their body parts in his apartment.
Written and directed by Fatih Akin, The Golden Glove is crude, bleak film that presents its sex and violence in an honest and very cruel way. It’s presented with layers of filth and grease. This movie just looks dirty. It feels dirty. It’s deeply disturbing because of how well it blends the reality of the truth with the grungy, stylized presentation.
One of the truly shocking things about The Golden Glove — aside from the fact that the story is absolutely true — is how much the film’s lead actor, Jonas Dassler, transformed for the role. Seriously, look him up. The man is… not at all what you’ll expect. Everything about the characterization of Fritz Honka builds the character perfectly; the way he talks, walks, moves, every facial expression and physical tick paints a complete picture. Charlize Theron in Monster has got nothin on Dassler.
Where to watch: Shudder
You can check out the first list for more extreme horror, and let me know your favorites in the comments!