Talented songwriter, character actor, and horror/exploitation icon David Hess passed away over the weekend. “The Mad Hessian” was a brooding and familiar face in dozens of nasty genre titles that depicted rape and torture — his most memorable role being the violent and vile gang leader in Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left . The 1972 film is a gruesome meditation on the evil inherent in all of humanity, presenting an unflinchingly brutal portrait of depraved indifference in Craven’s rough-cut first feature. The virtues of Hess’ filmography are often obscured by their repute, but Last House and other films contained more thematically complex ideas than the gory savagery hinted at by their premises. This got us thinking about other films that are difficult to watch, but worthwhile — challenging, but not merely gratuitous. With that, here are ten cringe-worthy titles that are still absolutely worth your time.
Indebted more to the arthouse than grindhouse, Wes Craven’s bleak revenge epic Last House on the Left explores themes first unleashed some 12 years prior. The film is based loosely on Ingmar Bergman’s haunting and profoundly moving tale, The Virgin Spring, which revolves around a wealthy Christian family in 14th century Sweden. Several herdsmen rape and murder a young girl, then unknowingly seek shelter at her family’s home where a terrible revenge is enacted. Intimately portrayed in devastating black-and-white, and powerful in its clarify and simplicity — accompanied by the dream-like cinematography of Sven Nykvist — questions of faith and human nature abound.
The victim of an ex-Nazi doctor with a penchant for torturing and raping young boys revisits his sadistic captor who is now paralyzed and confined to an iron lung. Harrowing in its realistic portrayal of this deeply disturbing subject matter, In a Glass Cage packs an emotional wallop and is a strongly conceived and well-shot piece of cinema that dares audiences to ponder its dark details.
Hollywood’s often confusing and inaccurate depiction of mental illness has a long history — particularly when it comes to oft-stereotyped schizophrenic. Lodge Kerigan’s Clean, Shaven believably thrusts viewers into the mind of a schizophrenic man recently released from an institution who desperately searches for his daughter. Uniquely manipulating audio and visual clues, the heart-wrenching and unsettling indie drama is made all the more intense by Peter Greene’s incredible performance
A list of difficult films could include several of Lars von Trier’s titles, but Antichrist ranks high for its allegorical characterization of horror, pain, madness, and beauty — all of which transcend the film’s more visceral, talked-about moments. Von Trier composes breathtaking shifts of contradiction, blending highly stylized visuals and raw emotion while eerily guiding us through one troubled couple’s internal and external world.
Both applauded and criticized for peeling back the skin on controversial social issues — including the portrayal of underage sex, drug use, rape, and other violent acts amongst fringe youth cultures — Larry Clark’s reputation precedes him. His unapologetic 1995 film Kids has long been at the center of debate regarding its artistic merits, but no one can deny that the movie’s stunning authenticity — thanks in part to the writing talents of a 19-year-old Harmony Korine and Clark’s voyeuristic camera — raises moral questions many would prefer to turn their backs on.
Gaspar Noé unravels the mind of a raging butcher in his first feature film, I Stand Alone. Noé’s depiction of humiliation, hardship and abandonment of a working class man who is driven toward perverse, violent fantasy bears all the marks of Noé’s boldness as a director, complete with twisted, mordant humor.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life (and death) was as controversial as his depraved Salò — based on De Sade’s opus 120 Days of Sodom, about four wealthy libertines who indulge their morbid desires in a drawn-out, debauched orgy — which certainly adds to its mystique. Pasolini’s film examines the perverted exploits of his players alongside more complex, nihilistic themes — particularly surrounding the corruption of politics and power during Mussolini’s fascist regime. Pasolini’s tense direction and savage vision confronts about the darkness within and apathy to human atrocity.
Animated films aren’t exempt from the unpleasant category — nor are they incapable of feeling profoundly human — and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a compelling story about two siblings who struggle to survive in World War II-era Japan, is no exception. Fireflies rides the rollercoaster of emotions — from bleak to touching — and is made poetic by Studio Ghibli’s lyrical animation. A production of great grief and beauty.
Lukas Moodysson’s 2002 dismal drama about a Russian sex slave, Lilya 4-Ever, takes a sharp right turn from his previous projects, the uplifting Show Me Love and Together. Oksana Akinshina’s outstanding performance as the young girl who becomes trapped in unbearably hopeless situation is relentlessly grim, but skillfully examines the isolation and exploitation of Eastern Europe communities with its unremitting direction and stark cinematography.
Michael Haneke has never concerned himself with making pleasant cinema, and his debut feature — the shattering Seventh Continent — is about as despairing as they come. The idle and repetitive middle class life of one family becomes horrifically mundane through Haneke’s extreme close-ups, long shots, and editing. Seventh Continent is beautifully composed, but exhausting in its unsparing misery.