We’ve all worked for a sadist or lived with one. One night I woke up to find my date staring at me intently in the dark. “Let me break just one finger?” he begged, “Just one. You have nine others…” Point taken. But this was when I elected to smash a lamp over his head and run for the door.
There is however a specific genre of movies that is particularly “Sadean” in torturing the audience as much as the victims on the screen, and I’ve always yearned to host a festival at the Film Forum offering a week-long salute to sadism! I have a weak spot for movies that go too far in this regard and leave me totally freaked out. Here are 21 fingernail-pulling favorites. Let’s face it, audiences like to see bad things happen to good people.
Funny Games (1997) A fiendish and unrelenting film by Michael Haneke (Cache) about two serial killers (in white gloves) who torture a married couple and their young son at their lakeside home. The family gets the upper hand once but the killers “rewind” the film to further turn the thumbscrews to the audience. I took a close friend to a screening of this and he punched me afterwards.
The Last House On The Left (1972) Wes Craven’s notorious reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. Two girls partying in the city get captured, raped, and killed by a gang of morally bankrupt creeps who ironically end up at the parent’s house. “To Avoid Fainting- Keep Repeating…It’s Only A Movie…Only A Movie…” was the advertising tag line for this revenge classic.
Lady In A Cage (1964) A wealthy invalid (Olivia de Havilland) gets trapped in her in-house elevator and gets an unwelcome home-invasion by a sadistic gang (led by a young, sexy James Caan). de Havilland was taken to task for supporting this film, but she was right- this still packs a punch even by today’s standards.
The Penthouse (1967) Memorably nasty British thriller by Peter Collinson about an adulterous couple shacking up in a building under-construction who are attacked by two thugs and a vicious gal (Martine Beswick– the villainous queen of Hammer Studios). Why the hell isn’t this on home video?
Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (1986) John McNaughton’s deeply disturbing film starring Michael Rooker as Henry, a psychotic spree killer. Crashing with his friend Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’s sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) in Chicago, Henry murders at random, occasionally video-taping the horrific proceedings. Towers over any other film on this subject because of the way McNaughton visualizes the banality of evil. And Rooker gives an incredible and frightening performance of a conscienceless misfit who calmly uses murders as a way of letting off steam.
House On the Edge Of The Park (1981) Italian shocker about two sickos (one played by The Last House On The Left’s David Hess) who intrude on a country-house party filled with rich, bored, socialites. There’s some nasty business with a straight razor that had grindhouse audiences rightfully squirming in their seats.
Night Train Murders (1975) Two gal-pals traveling on a train in Europe are assaulted by three fiends in this ultra-unpleasant Aldo Lado film that was re-titled Second House On The Left in America. This movie is really soul-sucking on some levels, and while I love having it on Blu-ray it’s not one I repeatedly pull off the shelf.
The Sadist (1963) Arch Hall Jr. (who looks like a pug-nose Cabbage Patch Elvis) is surprisingly effective as a young psycho who holds several people hostage at a gas station. The cinematography for this demented gem is by Vilmos Zsigmond. The new Code Red Blu-ray is pretty amazing and really compliments the camerawork and how excellent the movie actually is.
Requiem For A Dream (2000) A lonely widow (Ellen Burstyn) pops prescription amphetamines in her Coney Island apartment in order to lose weight when she hears she may be a contestant on a game show. Her junkie son (Jared Leto) is forever selling her television trying to raise cash for the “big score” of a pound of uncut heroin, but his girlfriend (Jennifer Connelly) and best friend (Marlon Wayans) are too busy shooting the profits. Director Darren Aronofsky’s approach to the material is jarring at first with his use of split screen, speeded up film, and jazzy score, but as these lost souls spiral tragically out of control the film builds with harrowing intensity. The ultimate feel-bad film.
In My Skin (2002). Cringe-inducing but nightmarishly brilliant film, directed, written, and starring Marina de Van, about a woman who gashes her leg badly at a party and finds the accident triggers in her escalating urges to further cut into herself and taste her own flesh. This mania reaches frightening intensity as the pressures of work cause her to hole up in hotels to give in to bouts of self-mutilation. A fiercely unique, disquieting, film experience.
The Lost (2006). Ultra-disturbing film by Chris Sivertson and set in Sparta, New Jersey, about psychotic Ray Pye (played feverishly and with fiendish glee by Marc Senter), who crushes up beer cans in his boots to make himself look taller, slicks back his ink black hair and wears eye makeup to accentuate his coolness. He gets away with a brutal crime but a cop keeps a beady eye on him convinced he’s a killer. But Ray is juggling women, snorting coke, getting more irrational, and the flies are buzzing in his head louder and louder. It looks like it’s killing time again…The ending is beyond belief it’s so violent and vicious, but it’s in keeping with the dark tone of Jack Ketchum’s chilling novel.
The House By The Lake (1976) Brenda Vacarro stars as a woman having an affair with a married man at a remote country cottage who get ambushed by a gang of goons (led by a scary, charismatic, Don Stroud). Her weird affinity with her attacker makes this doubly disturbing. Another no-show on home video but an iffy prospect during the #metoo moment.
Audition (1999) A middle-aged widower auditions actresses for a nonexistent film in order to find a new bride with unexpected horrific results in prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike’s hair-raiser. The last 20 minutes are just bloodcurdling.
Grimm Love (2006) When Harry Met Sally for gay cannibals. In this ultra-dark film by Martin Weisz, Keri Russell plays a graduate student in Germany doing her thesis on the murderer Oliver Hartwin (Thomas Kretschmann), who met a man over the Internet who agreed to come to Oliver’s country home and be killed and eaten by him. Based on the real true-crime story of Armin Meiwes, the movie is about this bizarre coming together of two individuals with such a specific obsession that it plays out romantically. Kretschmann is mesmerizing as the killer but it’s a difficult movie to shake off.
Schramm (1993) Director Jorg Buttgereit’s (Nekromantik) artfully demented examination of a killer but told backwards (and sideways) with jarring, surreal moments of shock. Florian Koerner von Gustorf plays a taxi cab driver/psycho who masturbates with sex toys and hammers nails in his foreskin while listening to the prostitute next door having sex.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005) Rob Zombie’s ferocious follow-up to the jokey House Of 1000 Corpses about the murderous Firefly Family evading authorities and cutting a bloody path through Texas. The scene where they torment a traveling family in a seedy motel is incredibly unnerving.
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) Italian maestro Pier Paolo Pasolini’s swan song was loosely based on the writings of the Marquis de Sade and concerned a group of fascists during World War II who round up boys and girls for sex and torture. With chapters like “Circle Of Shit” and “Circle of Blood,” audiences fled nervously down isles when this played in theaters.
Irreversible (2002) Profoundly unsettling film by Gaspar Noe (I Stand Alone– another Sadean treat) about a brutal rape and the subsequent violent revenge. Told chronologically backwards with dizzying hand-held camerawork this is tough to take. The extended rape sequence alone is agony to sit through, but knowing what will happen makes the tender bedroom scenes of the couple (Vincent Cassel & Monica Bellucci) even more painfully poignant to watch. Heart-wrenching and unforgettable on many levels, it’s an extraordinary film experience for the forewarned.
Angst (1983) An almost clinical dramatization of a disturbed mind, this chilling Austrian film by Gerald Kargl is about a man (Erwin Leder), just released from prison who goes on a killing spree. This was based on an actual mass murderer and takes place in a 24-hour time period. With incredible camerawork by Zbigniew Rybczynski, nerve-jangling score Klaus Schluze, and disturbing inner monologues, the movie is hypnotic and disturbing. Not surprisingly, Gaspar Noe (Irreversible) calls Angst “the rarest masterpiece of cinema,” and a giant influence on his own cinema.
Martyrs (2008) A harrowing French horror film by Pascal Laugier about a young woman vengefully seeking out the people responsible for her imprisonment and abuse as a child. A home invasion on a house she is convinced is where she was held against her will is inhabited by a seemingly nice family. It makes the viewer wonder if she is dangerously delusional. But then the movie pulls the rug out from under you. The entire last half hour is at times almost unbearably savage but also incredibly profound. There was a stupid American remake of this to avoid at all cost.
The Last House On Dead End Street (1977) An ex-con (played by director and star Roger Watkins) decides to make money by using his criminal crew to film actual “snuff” movies. They lure unsuspecting strangers to a ramshackle house and kill them while filming them. One of those rare films that feels a little too realistic for comfort. I saw this on 42nd St. and was incredibly disturbed by it. There’s something about this movie that feels raw, nasty and slightly depraved.