Ginger Nuts of Horror
To say that I have watched “some” unsettling films is akin to saying that Ron Jeremy has gotten laid “a couple of times”. After watching Stephen King’s “It” at about the age of 9, I embraced the cinematic world of the macabre, and my love for all things ooky and kooky is still as healthy as ever.
While many of the genuinely horrifying films I’ve seen sit firmly under the banner of “horror”, often the most affecting have been of a different breed. Ghosts, zombies and demons had the power to disturb a younger me, but these days it takes a cold hard punch of reality to unnerve me.
I thought, therefore, that it might be interesting to look at some of the films that have horrified me, but are not genre horror films. The following movies dwell firmly in the “real world”, but have a sense of all-consuming despair and distress that few (if any) horror films can match.
A disclaimer: these are in no way my “Top # Disturbing Non-Horror Films”, as there are simply too many to list. I could also perhaps have included such titans of unpleasantness as Requiem for a Dream, Irreversible, Funny Games, Gummo, Scum and American History X, but I wanted to highlight a handful of the more unique films that have affected me, which are perhaps less directly disturbing than the 6 films I have just referenced, yet at least as impactful.
I also imagine that when I finally see Dogtooth, Grave of the Fireflies, Threads, In the Company of Men and Come and See, I will have more to add to my list.
Dancer in the Dark
Lars Von Trier couldn’t write an optimistic film if the fate of the Earth depended on it – and if these were the terms he probably wouldn’t even try, as his films suggest that he hates the planet as well as everyone on it.
Dancer in the Dark is a superb, exhausting, emotionally-scarring musical. As well standing out due to the incongruous songs (which actually work very well), Dancer in the Dark is prominent as a Von Trier movie because unlike films such as Antichrist and The Idiots, there are moments of genuine human kindness. In true Lars style, these only serve to compound the effect of the miserable ordeal his protagonist suffers.
We follow the trials and tribulations of Selma, played superbly by Bjork, whose congenital disorder that will see her go blind has been passed on to her young son. The film details her desperate attempts to save enough money for an operation that will save her son’s sight before he becomes too old for the procedure to work, while also racing against the clock as her own sight worsens to a point that renders her useless. This being a Von Trier flick, things don’t end well.
Most memorable moment: After a deeply unfortunate series of events, Selma is condemned to death by hanging. Ever keen to spread a little joy (ahem), Lars places a camera within Selma’s cell as time crawls inevitably towards her demise. As the minutes and hours go by, the sense of impending horror is palpable and tragic. There are enough flickers of light throughout the film to make you wonder if everything will end up okay – but it’s probably best to remember who directed it.
This is a murky one, but a real gem for fans of suspenseful low-budget cinema. As 13 Tzameti is slightly more obscure than the others, if you haven’t seen it and fancy a pitch-dark thriller, I urge you to avoid reading this section and find yourself a copy.
Low-key, grim, effectively acted and brilliantly directed, this traumatizing French-language flick follows a poor Georgian immigrant who follows a mysterious set of written directions he finds in the house of his dead junkie employee. Believing that if he does as the directions tell him he will become rich, Sebastian soon finds himself immersed in a violent underworld where soulless men bet money on the lives of the depressed, the addicted and the desperate in escalating games of group-Russian-Roulette.
The horror of this is not in the graphic violence, which is restrained, but the bleak emotional turmoil of those taking part paralleled with the punters’ indifference to the players’ lives. Humans are worthless as decks of cards, and the moments before the room fills with the clicks of empty chambers and the explosions of gunshots are agonizing.
Most memorable moment: The scenes between rounds, during which the players weep, inject, drink and turn on each other are as distressing as the deaths themselves.
Nil By Mouth
A kitchen sink drama whose nihilistic heart makes Eastenders look like an optimistic daydream, Nil By Mouth is one of those films that fit into my “Watch once, but never again” category.
Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke live in council accommodation in a working class London suburb, struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, their son’s drug addiction and the general woes of their dysfunctional relationships. Almost the definition of “gritty”, Gary Oldman’s directorial debut Nil By Mouth offers an unflinching glimpse into the darkest of everyday horrors, where the figures who archetypically support one another do those closest to them the most harm.
There is little plot to speak of, but Nil By Mouth is one of the most emotionally draining cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen.
Most memorable moment: Horror: thy face is Ray Winstone’s, as it repeatedly yells “CUNT!” and stomps his pregnant wife’s face off-screen.
This is the only comedy you will find on this grimy list, though many would struggle with its brand of uber-bleak “humour”.
Chuckle politely to yourself as a sham self-help guru tries to orchestrate her own “rape”. Giggle in amusement as a child abuser tells his son that he would never hurt him, so he just “jacks off instead”. Laugh hysterically as the hopes and dreams of the cataclysmically flawed characters are shattered, dipped in dog shit and erased from all existence.
Happiness is the most depressing comedy you will ever see – but it is also a triumph. Its cast is overwhelmingly good and features one of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s most memorable roles, the script is scalpel-sharp, and the atmosphere relentlessly savage.
Most memorable moment: The conversation between a paedophile and his son, when the son is taught the basics of masturbation. It’s simultaneously uncomfortable, cringeworthy, funny, and even a little tender.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer